Kevin Harvick looks for a final win as NASCAR Playoffs continue at the always-competitive Kansas Speedway

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS - MAY 07: William Byron, driver of the #24 Liberty University Chevrolet, leads the field to start the NASCAR Cup Series Advent Health 400 at Kansas Speedway on May 07, 2023 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

Kansas is the next challenge facing NASCAR’s Playoff drivers.

After a marathon Southern 500 at Darlington that saw some perennial contenders make mistakes or underperform, Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 (3 p.m. ET on USA, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) offers a reprieve.

It’ll be a different sort of battle. The 1.5-mile intermediate track requires beating out other drivers rather than conquering a legendary track, and the competition is fierce.

Betting Odds via BetMGM
+500 – Denny Hamlin
+525 – Kyle Larson
+600 – Martin Truex, Jr.
+725 – William Byron
+900 – Tyler Reddick
+1000 – Christopher Bell
+1200 – Kyle Busch
+1300 – Bubba Wallace
+1500 – Ross Chastain
+1600 – Chris Buescher

Still, to Kevin Harvick, the track has a classic feel.

“I think Kansas has been a great racetrack and, really, from a driver’s standpoint, a fun racetrack because of the fact that it’s worn in so well,” he said. “You can race at the top of the racetrack, which is the preferred groove as the tires wear out. It’s faster at the bottom of the racetrack on new tires.”

“But as a driver, having options is something that is a lot of fun,” Harvick added. With Atlanta having been repaved along with some of the other racetracks, Kansas has become one of the more unique racetracks because of the fact the asphalt and the shape of the racetrack are so driver-friendly, as far as where you can drive on the racetrack. You can literally drive from the wall to the apron all the way around the racetrack. So, it’s a fun racetrack.”

And Harvick knows how to find speed at Kansas, having scored three wins at the track alongside eleven top-three finishes. He’s prepared, too, for how the Next Gen car races at intermediates as he hopes to get a final win at the track and an inaugural win in his retirement season.

“These cars, in certain situations, have worn the tires a lot more than what they’ve done in the past,” Harvick explained. Kansas can be a high-wear racetrack just because of the way that the surface has aged, which is a great thing.”

“So, I think for a lot of that, you’ll just have to see what the pit windows are and what the tire wear is when we go there. But it’s definitely a racey track. Those guys can see a lot more on the pit box than I can see in the car, so I usually just go with what they tell me and kind of roll from there,” he concluded.

Harvick will need to bottle up some of that success for Sunday. Despite showing speed at Darlington, bad luck and a bad pit call ruined his finishing position, not adding to his limited points total from not picking up a win, and the associated Playoff points, in the regular season.

Harvick enters Kansas two points below the cutline. Also on the outside looking in are Bubba Wallace by one point and Ricky Stenhouse by four. All three drivers are easily in range to point their way into the Round of 12, although of course a win would alleviate the pressure.

Michael McDowell, though, will have a harder job. He fell a lap down at Darlington before getting caught up in a wreck. The poor performance puts him 19 points out as the points stand heading into Kansas even despite points from a win at the Indianapolis Road Course.

“Obviously Darlington didn’t go how we hoped it would go,” McDowell acknowledged to media heading into Kansas. “Our goal was to go in there and not make any mistakes and unfortunately we didn’t and ended up crashing out there in the end.”

“It’s not a panic,” he added, “must win, have to go to an extreme strategy or extreme aggression because there’s still room for other drivers to make mistakes, but we definitely have to go out there and run top-ten to top-five the next two weeks, if we don’t win, to put ourselves in the points.”

“It’s definitely an uphill battle, but I don’t feel like we’re out of the fight. We’ve had speed all year, it’s just putting it all together,” McDowell said.

On the other side of the cutline in the final transfer spot is Christopher Bell. Despite showing enough speed to start on the pole at Darlington, just about everything went wrong in the race, from the pit crew to an unavoidable wreck.

He’ll need better performance at Kansas to keep his Playoff hopes alive, as will Joey Logano. The two are one and three points above the cutline respectively.

The rest of the field has a larger gap, ranging from 13 points for Ross Chastain to a massive 45-point gulf held by William Byron. But bad performances in the final two rounds can destroy any advantage, and a win is the only guarantee. Kyle Larson picked that up at Darlington.

“Obviously, we want to win and score a lot of points to help us advance to the next round,” Chastain said. “Everyone has that goal though. All we can do is keep focused on our car and our team and the results will fall where they may.”

Kansas decides the Xfinity Series Playoff field

It’s all to play for for Xfinity Series drivers at Kansas. The Playoff field will be decided after Saturday’s Kansas Lottery 300 at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Radio).

