NASCAR Weekend Preview: Kansas Speedway

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS - OCTOBER 20: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, leads Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Halloween Toyota, and William Byron, driver of the #24 UniFirst Chevrolet, during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 20, 2019 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Jimmie Johnson hopes to race his way off Playoff bubble at Kansas

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson got a Playoff waiver from NASCAR when he missed the July 5 Indianapolis race after a positive test for coronavirus.

He just hopes he’ll be able to use it.

After finishing seventh in Stage 1 last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, Johnson smacked the outside wall in Turn 4 on Lap 117. Though his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet sustained severe damage, Johnson fought his way to a 26th-place finish.

With eight races left in the regular season, Johnson’s situation is critical. He’s 15th in the series standings, but with 22nd-place Sunoco rookie Cole Custer winning at Kentucky and locking up a Playoff spot, Johnson has no margin for error.

He’s the last driver currently in a Playoff-eligible position, but he’s only two points ahead of teammate William Byron and just 14 in front of Sunoco rookie Tyler Reddick, who finished second at Texas.

On paper at least, Thursday night’s Super Start Batteries 400 presented by O’Reilly Auto Parts at Kansas Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) presents an opportunity for Johnson to solidify his position as his final full season of Cup racing continues to wind down. The seven-time champion is tied for the lead in wins at Kansas with three victories.

Among drivers entered in Thursday’s race, Johnson has the third highest driver rating at the track (102.3), behind only Kevin Harvick (108.7) and Matt Kenseth (103.1). Johnson was sixth and 10th in the two Kansas races last year after four straight finishes outside the top 10 in 2017 and 2018.

“Kansas is one of my favorite tracks we go to,” Johnson said. “I’m so encouraged as to how we ran at Texas before we had the accident. It was such a rocket. Major kudos to the guys at the shop setting up these cars week in and out for us…

“Kansas has evolved so much, and there is this aging that happens with the racing surfaces on these tracks… they come into their own after 10 or 15 years, and Kansas is now one of those tracks in its ‘prime.’ I find it to be one of the most racy and competitive mile-and-a-half tracks we race on right now.”

Johnson can only hope the racy track produces a mistake-free, competitive performance for the No. 48 Chevrolet.

Thus far, the seven races on 1.5-mile intermediate speedways this season have produced seven different winners. A week after Cole Custer’s unexpected victory at Kentucky, Austin Dillon added his name to the list—and escaped the Playoff bubble—in a 1-2 finish for Richard Childress Racing at Texas.

The usual suspects, however, are likely to be strong at Kansas. Harvick, a four-time winner this year, has the highest driver rating at the track. Denny Hamlin, who has matched Harvick’s victory total, is the most recent winner there. Brad Keselowski is the defending winner of the race.

Austin Cindric seeking a remarkable fourth straight win Kansas Speedway

When he took the green flag at Kentucky Speedway on July 9, Austin Cindric had no NASCAR Xfinity Series victories on oval tracks.

When he took the checkered flag later that evening, he had his first. A day later at Kentucky he had his second, becoming the first driver to win races on consecutive days in the same series since Richard Petty accomplished the feat in the Cup Series in 1971 at two different tracks.

Last Saturday, Cindric picked up his third consecutive oval victory when ostensible winner Kyle Busch was disqualified for a ride-height infraction. NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin is the only other Ford driver to have won three straight Xfinity Series races, a feat he accomplished at Rockingham, Richmond and Atlanta in 1997.

On Saturday, Cindric will try for a fourth straight win in the Kansas Lottery 250 at Kansas Speedway (5 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). That would tie the series record for consecutive victories set by Sam Ard at South Boston, Martinsville, Orange County and Charlotte in 1983.

From a manufacturer’s standpoint, Ford can win its sixth straight race. Though Cindric and Chase Briscoe are the only two Ford drivers in the field, they have combined to win the last five Xfinity events. Not surprisingly, they also are the top two drivers in the series standings, with Briscoe, a five-time winner, leading Cindric by 24 points.

It’s not all about Ford, though. Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota driver Brandon Jones is the defending winner, and he righted his ship with a seventh-place finish last Saturday at Texas after four straight results in the 30s, with three DNFs for crashes and another for an oil line issue.

“For me, this track is fun, because the groove moves up near the wall, so it allows you to move around the track and adjust your line during the race,” said Jones, whose victory at Kansas last year was his first in the Xfinity Series.

Double-points weekend could shake up Gander Truck standings

Even with the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series Playoff field expanded to 10 drivers this season, former series champion Johnny Sauter and 2019 Playoff qualifier Stewart Friesen find themselves in the danger zone entering back-to-back races on Friday and Saturday.

In fact, no one is absolutely safe when it comes to a Playoff berth except two-time race winner Grant Enfinger and recent Kentucky victor Sheldon Creed. No other series regular has scored a win this year.

That’s the recipe for a free-for-all at Kansas Speedway which will host consecutive Gander Truck events this weekend. Drivers will have a short respite between Friday’s 7 p.m. Kansas 200 and Saturday’s 1:30 p.m. Kansas Speedway 200. Both races will be broadcast on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Both Sauter and Friesen could use strong performances in both races. An engine failure last weekend at Texas dropped Sauter to 33rd at the finish and 12th in the series standings, 22 points behind ThorSport teammate Matt Crafton in 10th, the last Playoff-eligible position.

