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During Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway, something dawned on me: Is there a real possibility of Jeff Gordon missing the Chase for just the second time in his career?
And can someone really come to this conclusion just eight races into the year?
Yes and yes.
After next weekend's race at Richmond, we'll be 1/3 of the way through NASCAR's regular season. And after his 21st-place finish Sunday – caused by an engine that dropped a cylinder in the closing laps – Gordon finds himself 18th in driver points.
So Gordon is staring up at a bevy of drivers who have shown more consistency than he has this season.
Despite his Chevrolet regularly being among the fastest cars on the track this year, Gordon has just two top-10 finishes to his name, as his season is crumbling due to a bout of bad luck that has followed him around like a plague.
Whether it was at Daytona where Gordon blew a motor while running in the top five, to wrecking at Bristol after contact with a teammate, to Martinsville where he led over 300 laps but finished 14th after a late-race incident not of his own doing, add Gordon's season up and he has finished 20th or worse an astounding 50 percent of the time.
All of which is why, if Gordon is to make the Chase for the eighth time in nine years, it's not going to be because he's climbed his way into the top 10 in standings. At this point, he hasn't shown enough consistency to think this is at all a possibility.
The only way Gordon will find himself competing for the championship when the Chase starts in September at Chicagoland is if he takes the speed he's shown so far and turns it into something tangible – specifically, race wins.
And that's plural, not singular.
With Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski all in the same boat that Gordon is in, struggling to find some consistency, Gordon will need multiple race wins to claim a wild card spot and make the Chase.
Busch is well-known for winning in bunches, and his Joe Gibbs Racing team obviously is on to something considering Busch's teammate Denny Hamlin already has two victories this year, with his most recent tally coming Sunday in Kansas. As for Keselowski, his dominant win at Bristol a few weeks back already has him one up on Gordon in the wins column.
Unless Gordon starts winning enough to secure himself one of the two wild card spots, it's looking as if he's going to be on the outside looking in while 12 other drivers go toe-to-toe for the title.
Maybe this is all a moot point and I'm just jumping to illogical conclusions; it certainly wouldn't be the first time and it certainly won't be the last.
But seeing is believing, and what I'm seeing right now is a team that desperately needs to change its mindset from "This dose of bad luck will eventually go away and we'll be just fine," to "The hell with it, we're going to do whatever it takes to win; otherwise, we're in trouble."
If not, Gordon's quest for a fifth Sprint Cup Series title will have to wait yet another year.
Ever since the Las Vegas race three weeks into the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, Roush Fenway Racing driver Greg Biffle has topped the point standings.
This week is no different, as Biffle remained in the No. 1 spot – 15 points ahead of Martin Truex Jr. – following a fifth-place finish on Sunday at Kansas Speedway.
Truex is next, followed by Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kansas race winner Denny Hamlin.
The biggest winner on Sunday – aside from Hamlin, of course – was Jamie McMurray, who shot up four spots in the standings to 19th.
As for the biggest loser? That label went to AJ Allmendinger, who dropped four spots to 23rd. Mark Martin fell four spots as well, but Martin isn't running for a Chase spot this year.
Here are the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings after Kansas (relation to the Chase in parentheses):
When Martin Truex Jr. was leading lap after lap at Kansas Speedway on Sunday, can you guess what he was thinking?
The answer: "I'm back."
During Sunday's STP 400, Truex showed the form which earned him a Chase berth and Dover race win in 2007, as the Michael Waltrip Racing driver led 173 laps and was a strong contender for his second career victory.
He ultimately came up short with a second-place finish he labeled as "disappointing," but Truex's stellar run announced to the NASCAR world his No. 56 team is capable of winning several races this season.
"You know, as disappointed as I am with this second place, this is a big day for us as a team," Truex said after the race. "It's kind of a statement for us that we're here for the long haul, we're here for the rest of the season. We're not just a flash in the pan. We've been solid each week, and I know our wins are going to come. We just need to keep running like we are."
Truex had a great car throughout the race, but everything seemed to go away when he took on a bad set of tires on the final pit stop.
The car's handling suddenly went to what he called "wrecking loose" for the first 20 laps of the final run, which allowed eventual race winner Denny Hamlin to get by.
The New Jersey native began to chase Hamlin down, however, and eventually made a banzai move that reminded observers of the one Carl Edwards tried on Jimmie Johnson several years ago.
It didn't work, though Truex didn't realistically expect it to; the driver said the last-ditch effort was his "desperation" showing, and he just had to try something.
"There was no chance of me even coming back to making it work," he said.
After the race, Truex radioed to his team and said he let the group down. But looking back, he realized there was little he could have done to change the outcome.
"I don't know," he said when asked if there was another move he could have made. "But I'd like to try it again."