Of the twelve-driver field, ten drivers already have a guaranteed spot. Austin Hill, John Hunter Nemechek, Justin Allgaier, Cole Custer, Sam Mayer, Chandler Smith, Sammy Smith and Jeb Burton all managed to win, which guarantees a Playoff berth. Josh Berry and Sheldon Creed are locked in on points.

And the eleventh point is a shoo-in. Daniel Hemric just needs one point at any stage of the race at Kansas to officially lock in.

The twelfth spot, though, is a different story. Riley Herbst comes into Kansas with it in hand by just one point over Parker Kligerman.

For Herbst, the goal remains the same: get his first-ever win and lock in instead of counting points.

“At the end of the day, we show up at the racetrack each and every weekend to contend for the win,” Herbst said. “It’s cool to be back in the Playoffs at the moment, and I’m hoping we can keep ourselves in contention. We never wanted to be in this position with how solid we were at the beginning of the year, but I know that we can bounce back from this.”

“My hope is that we can go out, contend for the win and lock ourselves in the playoffs with a victory, but we’re also going to be conscious of the points. We’re in the better position right now above the cutline, so it’s about finding that balance,” he added.

Kansas is the place he’d want to fight for the spot, Herbst acknowledged.

“I love this track,” he said. “Kansas is probably one of my favorite intermediate tracks just because I have some solid history there in Trucks and ARCA. Even in the Xfinity Series, we’ve been decent there.  I want to be able to park the No. 98 Monster Energy Ford Mustang in victory lane, and Kansas seems like a good place to do it.”

Herbst, and Kligerman, both have extra motivation to chase the win since another driver could take the spot with a win.

Herbst’s Stewart-Haas teammate Cole Custer is in entirely different position, securely in the Playoffs with two wins. For him, despite the goal always being to win, Kansas is early Playoff practice.

“I think it’s a lot about not making mistakes in the playoffs,” Custer said. “You’re going to have a few teams that take themselves out with mistakes and you never want to be that team. We have to be able to put some solid races together to make it through each round. There are only three races per round, so a mistake could cost you a chance to advance.”

“From there, you still have to have solid speed and a smart strategy. The entire field resets and you’re all kind of on equal ground. It’s why those playoff points are so important. We have to be smart and fast,” he added.

In addition, the Regular Season Championship will be determined after Kansas. Austin Hill, leader throughout the season, has a 23-point lead on John Hunter Nemechek and 33 on Justin Allgaier. All three will be competing hard, since the regular-season winner gets a bonus of 15 Playoff points, with 10 going to the runner-up and eight to the third-place driver.

Craftsman Truck Series field faces elimination at Kansas

The Craftsman Truck Series will be whittled down at Kansas Speedway, with two drivers being eliminated from the postseason. Friday night’s Kansas Lottery 200 (9 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is the final race of the Round of 10 and sets the field of the Round of 8.

Four drivers don’t need to worry, having locked in a spot: Grant Enfinger won at the Milwaukee Mile and Ty Majeski won at the Indianapolis Raceway Park. In addition, Corey Heim and Christian Eckes are locked in on points.

Additionally, Carson Hocevar only needs two points to lock in his claim on the fifth spot, making that effectively a shoo-in.

On the other end of the points standings, Matt Dibenedetto and Ben Rhodes are nineteen and three points below the cutline entering Kansas.

It’s a familiar position for Rhodes when he won the Truck Series Championship in 2021 after being close to elimination early in the Playoffs.

“I remember vividly racing at Bristol in 2021, and we were below the cut line and we were racing for, what felt like, our lives,” Rhodes said. “I watch the other guys, but I don’t really want updates on where they are. I physically or mentally know where they are, whether I see the scoreboard myself, or I’m keeping track of them in my mirror or in my sights.

“I’m kind of doing mental math the whole race, and maybe at the very end, in the last 10 or 20 laps, I’ll ask for an update,” he added. “So all in all, I try to keep an eye out for myself, but I’ll ask at the end. It gets complicated, and you have so much going on in the race truck where worrying about that too early can make things worse for yourself.”

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS – MAY 07: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Cup Series Advent Health 400 at Kansas Speedway on May 07, 2023 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Hollywood Casino 400
The Place: Kansas Speedway
The Date: Sunday, September 10
The Time: 3 p.m. ET
The Purse: $8,806,315
TV: USA, 2:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
Distance: 400.5 miles (267 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 80),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 165), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 267)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Kansas Lottery 300
The Place: Kansas Speedway
The Date: Saturday, September 9
The Time: 3 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,551,969
TV: NBC, 3 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
Distance: 300 miles (200 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 45),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 90), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 200)

Next Race: Kansas Lottery 200
The Place: Kansas Speedway
The Date: Friday, September 8
The Time: 9 p.m. ET
The Purse: $703,005
TV: FS1, 8 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
Distance: 201 miles (134 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 30),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 60), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 134)

Owen Johnson