Kansas Speedway is host as NASCAR’s Cup Series enters first race in Round of 8
NASCAR’s Cup season is down to eight drivers and four races, and a win Sunday at Kansas Speedway could be pivotal for any of the remaining playoff contenders. Twice in the past four seasons, the winner of the first race in the Round of 8 also won the championship race.
“I don’t think it’s a complete coincidence,” Brad Keselowski said. “I think it’s a big advantage to win the first race in this semifinal round of the playoffs.”
The Hollywood Casino 400 (267 laps) starts at 2:30 p.m. Sunday on NBC.
Keselowski said an early victory would give the team more time to prepare, relax and focus on a single car for the championship race at Phoenix. The No. 2 Penske driver is ranked in the top three in points (+13) heading to the 1.5-mile tri-oval behind Kevin Harvick (+45) in first and Denny Hamlin (+32) in second.
Keselowski said that, based on Harvick’s and Hamlin’s points advantage, it feels like six drivers are competing for two open Championship 4 slots.
Those six also include Chase Elliott (+5), Joey Logano (-5), Martin Truex Jr. (-10), Alex Bowman (-18) and Kurt Busch (-21). Elliott is starting on the pole with Logano also in the front row.
While Keselowski said he doesn’t think Hamlin is completely out of pointsreach for him, the +13 translates roughly to a “two-stage cushion,” meaning he can only afford to place below the top 10 in two stages before putting himself in cutoff jeopardy.
“But I know 13 up is better than 13 down,” Keselowski said. “So I’m not complaining.”
He said his strategy for the Kansas City-based track is running close to the wall, and the goal is to repeat his first-place result from earlier last season rather than the 19th-place finish he posted in the second Kansas race last year.
Keselowski finished second at the track in July.
It was Hamlin who won the past two races at Kansas and is looking to make it three. He said he was “terrified” of the speedway a few years ago, but broke that streak with a good-handling car.
“Once I create that good database for Chris (Gabehart) to work off of it seems like when we go back to tracks, he’s made the proper adjustments for weather and conditions and things like that, and car changes,” Hamlin said.
Like Keselowski, Hamlin noted the benefit of an early win this round.
“I know it’s an important one for us,” Hamlin said. “We could go the next two weeks and really shift our focus from Texas and Martinsville to putting all of our resources towards Phoenix …”
“And that certainly would be a benefit for whoever locks in right off the bat.”
There is another hurdle looming over playoff drivers and a championship trophy this season beyond just their competitors.
With four races left, it’s becoming increasingly important to remain healthy as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise in North Carolina.
A positive coronavirus test has forced two Cup drivers, Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon, to miss one race each this season, and as Hamlin noted, “It could happen to anyone.”
“You’ve gotta put your health first,” Hamlin said. “But certainly the stakes are higher at this part of the season.”
Hamlin said drivers need to be “extra careful” at this time regarding exposure.
Elliott noted the difficulty in completely avoiding the world, especially with air travel required for the upcoming races at Kansas and Texas.
“Be as safe and clean and sanitary as possible,” Elliott said. “And from that perspective, I think that’s really all I can do, and hope for the best.”
Johnson told The Observer recently that he’d like to see a two-test requirement for both NASCAR’s prohibition from competition for a positive test the same way two negative tests are required to return to racing.
Hamlin agreed that if testing positive for the virus, he’d like to see consecutive tests to ensure accuracy because, if forced to miss a race at this point in the season, “It would be devastating to say the least.”
WEATHER FOR NASCAR RACE AT KANSAS
Rrain is likely for the Sunday afternoon race with a 50 to 60 percent chance of precipitation, according to AccuWeather.com.
More than rain, though, the cold will be a new element for the grid.
Temperatures are expected to reach a high of 47 degrees, which would make it the coolest track this season.
PREDICTIONS FOR NASCAR AT KANSAS
It wouldn’t be surprising to see another HamlinHarvick battle Sunday.
Hamlin has won the most recent races at Kansas, but Harvick has the same number of all-time Cup wins at the track with three each, along with Johnson.
Hamlin starts seventh and Harvick starts fourth Sunday, and I’d suspect either driver will win at least one stage, if not the race.
NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin leads drivers Chase Elliott, left, and Brad Keselowski, right, into Turn 7 during the Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord last Sunday. Elliott won the race.