By the time he arrived back home in North Carolina, Truex said he expected to be able to look at the positives from Sunday's race.
The driver is second in the Sprint Cup Series point standings following several years in which he was an afterthought at times, and though Kansas was undoubtedly a disappointment, Truex knows there are good days ahead.
"I can't even tell you how much fun we're having, to be honest," he said. "... We're not near as good as we can be yet, and we're going to keep pushing forward and try to keep getting better. I know our wins are going to come soon."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team have been clicking off consistent top-10 finishes so far this season, which has gotten him up to fourth place in the Sprint Cup Series point standings.
In fact, Sunday's race seventh-place result at Kansas Speedway was the fourth consecutive top-10 for Earnhardt Jr. – his longest such streak since early in the 2008 season, which was the last year he won a race.
And while that's certainly a good thing, Earnhardt Jr. now finds himself in a position to look for more.
"We had a good car and were pretty competitive," he said after the race. "We have a real consistent team and we have that going for us; we just need to get that little bit more to get where we can try and win some races."
What might have helped Earnhardt Jr. on Sunday were a couple more cautions, but for the second week in a row, there were prolonged stretches of green-flag racing – which gave teams less opportunity to work on their cars.
"Who knows?" Earnhardt Jr. said when asked if he thought another caution would have given him a shot at the win. "We could have dialed it right; you just never know what would have happened. The green flag runs when we did have a good car helped us hold our track position.
"I like long runs because that's when the drivers get to do some work."
What Earnhardt Jr. needs more than anything is to figure out why he can't get his car to run like everyone else's – particularly into the corners, where he said the back of his Chevrolet loses grip with the track.
"The car was fun to drive and we had a great weekend, but for whatever reason that last run we were really loose," Earnhardt Jr. said. "When you look at all the guys racing around, their track bars are on the ground and we're running ours about three inches higher. We just need to find a way to get ours down and get the car to rotate and get the rear grip in the car."
It was Denny Hamlin's day in the sun.
Taking advantage of changing conditions Sunday at Kansas Speedway, Denny Hamlin held off Martin Truex Jr. over the final 30 laps to win the STP 400, his second victory of the season, his first at the 1.5-mile track and the 19th of his career.
Jimmie Johnson finished third, followed by Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. Truex moved into second place in the Sprint Cup series standings behind Biffle, who leads by 15 points.
After a late round of green-flag pit stops put all the contending cars on the same sequence, the sun broke through the clouds for the first time all afternoon and changed the complexion of the race.
To that point, Truex had been dominant, having led 173 laps, but the changing conditions made Truex's Toyota "wrecking loose" in the words of the driver. Hamlin passed Truex for the lead through Turn 4 on Lap 237 and began to pull away, with Johnson pursuing from the third position.
As clouds covered the sun once again, however, Truex began to close on Hamlin and widen his advantage over Johnson. With 10 laps left, Truex trailed Hamlin by .772 seconds. Five laps later, Truex had closed to .489 seconds behind.
Truex tried to dive beneath Hamlin in Turn 3 twice in the final three laps but couldn't stick the pass.
Here are the results from today's NASCAR race at Kansas Speedway:
Here's a closer look at today's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race from Kansas Speedway:
A Caution Shortage
Cautions are down 35 percent so far this season, and one of the direct impacts is there are far fewer opportunities for drivers and crew chiefs to dial in their cars during the course of a race.
Another consequence is with their cars not handling to their liking, drivers are less hesitant to race a competitor hard, which means less side-by-side action and more fields quickly getting strung-out.
Don't expect this trend to change this afternoon, as Kansas Speedway is a track notorious for producing long runs of green-flag racing. Something else to keep in mind: The races here often are decided on fuel mileage, which was the case last year when Brad Keselowski went 57 laps on a tank of fuel to score the unexpected victory.
Back-to-back on the mile-and-a-half tracks
Last week, the Sprint Cup Series raced on a 1.5-mile oval in Texas; this weekend the series races on a 1.5-mile oval in Kansas. It's there, however, where the similarities end.
Texas is a higher banked track, whereas Kansas features less banking and therefore slower speeds. Also, the grip levels are different, with Kansas being the slicker of the two.
Hendrick's continued quest for 200
If any of the four Hendrick cars were to win today, it would mark the 200th time a Hendrick car has gone to Victory Lane. Coincidently, the last time a Hendrick driver picked up a checkered flag it was here last fall when Jimmie Johnson cruised to the victory. With that in mind, know that both Johnson and Jeff Gordon have won here previously and enter today confident that they have one of the cars to beat.
Can Roush continue to roll?
As demonstrated by 52 of its 127 victories having come on a track that could be classified as of the intermediate variety –including last week in Texas – logic dictates that Roush Fenway Racing should factor into the outcome this afternoon. Although the RFR Fords didn't qualify particularly well – Greg Biffle starts 16th, Matt Kenseth 18th and Carl Edwards 21st – don't give their slowness in qualifying a second thought, as all three showed speed in practice while in race trim.
