KANSAS CITY, Kan. — There’s a ton of racing left to decide this season’s NASCAR champion, and a bad day at Kansas Speedway shouldn’t cripple a driver’s chances.
But statistics show that today’s race, the third of 10 in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, could be the most critical. The eventual champion left Kansas ranked either first or second in the standings in five of the first six Chases, and the champion has only finished outside the top 10 at Kansas once.
So it made sense that the 12 title contenders all approached the Chase with a wary eye on the 1.5-mile oval.
“I said it from the beginning of the Chase — this is the one where I feel like we’ve got to make our most,” said Kyle Busch, who goes into the race ranked third in the standings.
“We need to come out of here with a solid top-10, just to keep us in the hunt and not lose too much ground to the guys in front of us or have the guys behind us gain too much ground.”
Four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson is the only driver in the history of the Chase to have an off day at Kansas and still hoist the Sprint Cup at the end of the year. It came in 2006, when he finished 14th but went on to his first championship. He’s the only driver to win a championship despite not scoring a top-10 finish at Kansas.
Off to a slow Chase start that season, Johnson left Kansas ranked eighth in the standings, 165 points out of the lead. In every other season, the champion was ranked at least first or second after Kansas.
Because four of the remaining six races are on intermediate tracks with similarities to Kansas, Johnson believes a strong run today could tighten the Chase standings. As it is, seven drivers are within 83 points of leader Denny Hamlin. And though many consider Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer already out of the running, Johnson hasn’t ruled out those drivers using Kansas as a springboard back into contention.
“Someone can have a big race this weekend and be right back in the middle of it, on top of the fact that there are a lot of cars very close in points,” Johnson said.
For that to be the case, there would need to be some major improvement before today.
Defending race winner Stewart hasn’t had a great weekend, slogging through Friday’s practice session, bouncing back to qualify 14th, then ending Saturday’s final session 22nd on the speed chart.
Ranked 10th in the standings, 162 points behind Hamlin, Stewart is carrying the guilt of knowing his mistakes have put his team in this position. He failed to conserve enough fuel in the Chase opener at New Hampshire and ran out of gas right before the final lap while leading, a swing that took him from victory to a 24th-place finish that cost him five spots in the standings.
Last week at Dover, he was caught speeding during an early pit stop, never recovered from the penalty and finished 21st.
“I just have made mistakes the last two weeks that have cost us. I can’t do anything about it now,” he said. “We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. I wish we could say that we were right in the middle of this. In two weeks I have dug myself a pretty big hole.
“It’s literally a go-for-broke attitude. We don’t have anything to lose right now, 10th doesn’t mean anything to me in the point standings. I’m going for everything I can get right now.”
Hamlin, despite his lead in the standings, also plans to go for broke today and resist the urge to sit on his lead over the next six weeks. He has set specific goals for each track, and has a firm idea of where he wants to be when the checkered flag falls at Kansas.
“I’d like to be at least dead even, if not maintain where I’m at right now with the field,” he said. “To do that, you’re going to need to finish in the top five, and I suspect we’ll run better than that.”
Busch, his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, doesn’t know what to expect.
Kansas isn’t a great track for him, and he has just one top-10 finish in six career starts. In 2007, he went into Kansas only 10 points out of the lead, but was wrecked while running third by Dale Earnhardt Jr. The bad day was the first of several for Busch, who never again contended for the championship that year.
“Just sort of down-roll spiraled from there,” Busch said of the 2007 race. “This year we hope is different. You just have to minimize the bad days as best you can. We know this weekend could be one of those.”