Digital Ally 400 Preview: Return to Intermediate Ovals

Digital Ally 400 Preview: Return to Intermediate Ovals

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

In the wake of the wild and unpredictable race at the Monster Mile, we're in for a change of pace this weekend.  For the fourth time in 2019, the Monster Energy Cup Series goes intermediate oval racing.  We visit Kansas Speedway for the spring event, which debuted in April 2012.  

The Digital Ally 400 will take our competitors back to an intermediate oval after a six-week hiatus from these style tracks.  The 1.5-mile oval of Kansas Speedway may not give us a sequel of what played out at Texas a few weeks ago, but the teams that performed well at the Fort Worth oval in the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 should be in for another strong race weekend.  The teams that dominated at Texas Motor Speedway are sure to be licking their chops for this visit to America's heartland.  While Kansas only offers 15-degree corner banking compared to 24-degree corner banking at Texas, the similarities are enough to warrant reconsideration of almost the same driver group that we had at the Fort Worth oval.  Both tracks are the "D-shaped" configuration so the handling characteristics will be much the same.  

However, as we ran during the daylight hours at Texas, we will be racing under the lights this week at Kansas.  That one wrinkle could play a minor role in altering the driver group just a bit.  One thing is for certain, the remarkable parity we've seen so far on these style ovals should continue at Kansas Speedway.  We've had three

In the wake of the wild and unpredictable race at the Monster Mile, we're in for a change of pace this weekend.  For the fourth time in 2019, the Monster Energy Cup Series goes intermediate oval racing.  We visit Kansas Speedway for the spring event, which debuted in April 2012.  

The Digital Ally 400 will take our competitors back to an intermediate oval after a six-week hiatus from these style tracks.  The 1.5-mile oval of Kansas Speedway may not give us a sequel of what played out at Texas a few weeks ago, but the teams that performed well at the Fort Worth oval in the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 should be in for another strong race weekend.  The teams that dominated at Texas Motor Speedway are sure to be licking their chops for this visit to America's heartland.  While Kansas only offers 15-degree corner banking compared to 24-degree corner banking at Texas, the similarities are enough to warrant reconsideration of almost the same driver group that we had at the Fort Worth oval.  Both tracks are the "D-shaped" configuration so the handling characteristics will be much the same.  

However, as we ran during the daylight hours at Texas, we will be racing under the lights this week at Kansas.  That one wrinkle could play a minor role in altering the driver group just a bit.  One thing is for certain, the remarkable parity we've seen so far on these style ovals should continue at Kansas Speedway.  We've had three different race winners on the 1.5-mile tracks so far, and we've had seven different drivers lead 50 combined laps or more in these events with the new aero rules package.  Kansas could offer a few more surprises. 

Since we're making our first stop of the season at Kansas Speedway, we need to take a brief look back at history at this intermediate oval.  These numbers will be even more important than usual, since it's been several weeks since we last competed on an intermediate oval.  As you'll see in the table below, some of the hottest drivers in the series right now are making a very timely start at Kansas this weekend.  Here are the loop stats for the last 22 races at Kansas Speedway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kevin Harvick8.48015157034,661108.6
Jimmie Johnson9.79875735814,575104.1
Martin Truex Jr.14.06344057264,001100.1
Ryan Blaney13.02331091541,71298.7
Kyle Larson17.54091721041,83093.3
Kyle Busch15.37102053273,71391.1
Brad Keselowski12.86971612033,42191.0
Chase Elliott14.3219564898290.3
Joey Logano17.65372214002,90588.6
Kurt Busch15.16811492603,60687.6
Denny Hamlin15.774390743,76687.1
Erik Jones21.624031390279.4
Clint Bowyer16.652352512,59579.0
Aric Almirola19.129160691,56077.0
Paul Menard18.546444242,53675.8
Austin Dillon16.92522161,16074.7
Ryan Newman20.257925112,44873.4
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.18.5193393785872.1
Daniel Suarez23.8808030565.1
Chris Buescher19.8513018062.7