Hometown boys looking for a win
Three guys in today's race – Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer and Jamie McMurray – refer to Kansas Speedway as their home track and each desperately want nothing more than to win in front of the partisan crowd. Something none of them have yet to accomplish.
• Ten drivers – Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart – have started all 12 Cup races held at Kansas and each will be taking the green flag today.
• This marks the second time AJ Allmendinger has started a Sprint Cup race from the pole. The last time was Phoenix 2010, and on that day ‘Dinger led the opening 17 laps before sliding back to finish 15th.
• Don't expect much out of Kyle Busch today. In nine Kansas starts he has a just one top-10 finish and his average finish is 21.1.
1. Greg Biffle
Thanks to a victory last week which upped his point lead to 19 in the driver standings, momentum will be riding shotgun this afternoon with Greg Biffle. And with the knowledge that Kansas is one of his stronger tracks – he has two wins, six top-fives and eight top-10s in 11 starts – Biffle and his track-best average finish of 8.3 is the easy choice as the favorite.
2. Jimmie Johnson
As good as Biffle may be here, Jimmie Johnson is just as good. The five-time series champ also has two Kansas wins next to his name and his Kansas average finish of 8.4 is just a smidge behind Biffle's. Even though the tracks are diverse, it can't be ignored that in the previous two races this year on 1.5-mile ovals, Johnson finished in the runner-up position.
3. Carl Edwards
Call me sentimental if you wish, but the fact is the man who grew up two hours from here in Columbia, Mo. has been consistently among the quicker cars on the track – his effort in qualifying aside. Although I'm not certain Carl Edwards' Ford is as strong as the 16 and 48 over a long run, if I were Biffle or Johnson I don't know if I would want Edwards anywhere near the lead in the closing laps due to his desire – some would say borderline desperation – to win on his home track.
There is a dearth of viable sleeper candidates for today's race, so essentially picking a name out of a hat, let's go with Paul Menard, who has finished 12th or better in two of his last three starts on the Kansas mile-and-a-half.
Nice-looking weather is expected for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Race at Kansas Speedway. The sky will be mostly sunny early with a few more clouds likely in the afternoon but no more than partly sunny. Temperatures will once again be cool with afternoon temperatures reaching the mid-60s. Winds will also be on the breezy side, out of the north-northwest around 10 to 15 mph with occasional gusts reaching 20 to possibly 25 mph. With the exception of the wind and chill it looks like a nice day for some NASCAR racing. Enjoy.
11:30 a.m. EDT
Sprint Cup race – Mostly sunny – temp: 58
12:30 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup race – Mostly sunny – temp: 60
1:30 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup race – Mostly sunny – temp: 64
It's NASCAR race day at Kansas Speedway, and we've got the actual race start time, the starting lineup and some other facts about today's race for you below.
What time does the race start today? Ambassadors from the Victory Junction Gang Camp (the one in Kansas City) will give the command to fire engines at 1:07 p.m. EDT, which is 12:07 p.m. local time in Kansas. After the cars get rolling, a representative from race sponsor STP will wave the green flag at 1:16 p.m. So if you want to skip the pre-race show and just tune in for the race, turn on your TV set by 1:16 p.m. Eastern time.
Race name/distance: The STP 400 is a 400-mile race consisting of 267 laps around the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway. This is the final race at Kansas for both the current track surface and configuration. Immediately following the event, the track will begin to replace the surface and install progressive banking.
TV and radio: Today's race can be seen on FOX. Every Sprint Cup Series race through May will be on the FOX network. Unfortunately, there is no live streaming of the race – but you can listen on the Motor Racing Network's Web site (just click the red link). You can also check MRN's site for a list of affiliate stations in your area.
*** NOTE: If you're out and about today and can't watch the race, make sure to follow me (@jeff_gluck) and SB Nation contributor @jordan_bianchi on Twitter. We'll be tweeting updates about the event. ***
National anthem: Kansas resident Jeremy Vitt is doing the honors today. We checked YouTube, and it looks like Vitt has done the Kansas Truck race a couple times before. Will he sing a good anthem? Here's a past performance so you can judge for yourself.
Tickets: Kansas Speedway has not announced a sellout for today's race, but it should still be a good crowd. You're probably safe to find tickets at the gate if you want to make a last-minute trip today.
Weather: The unofficial NASCAR weatherman, Brian Neudorff, says today's race will be rain-free but chilly with temperatures in the mid-60s.
Last time: One year ago, Brad Keselowski made his gas last long enough to win his first race for Penske Racing, holding off Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others in a fuel-mileage race. Then, in the Kansas Chase race last fall, Jimmie Johnson went to Victory Lane over Kasey Kahne and Keselowski.
