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Hollywood Casino 400 Preview: Follow the Yellow Brick Road

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

Taylor covers NASCAR for RotoWire. He is a three-time winner of the FSWA's Racing Writer of the Year award. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

For the sixth race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR pays its second visit of the season to Kansas Speedway just outside Kansas City for the Hollywood Casino 400. When we think of Kansas in popular culture, we're more likely to think of Dorothy, the Scarecrow and the Wizard rather than NASCAR settling racing championships. This oval may not be paved yellow, but it could easily be the yellow brick road to a Sprint Cup Series championship by the time we reach Miami in November. By visiting the 1.5-mile oval in Kansas this weekend the schedule offers up a huge advantage to fantasy racing players and the drivers alike. For it was only five short months ago that the stars of NASCAR were locked in combat at this intermediate oval. The data from that race, the STP 400, will be fresh and applicable to the field for this weekend's Hollywood Casino 400. The oval of Kansas Speedway is our third intermediate oval event in the Chase for the Cup and second in as many weeks. It is one of five races on ovals of this size in the 10-event Chase that crowns our champion. That means ovals of this size and style makes up a whopping 50 percent of the championship-crowning Chase for the Cup. So pay close attention this weekend as trends from this 400-mile race will sort of set the stage at upcoming intermediate ovals. While Kansas has typically been a Ford facility in its brief history, recent races are reflecting more manufacturer parity at this oval. For instance, Dodge, Chevrolet and Toyota have each won the last three races at this facility. Our race in April of this year was dominated and won by Toyota, but Chevrolet and Ford were both well represented in the Top-10 finishing order. Considering that Dodge and championship contender Brad Keselowski are the hot hand entering this weekend, we can't rule out that driver and manufacturer from winning this important event as well.

Since we're making our second visit of the season to Kansas Speedway, we need to take a brief look back at history at this intermediate oval. These numbers will be even more important than normal and even more relevant given that we've seen a lot of repeat winner s at this facility. As you'll see in the table below, some of the hottest drivers in the series are making a very important start at Kansas Speedway this weekend. Here are the loop stats for the last nine races at Kansas Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUAL. PASSES# of FASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15DRIVER RATING
Jimmie Johnson5.14253734832,145120.7
Greg Biffle5.04061942822,208116.3
Tony Stewart13.93741371521,857102.9
Matt Kenseth14.23121192241,852102.4
Jeff Gordon13.839099372,105102.2
Carl Edwards9.2366115721,54696.2
Kevin Harvick11.233179351,59192.1
Mark Martin13.2272261501,60191.9
Brad Keselowski10.2230191792790.7
Kurt Busch15.92821112361,38190.3
Denny Hamlin14.134268681,58989.9
Martin Truex Jr.23.32471022051,25788.4
Kasey Kahne16.628687381,39186.9
Dale Earnhardt Jr.16.429775591,29786.4
Clint Bowyer15.021740431,02685.7
Kyle Busch18.135858841,39483.3
Jeff Burton20.614432475673.1
Juan Pablo Montoya19.0226201564372.2
A.J. Allmendinger20.0127234436471.6
Paul Menard20.113891173270.1

The race earlier this season at Kansas Speedway was quite special. It was Denny Hamlin's second of five victories to this point in the season, and his serving notice of how strong the No. 11 Toyota team would be on these intermediate ovals in 2012. While he led only 32 laps that day, they were the most important laps of the race. Hamlin used great pit strategy and solid pit stops to beat a more dominant Martin Truex Jr. He's been one of the hottest drivers in the Sprint Cup Series ever since. The other big time player in that race was Michael Waltrip Racing star Truex Jr. He finished runner-up to Hamlin in the STP 400, and led a whopping 173 of the 267 laps that day and had the field chasing him around the intermediate oval for quite a while. The driver of the No. 56 Toyota has been looking to improve his Chase standing, so this is a very timely visit to Kansas Speedway for that driver and team. Aside from the Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing drivers, Jimmie Johnson should continue his recent streak of performance. He is a two-time winner at this intermediate oval and he has started to take on prime contender status in the championship Chase the last couple weeks. Johnson led laps and finished third at Kansas Speedway in April, so it wouldn't be a big surprise to see the No. 48 Chevrolet roll into victory lane on Sunday afternoon. Aside from these story lines, are we going to see the former champion Matt Kenseth step up in his final season with Roush Fenway Racing and make a stand at Kansas? The star driver of the No. 17 Ford has some of the best loop stats among the Sprint Cup elite at Kansas Speedway, but he's never won at this facility. Is it too late for Kenseth to grab one more taste of victory lane before he heads to Joe Gibbs Racing next season? We'll highlight the fantasy racing drivers you need this weekend to dominate the day at Kansas Speedway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Brad Keselowski -
The Penske Racing star comes to the heartland oval this weekend looking to take one more step towards the crown. Keselowski has five victories this season and finds himself very much the top contender for the championship mid-way through the Chase. Two of those five wins have come on lower-banked intermediate ovals similar to Kansas Speedway. Keselowski racked up wins at both Chicago and Kentucky since mid-summer. Considering that the driver of the No. 2 Dodge has one career win at this oval, he has to be considered the top fantasy racing play for the Hollywood Casino 400.

