Joey Logano’s first career win Sunday at Charlotte gave him a free pass into the next Chase round and also gave Ford its first win on a 1.5-mile track this season.
Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway will be the ninth race of the season on a 1.5-mile layout – the second at Kansas this season and third of five during the Chase.
While Logano can goof off for the next two weeks if he wants to because he’s in, four drivers know they only have two races in this round to make up ground. If they fail to make up ground this week at Kansas, they can kiss dreams of winning a Sprint Cup trophy goodbye. Depending on a good finish at the volatile Talladega 2.66-mile layout in two weeks is a proposition most drivers don’t want to deal with.
For drivers like Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch, they’re almost in must win situations if they’re looking to win a championship. Kenseth won a Championship in 2003 — the year prior to the first Chase format. Earnhardt Jr. and Busch have never won a title, and they see 2015 slipping away.
Because of the desperation those drivers have, they have to be considered live plays this week. Maybe not so much with Junior, but the two Gibbs drivers should be highly thought of including teammates Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards. Prior to Logano’s win Sunday, a Joe Gibbs driver had won four straight races on 1.5-mile tracks (including non-points All-Star race).
The first Kansas race this season (May 9) was won by Jimmie Johnson, which was his third win on four 1.5-mile tracks up to that point. Johnson hasn’t had a top-five on the four 1.5s since.
Things drastically shifted in favor of the four Gibbs cars since the last Kansas race. But not to be forgotten over that span has been the two Penske Ford’s. Brad Keselowski has finished ninth or better in all eight races on 1.5-mile tracks and Logano has been sixth or better in six of the eight.
Keselowski only has one win on the season – he led only one lap at Fontana, the one that counted – but Kansas has always been a place he’s run well at, winning in 2011. However, he appears to be in championship mode and he’s only going to take what’s available to him.
Keselowski isn’t going to risk anything. He knows he’s got a top-8 type of car all year and he’s not going to try and do more than its capable of. He saw Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin make the Championship race last season without winning and by playing it smart. Keselowski is doing the same thing.
Kenseth is a two-time winner at Kansas while Kyle Busch finished a career-best third there last season (he missed the May race due to injury). Hamlin won there in 2012 and Edwards has a 10.8 average finish. Only Johnson and Jeff Gordon have a better average than Edwards, and they each have three wins.
Outside of Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet doesn’t look so hot this week. Harvick won in 2013 and has finished second in two of the past three races there. He led 53 laps in the May race while fellow Chevy driver Martin Truex Jr. paced the way with 95 laps led before finishing ninth.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Logano win again this week just because he can let it all fly, but I have the feeling we’re going to see Kenseth be the best on Sunday. Every Chase participant wants to win on Sunday to avoid Talladega, but only five of them really have a shot. I’d love to see Gordon finally win a race and Johnson, who is not in the Chase, is going to be a factor, but I see Toyota celebrating in the end.
Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, one of The Linemakers on SportingNews.com , and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Twitter: @MicahRoberts7 Email: [email protected].