Starting lineup for today's NASCAR race at Kansas Speedway:
If you were to create a hierarchy of the Roush Fenway Racing teams, who would you place at the top?
Would it be the guy who last year lost the championship on a tiebreaker? If so, make sure to note that in his last 40 races, this driver is winless, currently resides 11th in the standings and has led a total of zero laps in 2012.
Option No. 2 is a former series champion who opened the year by winning the Daytona 500 and is second overall in points, just 19 points out of the championship lead. Would you pick him?
Or would you go with the driver behind Door No. 3, who is coming off a win last Saturday in Texas and enters this weekend's race at Kansas as the championship leader?
If you selected Driver No. 1, you picked Carl Edwards. If you went with No. 2, you're favoring Matt Kenseth. Option No. 3, of course, is Greg Biffle.
So what do the drivers themselves say about who should be regarded as the top man in the Roush camp?
"I still think (Edwards) is the number one team at Roush," Biffle said Friday at Kansas Speedway. "I'm the underdog."
Biffle's observation about Edwards being the alpha dog is a valid one.
After all, Edwards entered the year as one the of the title favorites and not only has become face of the entire RFR organization, but Ford Racing as a whole.
When told of Biffle's remarks Friday, Edwards laughed off the suggestion and quickly pointed out the obvious.
"Right now, Greg and the 16 team is (the top team) because they're leading the points and winning races," Edwards said.
Edwards then went on to explain that whoever may be number one now may not be later and in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter.
"I don't think in terms of who is the number one team," Edwards said. "I don't think Jack (Roush) thinks that way. I feel that Greg and Matt have had a huge part in building this team, so that guys like myself are able to come in and have success. Greg has my respect. His team has my respect, just like everybody in the garage right now, so as to who is 'the number one team,' stay tuned. That could change at any moment, I guess, but I don't think like that."
And what about the only man among the three drivers in question to have a Sprint Cup trophy on his mantle?
Well, neither Biffle nor Edwards had much to say about the 2003 Sprint Cup champion. This in all likelihood suits Kenseth just fine, considering his low-key demeanor.
What Edwards is most concerned about is finding a way to match the performance of the guys who are sitting first and second in points. Biffle and Kenseth's early season success is a challenge to Edwards to up his game and match their accomplishments.
"I think we all get motivated by someone doing well, but especially when it's someone that's got the same equipment as you and the same resources," Edwards said. "It shows us and gives us confidence that our 99 team has no excuses.
"We need to be up there in the points where those guys are and I believe we will be."
When you see Michael Waltrip on television, it's easy to think, "What does this guy know about running a NASCAR team?"
But despite an on-air persona where it often looks as if he's playing for the cameras, Waltrip in reality has a firm grasp about the inner workings of the sport – particularly when it comes to leading his multi-car team currently in the midst of a breakthrough season.
Now in its sixth year of existence, Michael Waltrip Racing is off to its best start ever, with two drivers inside the top 10 –Martin Truex Jr. (fourth) and Clint Bowyer (10th) – and its third car, shared by Mark Martin and Brian Vickers, sitting seventh overall in the owner standings.
It's a phenomenal start for an organization which has won just twice, has never placed a car in the Chase and was often viewed by many as a group of underachievers.
Although there are many reasons for the turnaround, the main catalyst has to do with the man whose name is on the company stationary.
At a time when other teams in the garage have struggled to find sponsorship – including powerhouse teams like Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing – MWR has been just fine in that department. That's due in part to Waltrip's gregarious personality, which helps attract potential sponsors and keeps the ones that he already does have in the fold – and happy.
"Michael sees how to make it work for the sponsor better than a lot of people that I've been around," Martin said Friday at Kansas. "...Their organization is well-sponsored and that hasn't been done based on performance...it's been based on how to make it work for the sponsors and they're very determined to get that performance on the race track."
This includes 5-Hour Energy, which originally signed on for what was a partial commitment of 25 races, but announced Friday it was upping its commitment to the team by increasing its sponsorship of Bowyer's No. 15 Toyota to a full-season deal.
With all those sponsorship dollars in its back pocket, MWR can spend money to add personnel to help make its Toyotas go faster.
"From the time we started at Michael Waltrip Racing, we knew we were going to have to focus on what was happening off the track, because the on-track was going to take some time," said Ty Norris, the general manager of Michael Waltrip Racing. "I liken it to the groups in the garage who have spent a lot of time working on their cars, and all the sudden when they've got horsepower, they're really the team to beat.
"I feel like that's part of what we've been able to do, so our off-track is something we've focused on for all these years. Now that we are starting to get the on-track performances of what we expect ,it's been phenomenal."