Jimmie Johnson -
Our five-time Sprint Cup Series champion has three poles, two victories and 503 laps led in 12 career starts at Kansas Speedway. Although Johnson hasn't displayed the winning touch this season, the No. 48 team surely feels the urgency of winning that sixth championship. Considering that Johnson leads the major electronic scoring categories like laps led, fastest laps and quality passes at the 1.5-mile oval in Kansas, it's easy to believe that he'll turn his game up a notch this weekend. At worst the Hendrick Motorsports star will be a Top-5 finisher at Kansas.

Denny Hamlin -
Let's start with the numbers. He has one win and three Top 5s in his last five trips to Kansas Speedway. Hamlin raced inside the Top 10 for much of April's STP 400 before the fuel mileage game elevated the No. 11 Toyota to the win on the last green-flag run. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been one of the most consistent and dominant drivers on the intermediate ovals this season. Considering the good fuel mileage this team is getting in 2012, you have to like his chances if this race goes into fuel conservation mode. Hamlin is focused entirely on the championship, so he'll be going for broke in the Hollywood Casino 400.

Greg Biffle -
The No. 16 Ford team have flexed their muscles on Biffle's best tracks this season. With two victories at Michigan and Texas, it's plain to see that this veteran driver has been the most competitive of the Roush Fenway Racing stable in 2012. Biffle absolutely loves racing at Kansas, as his two career victories at this oval attest. He's coming off 71 laps led and a Top 5 effort at Charlotte, so the level of performance is high and without question. Biffle has led close to 350 career laps at Kansas Speedway and he cracks the Top 5 at an amazing 58 percent rate here. If there's a sleeper in the contenders list, this Ford driver is it.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Clint Bowyer -
The No. 15 team stunned the field last weekend at Charlotte. Bowyer played fuel strategy perfectly to his third win of the season and his first ever on an intermediate oval. He comes to his "hometown" oval this week at Kansas Speedway and with a lot of momentum. Bowyer only owns three career Top 10s in 8 visits to Kansas Speedway, but he has performed well on the lesser-banked intermediate tracks this season. He started the Chase with a Top 10 at the similarly configured Chicagoland Speedway. We expect Bowyer to carry home a Top 10 in this 400-mile event.

Carl Edwards -
The Roush Fenway star will carry the momentum of a good run at Charlotte Motor Speedway into Kansas this weekend. Edwards has eight Top-10 finishes in his 10 career visits to this intermediate oval, so the historical numbers are on his side. The driver of the No. 99 Ford is coming off a strong seventh-place finish at Charlotte, and he's been racing rather well of late. Edwards continues to improve each week and is building towards a strong 2013 campaign. He'll be in the mix with the leaders again this Sunday afternoon.

Kyle Busch -
Being five races into the Chase for the Cup, Busch is showing that he would have been a good championship contender had he been a part of the 12-driver field. Busch has three Top 5s and four Top 10s in the first half of the Chase. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota is fresh off a fifth-place finish at Charlotte, so he comes to the Heartland this weekend with some real momentum and building team chemistry. Rather than see Busch as a race winning contender at Kansas, we'd prefer to think of him more as a solid Top 10 candidate. He's a perfect six-for-six in Top 10s on the 1.5-mile oval circuit entering this weekend.

Kasey Kahne -
The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet just comes to life on certain tracks and the outing at Kansas should be no different. Kahne is fresh off a Top 10 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and looking to carry that momentum to Kansas Speedway this week. He owns two career poles and 77 laps led at the speedway, and his last two trips to Kansas have netted Top-10 finishes. His Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has been in the Top 10 in three of the last five races, so the team is racing well coming to this intermediate oval. Kahne should out-perform the eighth-place finish he posted at Kansas in April.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Kansas who can provide a solid finish

Mark Martin -
Historically speaking, this is a great venue for Martin. One win and five Top-10 finishes at Kansas Speedway would normally place the No. 55 team in the solid plays list this week. However, Martin has been an up-and-down performer on these ovals in 2012. The driver of the No. 55 Toyota finished 14th at the intermediate oval in Chicago to start the Chase, and that should be a good barometer of what to expect for this weekend's Hollywood Casino 400. His sixth-place finish at Charlotte this past weekend is even more encouraging. Martin's career average finish of 14.6 at Kansas Speedway is a nice bit of assurance heading into this Sunday afternoon.

Joey Logano -
Logano is not just streaking, he's currently among the hottest drivers in the series. The young Joe Gibbs Racing driver has climbed the standings the last couple months. Logano's five Top-10 finishes in the last eight races has the No. 20 team surging coming to the Kansas oval. He has had a tough season in the intermediate tracks until the Chase began, and he posted seventh- and ninth-place finishes at Chicago and Charlotte. Logano's six career starts at Kansas Speedway are less than impressive, but signs are pointing up. In April he recorded a third-place qualifying effort and backed it up with a career-best Kansas finish of 15th. We expect even more for the No. 20 Toyota team in the Hollywood Casino 400.