After a fourth-place run at Texas—his first top five of the season—Friesen is tied with Sauter in points during a year that has seen his Halmar Friesen Racing Team struggle with a manufacturer transition from Chevrolet to Toyota.

The championship picture has nothing to do with Ross Chastain, who will run both races. Chastain won the only Truck Series race at Kansas last year, but he’s competing for the NASCAR Xfinity Series title in 2020.

NASCAR Cup Series

Next Race: Super Start Batteries 400 presented by O’Reilly Auto Parts

The Place: Kansas Speedway

The Date: Thursday, July 23

The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET

TV: NBCSN, 7 p.m. ET

Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 400.5 miles (267 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 80),

Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 160), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 267)

2019 Race Winner: Denny Hamlin

What To Watch For: Kansas Speedway has hosted the NASCAR Cup Series 28 times, but this week’s race will be the first on a Thursday. It will also be the 80th time the NASCAR series has competed on a Thursday. … The 28 previous Cup events at Kansas have produced 16 different pole winners and 15 different race winners. … Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick leads the series in poles at Kansas with five (fall 2013, 2014 sweep, spring 2018, spring 2019). NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon (2001, 2002, 2014), Kevin Harvick (2013, 2016, 2018) and Jimmie Johnson (2008, 2011, 2015) are all tied for the series-most wins at Kansas with three each.  … NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon won the first NASCAR Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway on September 30, 2001; actually, Gordon won the first two series races at Kansas (2001, 2002).  … The series’ most popular driver Chase Elliott holds the record for the youngest series Kansas winner at  22 years, 10 months, 23 days (October 21, 2018) and NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin is the oldest series Kansas winner at 46 years, 9 months, 0 days. … In this week’s event, 10 of the 15 former NASCAR Cup Series Kansas race winners are entered; including last season’s winners Brad Keselowski (May) and Denny Hamlin (Playoffs). The May race last year was dominated by Kevin Harvick, who led 104 laps, but it was Brad Keselowski who passed Alex Bowman with 11 laps to go to take the checkered flag and his second career win at the 1.5-mile track. … Of the 10 former Cup Kansas winners entered on Thursday, four of them are still looking for their first win in 2020 – Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman.  Of the four, Kyle Busch is the most recent winner at Kansas grabbing his lone victory at the 1.5-mile track in 2016.

NASCAR Xfinity Series

Next Race: Kansas Lottery 250

The Place: Kansas Speedway

The Date: Saturday, July 25

The Time: 5 p.m. ET

TV: NBCSN, 4:30 p.m. ET

Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 2500.5 miles (167 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 40),

Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 80), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 167)

2019 Race Winner: Brandon Jones

What To Watch For: This Saturday will mark the 20th time the NASCAR Xfinity Series has competed at Kansas Speedway. The inaugural series event took place on September 29, 2001 and was won by former series champion Jeff Green. … The 19 Xfinity races at Kansas have produced 15 different pole winners and 15 different race winners. … Matt Kenseth leads the series in poles at Kansas with three (2006, 2007, 2015). … Kyle Busch leads the series in wins (four:), top fives (eight), top 10s (10) and laps led (544) at Kansas. … Joey Logano hold the series record for the youngest winner at Kansas at the age of 19 years, 4 months, 9 days (10/03/2009) and David Green is the oldest at 45 years, 8 months, 6 days (10/04/2003). … Over the last three seasons a driver has won their first NASCAR Xfinity Series career race at Kansas Speedway – Brandon Jones (2019), John Hunter Nemechek (2018) and Christopher Bell (2017).

NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series

Next Race: Kansas 200

The Place: Kansas Speedway

The Date: Friday, July 24

The Time: 7 p.m. ET

TV: FS1, 6:30 p.m. ET

Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 201 miles (134 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 30),

Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 60), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 134)

2019 Race Winner: Ross Chastain

NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series

Next Race: Kansas Speedway 200

The Place: Kansas Speedway

The Date: Saturday, July 25

The Time: 1:30 p.m. ET

TV: FS1, 1 p.m. ET

Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 201 miles (134 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 30),

Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 60), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 134)

What To Watch For: This weekend at Kansas Speedway will mark the first time the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series will run a doubleheader at a single track in a single weekend. The Gander Trucks have run 19 races at Kansas Speedway, dating back to the inaugural event on July 7, 2001 – the race was won by Ricky Hendrick, son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Rick Hendrick. … The 19 series races at Kansas have produced 15 different poles winners and 17 different race winners. … NASCAR Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr. leads the series in poles at Kansas with three. … Kyle Busch (2014, 2017) and Matt Crafton (2013, 2015) lead the series in wins at Kansas with two each. … Niece Motorsport’s Ross Chastain won this event last season from the sixth starting spot, it was his first career win the series. … The Gander Trucks race at Kansas has been won from pole or first starting position three times; the most recent was Noah Gragson’s win in 2018. … The second starting spot is the most proficient starting spot in the field, producing more winners (six) than any other starting spot – a winning percentage of 31.5%.

Greg Engle