Our most recent Kansas winner, Chase Elliott, will be challenged to defend his turf this weekend at the Kansas Speedway oval.  The Hendrick Motorsports star came on strong in the closing laps and overtook Brad Keselowski to claim his first-career victory at the oval.  Elliott used good pit strategy and a strong car late to lead 44 laps last October, and hold off Kyle Busch to secure the win in convincing fashion.  The No. 9 team has been strong the last two weeks, so this is a very timely visit to Kansas for Elliott.  The Penske Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing camps will pose the biggest threat to Elliott's crown this weekend.  Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski alone have won three of the five intermediate oval events dating back to last fall, and are set up to be top contenders for the Digital Ally 400.  The duo is also past Kansas winners, so they know the keys to victory at this facility.  Given what these two drivers have done at Atlanta, Fort Worth and Las Vegas earlier this season we have to pay special attention to these guys at Kansas.  The other big time player this weekend should be Joe Gibbs Racing star, Kyle Busch.  The driver of the No. 18 Toyota is a one-time Kansas Speedway winner, and he's been in the running to win each of the intermediate oval races of 2019.  Aside from this trio of drivers, Martin Truex Jr. should stay on our fantasy racing radar screens at Kansas.  Last weekend's Dover winner is a two-time Kansas winner, season sweep in 2017.  He nearly won this event one year ago by finishing runner-up to Kevin Harvick, and he absolutely loves racing at this intermediate oval.  There's no doubt that the No. 19 Toyota will be up front again this week.  We'll highlight the fantasy racing drivers you need this weekend to dominate this Saturday evening at Kansas Speedway.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Martin Truex Jr. Intermediate ovals have been the strength of this driver for a number of seasons, and this year has been no exception.  We only need to take a quick look at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fort Worth to see the proof.  With finishes of second-, eighth- and 12th-place, this veteran driver has been in the mix on these ovals.  Truex swept both victories at Kansas Speedway in 2017, so he's no stranger to victory lane at this facility.  In this event one year ago Truex led 13 laps and finished runner-up to Kevin Harvick.  That has been the norm at Kansas for the past couple years for this driver.  Coming off the big win at the Monster Mile this past Sunday, the Joe Gibbs Racing star looks strong coming into this Saturday night race at Kansas. 

Joey Logano If Logano can find lightning in a bottle again, like he did in 2014 and 2015 at Kansas, we could see the No. 22 Ford in victory lane for the second time this season this Saturday night.  The Penske Racing star won earlier this season at the similar ova in Las Vegas, and he rides a two-race Kansas Top-10 streak into this weekend's action.  His last start at the oval last October yielded a pole position and 100 laps led before ultimately finishing eighth in the Hollywood Casino 400.  Logano has 400-career laps led at Kansas Speedway, so he knows how to race up front at this facility.  His eight-career Top 10's work out to a pedestrian 42-percent rate, but that number has been on the rise.  Logano should be a top contender for the win in Saturday night's Digital Ally 400.

Chase Elliott Elliott made big headlines last fall when he won the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.  It was his first-career victory at the oval, and a good sign of things to come from the No. 9 Chevrolet team.  The Hendrick Motorsports youngster has been on fire the past couple weeks, with his Talladega win and strong showing at Dover.  Now he returns to the track where he won last October.  This time will be with the new aerodynamic package, but with tons of confidence and momentum for Elliott and his team.  He's been a bit inconsistent on the cookie cutter ovals to this point in 2019, but we should see a different driver this weekend.  His recent 35-laps led at Texas Motor Speedway show the team's improving on these style ovals, and Elliott should be poised to explode in this 400-mile event under the lights. 

Kyle Busch Busch rides an eight-race Kansas Top-10 streak into this weekend's action, and that includes a victory in this event in 2016.  During this streak the Joe Gibbs Racing star has led well over 200 laps at the heartland oval, and been in the mix to win on more than one occasion.  Busch's start here last October saw the No. 18 Toyota racing in the Top 5 for the full event, and finishing runner-up to Chase Elliott.  This is not one of his better intermediate ovals, but Busch has been dramatically improving here since the 2014 season.  He's pushed his Top-10 rate up to a more respectable 46-percent, thanks to this current Kansas streak that he has in play.  If the other top contenders stumble, and Busch is dialed-in, we could see the No. 18 Toyota Camry in victory lane Saturday night.

Solid Plays – Drivers who are near locks for the top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Kevin Harvick The No. 4 Ford team has been the most consistent performers dating back to last fall on the cookie cutter tracks.  While Harvick lacks the victories, his laps led and Top-5 finishes speak for themselves.  Harvick has won three poles, three victories and three runner-up finishes dating back to 2013 at Kansas Speedway.  He won from the pole in a dominant performance in this event one year ago.  If we fast forward to this season we see that Harvick has two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes on the intermediate tracks in three starts.  One of those was an 88-laps led performance at Las Vegas, and the other a 45-laps led performance at Atlanta.  The veteran driver of the No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing Ford will be a Top-5 threat at Kansas Speedway. 