Martin Truex Jr. -
To complete your Michael Waltrip Racing triple-play this weekend, we recommend Truex and the No. 56 team. The MWR driver has been a solid performer on the 1.5-mile ovals this season with two Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes in the seven races dating back to Fort Worth. While Truex's level of performance has slipped a bit since the start of the Chase, this driver and team are still performing at a very high level. Truex's hard-fought Top 10 at Charlotte this past weekend is evidence of that. He led 173 laps and finished a career-best second at Kansas Speedway in April, so you know the note book will be in heavy use this weekend.

Sam Hornish Jr. -
Penske Racing has been putting great cars under Hornish ever since he took this ride over earlier in the summer. Despite never having cracked the Top 10 once in four tries at Kansas, the veteran driver makes a great fantasy racing play this weekend. Ragan finished 19th in April's STP 400 at Kansas Speedway, and he recently finished 11th at the similar oval in Chicago to start the Chase for the Cup. The 1.5-mile intermediate ovals have been good venues for the No. 22 Dodge team, so we expect to see a good effort from Hornish this weekend. He should be a Top-15 finisher at Kansas Speedway.

Regan Smith -
The replacement driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr. will get to pilot the No. 88 Chevrolet again this weekend at Kansas after filling in for the NASCAR icon last week at Charlotte. Smith had one of the fastest cars on the track in some practice sessions at CMS last week. However, the Bank of America 500 didn't turn out well for Smith as his Chevrolet lost an engine in the later half of the race. We'll let that equipment failure go and give him a hearty recommendation again this week. Smith has three-straight 24th-place finishes at the Kansas oval for Furniture Row Racing, and we're willing to bet he'll be dramatically better in Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400.

Trevor Bayne -
The young driver of the No. 21 Ford has been getting plenty of action of late. This weekend's race at Kansas Speedway will mark his third-straight Sprint Cup Series start. He has Top-20 finishes in two of his last three intermediate oval starts (Atlanta and Chicago), and Bayne finished a respectable 22nd this past weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The added racing action will only help this young driver to further improve his Sprint Cup racing skills. Bayne should qualify well and finish well at Kansas Speedway this Sunday afternoon.

A.J. Allmendinger -
Allmendinger made his return to NASCAR action last week at Charlotte after a several race absence due to suspension stemming from violating NASCAR's substance abuse policy. The former Penske Racing driver didn't disappoint as he stepped into the No. 51 Chevrolet of Phoenix Racing and posted a surprising 24th-place finish at CMS last Saturday night. Allmendinger should be another steady fantasy racing start this week at Kansas. He sports two career Top 10s at this facility, and he won the pole here in April's STP 400 and led 44 laps before problems relegated him to a poor finish. Allmendinger should challenge the Top 20 at Kansas Speedway.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Jeff Burton -
The veteran Richard Childress Racing driver has been nearly invisible on the intermediate ovals this season. The No. 31 Chevrolet has lacked the speed and Burton has lacked the savvy to pilot this team to Top 10s on the 1.5-mile oval circuit. He has no Top 10s and a lowly average finish of 22.6 in the last seven intermediate oval events. That brings us to Burton's Kansas record. In 13 career starts at Kansas Speedway the RCR driver has only two Top-10 finishes, and the last of those came way back in 2008. There is simply no upside with this driver and team in Sunday's 400-mile event.

Marcos Ambrose -
Ambrose has had a pretty nice season, but he's managed to disappear more than once this year. The driver of the No. 9 Ford enters this weekend with one victory, eight Top-10 finishes on the season and ranked 18th in the driver standings. Ambrose has struggled in his 1.5-mile oval starts this season. He has two Top-15 finishes in seven races, but he also has two finishes outside the Top 30. Since the Chase for the Cup began a few weeks ago, the Richard Petty Motorsports driver has finishes of 27th- and 33rd-place on the two intermediate ovals to-date. That's not a warm-fuzzy feeling for this week's race at Kansas Speedway.

Tony Stewart -
Stewart was racing for the championship this week one year ago. Just 12 months later he is struggling to be relevant in the final stages of the Chase. Stewart has only two Top 10s in the five Chase races and he's slipped from third to eighth in the standings coming into Kansas weekend. Smoke's career numbers at Kansas are impressive. He's a two-time winner at Kansas Speedway, and he sports a 62 percent Top 10 rate at the 1.5-mile oval. However, his last two trips to Kansas have yielded 15th- and 13th-place finishes. That falls well short of expectations for the No. 14 team. We could see similar results this Sunday afternoon.

Jeff Gordon -
Considering that Gordon owns two career victories and nine Top 10s at Kansas Speedway how can you not like the Rick Hendrick Motorsports star this weekend? Well, this weekend should be different. Gordon's last two trips to Kansas have resulted in finishes of 34th and 21st. One of those due to engine failure. The luck of the No. 24 team has been nearly all bad in 2012, and Gordon is limping into the final stages of the season. His 35th-place finish at the similar oval in Chicago to start the Chase is very concerning and his subpar 18th-place finish at Charlotte this past weekend may be even more troubling.
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