Bubble drivers have high hopes for Kansas race
Ryan Blaney felt good about his chances of advancing to the next round of NASCAR’s playoffs even before he qualified fourth for the elimination race at Kansas Speedway.
Yes, he is 22 points outside the cutoff line. Yes, he has to leapfrog a couple of other guys to make the final eight, who will contest the next three rounds before the season-ending race at Homestead.
But Blaney has always considered the fast mile-and-a-half track one of his best, even though he’s yet to win here in seven career starts. He has led laps four times, was on the pole for the spring race last year and was strong this past spring before ultimately wrecking out.
“This is a good track for us. I can’t think of another track to go to trying to win it,” Blaney said. “We’ve had a good chance, especially the first race this year before I wrecked ourselves. So hope we have a good shot Sunday to move on.”
The trouble for Blaney is that just about everybody on the bubble is also strong at Kansas.
Clint Bowyer, who is seventh and 21 points inside the cutoff line, considers the track his home after growing up in Emporia. Martin Truex Jr., 18 points to the good, swept the races at Kansas last year before finishing second to Kevin Harvick this past spring.
Brad Keselowski is the first driver outside the cutoff, and while he has just three top-5 finishes in 17 starts at Kansas, he qualified fifth Friday – right behind Blaney, his Penske Racing teammate, who is four points back of him as they jockey for a spot in the next round.
Blaney said that dynamic hasn’t created any tension in their garage. The two have continued to share ideas as they prepare for Sunday, which is the only way team owner Roger Penske would have it.
“Brad and I have always been open with each other, which is great,” Blaney said. “It’s our season pretty much, our chance at a championship is this weekend, but you try not to let that distract you and just do the best you can.”
Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman are the two drivers that basically face must-win situations Sunday.
Larson was penalized 10 points last week at Talladega for using unapproved materials to fix damage on his car, and that punishment was upheld through two rounds of appeals Friday. That left the Chip Ganassi Racing driver in a 36-point hole, an uphill challenge made even more difficult after a wreck in practice forced him into a backup car and will land him at the back of the field for the start.
Bowman is the only driver who mathematically must win, and even he feels good about his chances at Kansas. He won a couple of times at the track in ARCA and has been strong in his few Cup starts.
“This is one of my better tracks,” he said, “so I’m excited. I think we have a shot of winning for sure. … I’m glad it’s Kansas, I love this place, really enjoy it.”
Kyle Larson faces a virtual must-win situation Sunday, in a 36-point playoff hole now complicated by a wreck that forced him into a backup car and to the back of the field.