That increase in performance can be attributed to MWR going out this offseason and bringing in Bowyer and Martin to wheel two of its cars, hiring Brian Pattie to crew chief Bowyer's machine and getting new competitor director Scott Miller to make all the puzzle pieces fit.
Now that MWR is running up front more often, the focus turns to keeping the momentum going and hopefully culminating with MWR finally getting one of its cars into the Chase.
On that front, it's hard not to be optimistic.
"I think we're happy with where we're at in the points and we want to kind of keep doing the same thing," Truex said. "You have to constantly keep moving forward.
"... We're going to keep pushing and really I think that kind of the whole atmosphere at MWR since the middle of last year (has been), 'We're not good enough, we're never going to be good enough – we always have to keep working.' That's been a good thing for us. That's what's put us where we're at and hopefully at the end of the season, we'll be better than we are now and we'll be right where we want to be."
Even a grizzled veteran can't help but feel excited about the transformation.
"With the extra energy that was put into there with Scott Miller and Clint Bowyer and Brian Pattie and all, everything seems like it's clicking right now," Martin said. "It's really, really a lot of fun whenever you can perform up to your expectations or exceed, that's good times.
"They want to win and they're very close now. It's neat to be a part of the organization right now because they are so close."
AJ Allmendinger won his second career pole position on Saturday at Kansas Speedway, claiming the top spot in qualifying for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 400 at the 1.5-mile track.
Allmendinger (175.993) had won the pole just one other time in the previous 159 races of his career, in April 2010 at Phoenix International Raceway.
"Obviously Sunday is the important day, but more than anything, we're just trying to build momentum," Allmendinger told SPEED after his lap. "Hopefully we'll have a good 400 miles tomorrow."
Kevin Harvick missed out on a chance at his first pole since 2006 by qualifying second (175.747 mph), and he was followed by Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin.
Another pair of teammates, Michael Waltrip Racing's Mark Martin and Martin Truex Jr., completed the top six, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne and Sam Hornish Jr.
Tim Andrews, Jeff Green, Tony Raines failed to qualify for the race and were sent home.
Here's the starting lineup for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway:
As Clint Bowyer stood in the corner of the home clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium answering questions from a reporter, Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas went out of his way to give Bowyer a fist bump.
It was a small gesture, but symbolic nevertheless of NASCAR's growing presence and acceptance among athletes from traditional stick-and-ball sports.
After warming up in the clubhouse, Bowyer had just thrown the ceremonial first pitch at Friday night's game between the Royals and Toronto Blue Jays. The driver of the No. 15 Toyota threw a strike to Michael Waltrip Racing general manager Ty Norris and earned an appreciative response from the fans in the stands and the Major Leaguers in the clubhouse.
Bowyer understood the significance of the players' reactions.
"It opens your eyes to how big our sport is and how we're all on equal playing ground," Bowyer said. "They're all asking me, 'So who's fast this weekend? I've got to get my fantasy picks in.'
"They all have that going on in their world, too, so that's pretty cool. We're the same way. When college basketball comes around, football -- we all have our fantasy picks."
Whether it's Kurt Busch at his beloved Chicago Cubs, Regan Smith at the Colorado Rockies, Juan Pablo Montoya at Wrigley Field, Kevin Harvick at Yankee Stadium, entourages of drivers at the NFL's Super Bowl or Denny Hamlin caddying for Masters champion Bubba Watson in the Par-3 Competition at Augusta National, NASCAR stars have ramped up their visibility at major sports events.
Delivering the first pitch is a common theme.
Bowyer's pitch described a lazy arc over the 60 feet from the mound to home plate. A NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car at full song covers the same distance in approximately three hundredths of a second. If Bowyer was nervous at being out of his element on a baseball field, it didn't show.
"I'm glad I threw a couple balls in here," he said. "Once you get out there... it was actually harder practicing back here (in the clubhouse). Once you get out there, it's such a big, wide area that it wasn't bad at all. What's the worst that can happen?"
Bowyer answered his own question.
"There's a lot of eyes on you. That's the problem with the first pitch. Not only do you have the whole entire baseball team that you just met and were talking about throwing that ball out there, and they're watching you now..."
When Bowyer races in the Cup series, millions watch, and he's thankful for it. Bowyer ascended to NASCAR's highest level the hard way, in a family that was committed to racing. Growing up, he missed many of the activities that consumed his classmates.
"Yeah, even in high school -- high school parties, anything that most kids did, I was gone from," Bowyer said. "Prom... I never went to any high school dances, anything like that. It is fun to go back and revisit some of those things.
"Most people that know me probably are like, 'He sure likes to go at it pretty hard,' but that's just because I missed a lot of it when I was younger -- but I didn't miss too much of it."
The weather this weekend at Kansas Speedway is mostly dry, but there is just a very small chance of a passing sprinkle or shower later today.
