Bub­ble driv­ers have high hopes for Kansas race

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY DAVE SKRETTA As­so­ci­ated Press

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.”

COLIN E. BRALEY AP

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.

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