This weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Kansas Speedway for the Hollywood Casino 400, the final race of the round of twelve of the 2017 playoffs. After last week’s chaotic race at Talladega Superspeedway and the race at Charlotte Motor Speedway before that, only Martin Truex Jr and Brad Keselowski are locked into the next round, with the remaining ten contenders all at varying degrees of risk of elimination.
Kansas Speedway is a 1.5-mile oval which features seventeen to twenty degrees of banking through its four turns. The circuit hosted its first NASCAR Cup Series race in in 2001, with Jeff Gordon taking the win for Hendrick Motorsports in the first two years of racing there. After ten years, NASCAR added a second Kansas race to the Cup Series calendar, with the second event beginning in 2011.
Twenty-three races have been held at Kansas Speedway since 2001, with six of those races going the way of Hendrick Motorsports courtesy of the aforementioned Jeff Gordon as well as Jimmie Johnson, with both winning three races each. However, in recent years, Kansas has seen winners from Joe Gibbs Racing, Furniture Row Racing, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing; so all isn’t said and done when it comes to possible contenders.
Last time out:
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series last raced at Kansas Speedway back in May for the Go Bowling 400. Toyota seemed to hold a constant advantage during the run-up to the race, with Martin Truex Jr finishing fastest in first practice before Kyle Busch took over for final practice and the first two round of qualifying. However, when Busch failed to replicate his speed in the final session of qualifying, Ryan Blaney stepped up to the plate and put his #21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford Fusion on pole position; his first and currently his only pole in the series.
Kyle would fight back in stage one of the race to make up lost ground, taking the stage victory in the #18 car after moving to the lead near the end of the first eighty laps. Pole-sitter Blaney would return fire in stage two by taking the win and would remain in contention along with Busch and Truex Jr for the remainder of the race.
In the end, after a half hour delay mid-race following Aric Almirola‘s heavy wreck with Joey Logano and Danica Patrick, Truex would survive several late-race restarts to hold on to the race lead and with it the victory; his second win of the 2017 season at that point and a win that would further underline his potential as a championship contender.
Last week’s race at Talladega Superspeedway set the stage for a potentially crucial moment in the 2017 championship. All but four playoff drivers were forced to retire from the race after being involved in the late-race wrecks, with even two of the finishers managing to limp home in heavily damaged race cars after also being involved.
With Martin Truex Jr and Brad Keselowski having won the last two races, both are now safely through to the next round of the playoffs. The remaining ten contenders all are mathematically at risk of being eliminated, but realistically it’s down to six drivers; the four drivers currently below the elimination cutline and the two drivers just above.
Unbelievably, despite entering the playoffs with a large number of playoff points, Kyle Busch’s advantage has been all but eroded after two difficult races at Charlotte and Talladega. He is the first driver below the cutline and is also joined by team-mate Matt Kenseth as well as Ricky Stenhouse Jr and Jamie McMurray. Both Stenhouse Jr and McMurray look likely to be eliminated as they are twenty-two and twenty-nine points respectively behind eighth place.
Busch and Kenseth, however, could vault themselves out of the elimination zone with either a race win or even a strong finish over their rivals. Just ten points separate Busch and Kenseth from Ryan Blaney and Jimmie Johnson; the two drivers just above cutline in seventh and eighth. Another eleven points separate Blaney from Chase Elliott in sixth; so Chase should be safe barring a disastrous finish.
As mentioned earlier, many different team and manufacturer combinations have shown speed at Kansas Speedway over recent years. In the race earlier this year, however, Toyota seemed to have the advantage with both Furniture Row Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing. Martin Truex Jr certainly has a chance of sweeping the year at Kansas by the win this weekend, but he could be in for a fight with Kyle Busch, who will be determined to get to victory lane to lift himself out of the elimination zone so he can continue to fight for the title.
Kevin Harvick took the win in the October Kansas race one year ago, but since then Stewart-Haas Racing have made the switch from Chevrolet to Ford. Harvick showed front-running speed in the Ford earlier this year at Kansas, but whether the #4 team now have the pace to finish in victory lane is a different matter. They managed it earlier this year at Sonoma, but to fight for a championship they’ll have to learn how to do it on a regular speedway instead of just on a road course.
Team Penske also can’t be counted out of the running. Joey Logano won this race for two consecutive years in 2014 and 2015. After failing to qualify for the playoffs, Joey and the #22 team have no pressure on them and can afford to go all out; knowing that most of the title contenders could potentially back out of a battle in favour of strong points. Logano’s stablemate Brad Keselowski also enters the race with no pressure thanks to his victory last week at Talladega.
Track action for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at Kansas will be televised by Premier Sports, NBCSN NBC and the NBC Sports App this weekend. First practice and Qualifying will take place on Friday, followed by two further practice sessions on Saturday. The event will end with Hollywood Casino 400 on Sunday afternoon.