A weak disturbance will clip the region as it moves in from the north to the southeast during the day. Clouds will increase and could possibly produce a brief passing sprinkle or maybe a shower. Most of the time should be rain free and I wouldn't be surprised if the entire time was dry.
The rest of the time will feature sun and clouds with cool spring temperatures. Both today and Sunday highs will be in the upper 60s to near 70. There will be a slight breeze Sunday with gust near 20 mph.
10:30 a.m. EDT
Camping World Truck Qualifying – Mostly sunny – temp: 56
12:00 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup Qualifying – Partly sunny, possible isolated shower – temp: 61
1:30 p.m. EDT
Camping World Truck Race – Partly sunny, possible isolated shower or sprinkle – temp: 65
12:30 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup race – Mostly sunny, slight breeze – temp: 65
Shortly after the checkered flag waves Sunday on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway, the 1.5-mile track will be getting a facelift.
But it's a facelift not everyone agrees the 12-year-old track actually needs.
Prior to the October Chase race at the track, speedway officials will not only repave the surface but also reconfigure the constant 15-degree banking the track has now to a variable banking of 17-to-20 degrees.
Kansas will be the 10th such Sprint Cup Series track to undergo some sort of resurfacing in the last six years, joining Pocono, Michigan, Daytona, Phoenix, Darlington, Bristol, Talladega, Charlotte and Las Vegas.
While Kansas is being forced to repave due to the inclement weather the speedway endures, the majority of drivers in the garage are less than enthusiastic about the forthcoming changes. This is due in large part to the difficulty drivers face when trying to pass, as well as the lack of side-by-side racing a recently repaved or reconfigured surface often creates.
"I'm never a fan of repaves," Kevin Harvick said Friday. "I think when you repave something, it takes years for the racing to get back to the point of where things are."
Harvick echoed other drivers' comments, saying he didn't understand why a track where drivers can run next to one another needed an overhaul.
The more worn out a track is, the slipperier it becomes; and when a track becomes slick, it puts the onus on the drivers to handle their loose cars, as well as placing an emphasis on them to manage tires.
"When you don't pave racetracks and there's tire wear, the driver shows up a lot more," Denny Hamlin. "When you pave a racetrack, it becomes all about track position and how good your car is.
"(On an) old racetrack, I say the driver is probably 65 percent of how you run. On a brand-new paved racetrack, I'd say our numbers are probably down to 30 (percent). So it cuts half of (the driver skill) off, in my opinion. When you're running nearly wide-open on every corner on newly-paved racetracks, there's just not much us drivers can do."
Not every driver though is in the camp that Kansas is doing a bad thing by ripping up its surface. Among those is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is happy to see progressive banking come to the 1.5-mile oval.
"I think what they're doing is going to be fun and I like that they're making a change." Earnhardt Jr. said Friday. "Even though when you pave a racetrack, it typically doesn't put on the best races, after a few years of weather and wear on the surface, it tends to work out OK and the track really comes into its own again.
"As much as we'd like to have a lot of the tracks stay with the older asphalt, it's just some of them are deteriorating so bad that it's just not an option. ... I think progressive banking has done wonders at a lot of race tracks and been a real plus at a lot of places."
One such track is Homestead-Miami Speedway, which hosts the Sprint Cup season-finale and went from being a flat, quad-oval to a racetrack that now features multiple grooves with plenty of passing.
Under its old design, Tony Stewart's improbable, come-from-behind victory last year to secure his third series championship would have likely never happened due to the difficulty drivers had navigating the once-single-groove track.
Conversely, one of those tracks where progressive banking didn't work out was Bristol, where last's month race was decried by fans and media alike for its perceived lack of excitement.
Track owner Bruton Smith responded to the uproar by announcing he would make changes to the half-mile oval before its annual August night race. Those changes are expected to be announced next week, after Smith was to consult with drivers about what changes he should make.
"The guys from Bristol last week said that they were going to come and talk about the track, but I never saw them," Harvick responded when asked if he was ever approached by Smith. "I guess if they want to keep repaving them they can keep having their own ideas."
In the past, Johnson has shared his thoughts with NASCAR about the current trend among tracks to reconfigure/resurface. Though to what degree the sanctioning body and track operators have listened to the five-time champion is open to interpretation.
"The one that caught me off guard, and I think a lot of drivers off guard, was the repave at Phoenix (International Raceway)," he said. "The conversations that took place, and kind of the understanding from the drivers leaving those meetings when we came back, it was a far different racetrack than what we had talked about. I guess that's their prerogative. They're spending the money on the track; they can do what they want."
Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon, is another driver who can't quite get a handle on why Kansas Speedway is calling in the bulldozers. Like Johnson, Gordon has also had plenty of discussions with NASCAR over the years on this very topic.
