Versatile Stewart could turn his season around at Kansas

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 09: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Mobil 1 Racing/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 9, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS, NV – MARCH 09: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Mobil 1 Racing/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 9, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

In the 14 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races that Kansas Speedway has hosted over the past 12 years only four drivers have ever visited Victory Lane there twice. No driver has ever won there thrice.

And what an impressive foursome it is: Greg Biffle (2007, 2010), Jeff Gordon (2001, 2002), Jimmie Johnson (2008, fall 2011) and Tony Stewart (2006, 2009).

This Sunday during the STP 400 (1:00 p.m. ET, FOX), will one of these four drivers breakthrough and become the first three-time winner in the track’s history or will one of the five past winners currently entered in the race (Ryan Newman, Joe Nemechek, Mark Martin, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth) come out on top or will Kansas welcome a first-time winner to Victory Lane? Denny Hamlin won the spring 2012 event, but will miss this year’s spring event after injuring his back in the race at Auto Club Speedway.

Biffle, Gordon, Johnson and Stewart would all like to become the first driver with three victories at the 1.5-mile track in Kansas City, but none could use the victory more than Stewart.

After seven races, Stewart, who co-owns Stewart-Haas Racing and owns Eldora Speedway in Ohio, sits in an uncharacteristic 22nd place in the standings, 111 points behind leader Johnson. Biffle is currently third, 30 points back, while Gordon (-98) is 15th.

Stewart is one of only nine drivers who have started all 14 NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Kansas. Outside of two back-of-the-pack finishes in 2007 and 2009 he has never finished lower than 15th. He has six top-five and nine top-10 finishes.

The three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion has had a rough start to the 2013 season with four finishes 21st or lower. His best finish so far came in the second race when he placed eighth.

A strong showing at Kansas could provide the spark to ignite Stewart’s season, and nothing would do that more than a dominating performance that lands him in Victory Lane. Stewart, however, usually starts seasons off slowly, though usually not this slow, only to get rolling during the summer months and on into the fall.

Competing in NASCAR, however, isn’t Stewart’s only outlet for motorsports competition. He’s very active in other series, including Sprint Cars and World of Outlaws, and by the end of the year he could race in nearly 100 events.

In fact, he feels running Sprint Cars helps him in NASCAR.

“I think [running Sprint Cars] helps on the restarts, for sure,” said Stewart, who will head to Paducah (Ky.) International Raceway – a track he co-owns with two others – Friday night after NASCAR Sprint Cup practice and qualifying to race in the World of Outlaws feature event. “I’m definitely more aggressive on the restarts.

“In Sprint Car racing, you have to get a lot done at the start and on restarts, and I think that part has really been a positive and really been a help in making me more aggressive.”

Perhaps all the time spent in the seat of race cars in other series will indeed pay off for Stewart and help him adjust quicker to the new Gen-6 car. He believes the biggest challenge that he and his team have faced so far this season is just learning about the new car and finding a setup that works.

Once that happens, hold on to your hat as Stewart could quite literally be off to the races – and planning a visit to Victory Lane in the near future.

That visit could happen this weekend. He definitely needs it to get back on more familiar ground in the standings.

Fantasy Focus: Of course, the four drivers that have won twice at Kansas are good, solid bets for your NASCAR fantasy team this weekend, but there are two other candidates that also might be advantageous. Matt Kenseth, who won this race last season, has a driver rating of 106.4 (third highest among active drivers) at Kansas to go along with five top fives, eight top 10s and one pole. After six races, Brad Keselowski has an average finishing position of 9.8, one win, two top fives and three top 10s. The NASCAR Sprint Cup reigning champion, who finished 11th eighth in last season’s two races in Kansas, has a driver rating of 90.1.

NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES THIS WEEK

Next Race: STP 400

The Place: Kansas Speedway

The Date: Sunday, April 21

The Time: 1 p.m. (ET)

TV: FOX, 12:30 p.m. (ET)

Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90

Distance: 400.5 miles (267 laps)

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