But Gordon accepts that eventually every track is going to have to undergo some sort of modification to its surface, whether drivers like it or not.
"I don't know anybody that's a real fan of a repave," said Gordon, the winner of the first Cup race held here in 2001. "The tracks don't want to incur the cost, but they know that it's necessary because of the structure of the pavement or the foundation underneath or whatever it may be that puts them into that box. They know that they're going to suffer on some of the racing because of the tires being harder, more durable for those types of new surfaces.
"It's just part of racing and it is part of the evolution of pavement of how it's changed. That's just technology. It's no different than what you're riding on down the highways, smoother than it's ever been and lasts longer than it ever has before – that's what we use for race tracks."
Entering this weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway, points leader Greg Biffle isn't lacking for confidence.
That's because Biffle is coming off a convincing win Saturday in Texas, one that not only saw him outduel Jimmie Johnson but also allowed him to stretch his point lead to 19 markers over Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – who are in a tie for second.
"I knew us leading the points wasn't a fluke," Biffle said Tuesday during an event for the American Dental Association's "Give Kids A Smile" program put on by his sponsor 3M. "To come out and win while leading the points, I'm not going to say it was a statement, but it solidified us being atop the point standings – that we're a competitive team and we're going to be there."
The victory in the Lone Star State was the 17th of Biffle's career and, more important, it snapped a 49-race winless streak which dated back to the 2010 season.
It also marked the first win for Biffle's crew chief Matt Puccia, who took over that role last July as Biffle was in the midst of a frustrating season that ultimately left him outside the Chase for the first time in four years.
In large part due to Biffle's blossoming relationship with Puccia, along with his past success on the 1.5-mile Kansas oval –which includes two wins and six consecutive top-10 finishes – Biffle appears poised to keep the good times rolling en route to what he hopes is his first series championship.
But because the point standings are reset after 26 races with drivers being rewarded bonus points for the number of races they win during the regular season, Biffle knows one win isn't enough. That is why, despite the win last Saturday as well as being atop the standings and the confidence that goes along with those accomplishments, Biffle is trying to keep his early season success in perspective.
"What people forget is when we get to 10 (races to go) we flush all this (points lead) down the toilet," Biffle said. "I know I probably won't be leading the points going into Richmond, but we'll see. I hope so. But what happens now really has no impact on the Chase because of the points and the way the format is."
What is happening now is the strength of Roush Fenway Racing coming to the forefront.
The organization started the year off with Matt Kenseth winning the Daytona 500 and having all three of its cars finish in the top 10. That consistency has continued as Biffle and Kenseth are first and second in points, while Carl Edwards has four top-10s in seven races and sits 11th.
All of which probably helps explain why Biffle still doesn't even feel as if he's the top driver on his own team.
"No," Biffle said Friday at Kansas Speedway when asked if he felt like he was the top Roush driver simply because he was atop the standings. "I still the 99 (Edwards) is the number one team at Roush. I'm the underdog."
All things considered, Biffle might be the only who feels that way.
In any case, at age 42, there is no time like the present for Biffle to take advantage of the opportunity before him.
"I feel better than I ever have in these past five seasons with the way our team is and how competitive we are, and how I'm driving the car and how I feel personally," Biffle said Friday. "Yeah, I think anybody feels the urgency to want to win it."
– Motorsports editor Jeff Gluck contributed to this story.
For most of his 37 years on earth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had never thought about his family history much further back than his grandfather, Ralph Earnhardt.
Earnhardt Jr. said he "never really cared" about his great-grandfather and beyond, even when friends suggested he learn more about his family tree.
But about six months ago, Earnhardt Jr. started working on his family's history with the help of a genealogist – and he's glad he did.
"We don't have enough time in the day to be talking about how much fun I've had working on my family tree," he told reporters Friday at Kansas Speedway.
The topic came up because Earnhardt Jr. was discussing how his interest in genealogy gave this week's visit to the White House an entirely new meaning.
The driver had visited the White House and taken a tour before, but when guides pointed out a 200-year-old portrait of George Washington, Earnhardt Jr. had much more appreciation for it this time.
"They'd told us about it before, but I didn't really grasp what that meant and how old that piece truly is," he said. "To be standing there in front of it and literally be able to reach out and touch it is a pretty amazing thing."
And after doing some research about his family, Earnhardt Jr. felt the same way. He not only discovered who his great-grandfather was, but also learned about his great-great-grandfather – and even found their burial plots near Kannapolis, N.C.
So he hopped in a car with his grandmother, mother, sister and girlfriend and drove them up to the cemetery to see a piece of the family's history.
"It's really cool to stand there over somebody that's responsible for you being there," said Earnhardt Jr., who saw the graves of relatives born as far back as 1809. "That was pretty neat."
Earnhardt Jr.'s goal is to put together a "well-organized document" to show family members and give to his nieces and nephews.
Plus, he said, he figured he would save any future offspring a lot of trouble.
"If I have any (kids) one day, they won't have to do the work," he said.
Nice to see that Kansas Speedway won't be dealing with the same excitement that the state of Kansas dealt with last week. This weekend looks good for both the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and Camping World Truck Series.
Cold front moved through Thursday night, a few lingering clouds, breezy conditions and cold temperatures are what we will see on Friday. Some wind gusts will be near 20 mph and afternoon high temperatures struggle to reach 60 degrees.
The rest of the weekend is mostly sunny, still fairly cool with highs in the upper 60s Saturday to low 70s on Sunday.
12:00 p.m. EDT
Camping World Truck Practice – Partly sunny, breezy – temp: 53
1:30 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup Practice – Partly sunny, breezy – temp: 56
3:00 p.m. EDT
Camping World Truck Final Practice – Partly sunny, breezy – temp: 58
4:30 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup Final Practice – Partly sunny, breezy – temp: 58
10:30 a.m. EDT
Camping World Truck Qualifying – Mostly sunny – temp: 54
12:00 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup Qualifying – Mostly sunny – temp: 61
1:30 p.m. EDT
Camping World Truck Race – Mostly sunny – temp: 65
12:30 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup race – Mostly sunny – temp: 65
While any NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory would qualify as "big," a win in Kansas City would hold a special place in the heart of a trio of drivers.
Clint Bowyer, a native of Emporia, Kan., and Carl Edwards and Jamie McMurray – both from neighboring Missouri – hope to enjoy the home-track feel that Kansas Speedway offers in Sunday's STP 400 (FOX, 1 p.m. ET).
None of the three have won at Kansas, but Bowyer and Edwards have come the closest. Bowyer was runner-up in 2007, when Greg Biffle nursed his fuel-starved car to victory in a race that ended in near-darkness. Edwards finished second at Kansas the following year, coming up just short to Jimmie Johnson after trying a bold crossover move in the final lap. McMurray has a seventh-place run as the best finish among his two top-10s there.
For Edwards, a Kansas win would be the salve for a 40-race winless streak, but it would also represent a cherished moment in his already memorable career.
"There would be no bigger win on the circuit," Edwards said. "If I had to choose between winning one race throughout the year, that would be the one I would pick. The amount of pride that I would have winning that close to home and in front of so many people that are friends of mine and people that have helped me, that would be huge."
Having friends and family close by is a home-track perk, but does have some hurdles. Bowyer said he planned to arrive Wednesday in his home state for a string of appearances that include throwing out the first pitch at Friday night's Kansas City Royals' home game against the Toronto Blue Jays.
"That's the thing," Bowyer said. "It's difficult to go home because of getting pulled in all the different directions -- all the while trying to focus on getting a good run, because that's really what's important to you the most there. It's important to me to run well in front of all my fans, friends and family."
Nationwide Series idle this weekend
When Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won last weekend's NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Texas Motor Speedway, he not only gained entrance to a special Lone Star State-themed Victory Lane celebration but beat a field stocked with Sprint Cup stars to do it.
Maybe that's why he was still beaming the next day in the Texas garage, wearing the cowboy hat he'd won the previous night.
The series breaks for an idle weekend before a 250-lapper on April 27 at Richmond International Raceway. When the circuit resumes, the defending series champion will find himself second in the standings, just four points behind Elliott Sadler, the only other two-time winner in six races so far this season.
The uptick in performance this season prompted team owner Jack Roush to suggest that the wheel of his No. 6 car on the Sprint Cup side was Stenhouse's for the taking, if sponsorship arrived.
"Certainly, Ricky is in championship form," Roush said. "He's able to make better decisions about the car, around the car, what he's going to need. He and [crew chief] Mike Kelley are doing a real nice job together."
Camping World Truck Series to race at Kansas
Timothy Peters hasn't won in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series this season, but just three races in, he's already earning high marks.
Peters enters Saturday's SFP 250 (SPEED, 2 p.m. ET) at Kansas Speedway with a six-point edge over Justin Lofton in the truck standings, a cushion he hopes to build on this weekend.
Peters rose to his No. 1 perch after last Sunday's event at Rockingham Speedway, in part because Red Horse Racing teammate John King retired after an early crash and surrendered the top spot. The other part to Peters' advancement has been a second-place finish in the series opener at Daytona and a pair of fifth-place runs, making him three-for-three on the young season.
"I'm looking forward to going to Kansas net week. Our season has been going well," Peters said. "At this point, I would rate our season as an A-plus, and we're running up front. If we keep executing, our win will come."
We took 14 top drivers and divided them into contenders and also-rans. Which ones fell into which categories?
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