Brad Keselowski Keselowski is a one-time Kansas winner and he sports some solid stats at this heartland race track.  His 203 laps led and nine-career Top-10 finishes show his expertise at this facility.  Recent outings have been a bit uneven, but there's little to worry considering how well the No. 2 team is racing entering the Kansas week.  In his last start at Kansas Speedway last October he led 26 laps and finished sixth in the Hollywood Casino 400.  Keselowski is looking to build on the performance he had at Atlanta earlier this year (33 laps led and win), and the fact that he finished runner-up at the similar oval in Las Vegas earlier in the season only bolsters his status for the Digital Ally 400.  The Penske Racing star will be looking forward to going intermediate oval racing this weekend.

Kurt Busch Busch's performance on intermediate ovals so far this season has been spotless with a pair of Top 5's and three Top 10's in three starts.  Those races have been instrumental in his good start to the season, currently eighth in the overall point standings.  Busch's career-long Kansas record isn't the best with only a 35-percent Top-10 rate, but he has been coming on strong here since the 2013 season.  The veteran driver has five Top-10 finishes in his last eight visits to Kansas Speedway, which is 63-percent and well above his career average.  Busch's start in this event one year ago netted a steady eighth-place finish last May.  A finish between sixth- and ninth-place would be a reasonable expectation for Saturday night. 

Aric Almirola The Stewart Haas Racing veteran will be glad to get back on a cookie cutter oval this weekend.  The last few weeks of racing at short tracks and Dover have slowed Almirola's fast start to the 2019 season.  The driver of the No. 10 SHR Ford rides a three-race Kansas Top-10 streak into Saturday night's action.  That streak has boosted Almirola's career rate at Kansas Speedway to 43-percent.  He spent years of subpar racing at this particular oval before joining Stewart Haas Racing in 2018.  Almirola has been flawless on these style ovals dating back to last fall.  He has five consecutive Top-10 finishes on the 1.5-mile tracks dating back to last November at Texas.  We expect Almirola to rebound from his poor Dover outing and back inside the Top 10 this week.

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

Kyle Larson While Larson has somewhat muddled through the last few weeks on short tracks and superspeedways.  After a great performance this past week at Dover, he'll be re-energized at the return to an intermediate oval.  The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has always performed well on cookie cutter ovals.  Larson had good speed at Atlanta and Las Vegas earlier this season, but he just didn't get the finishes he deserved in those starts.  He had a rough outing at Fort Worth, but we'll grant him a mulligan for that one.  The young driver has 10-career starts at Kansas Speedway, with recent finishes bearing some good results.  Three of his last four Kansas starts have netted Top-10 finishes.  Larson is on the comeback trail and it should continue in Saturday night's Digital Ally 400.

Denny Hamlin The Joe Gibbs Racing star is our last intermediate oval winner with his surprising victory at Fort Worth several weeks ago.  That teases the potential at Kansas just a bit.  We have to give the driver of the No. 11 Toyota some respect for what he's accomplished at Kansas Speedway over the years.  He has one victory, six Top-5 and seven Top-10 finishes in 21 starts.  We'd like to see higher Top-5 and Top-10 rates, but frankly this isn't Hamlin's best intermediate oval.  However, he still should have the speed and moxie to crack or at least challenge the Top 10 this Saturday night.  Two of his last three starts at the oval have netted Top-5 finishes. 

Jimmie Johnson Johnson has three poles, three victories and 601 laps led in 25-career starts at Kansas Speedway.  Of those 25 starts Johnson has converted 17 Top 10's for a staggering 68-percent rate.  The Hendrick Motorsports star hasn't been in top form in some time, but there are signs that the No. 48 team is turning the corner.  Johnson had his best performance of the season at our last intermediate oval race.  He won the pole at Texas Motor Speedway, led 60 laps and raced to a fifth-place finish.  He'll carry that momentum into Kansas Speedway this weekend.  For the veteran Hendrick Motorsports star, this is a very timely visit to one of his favorite intermediate ovals. Johnson could build some major momentum heading into the summer months ahead.

Clint Bowyer Bowyer is fresh off a Top-10 finish at the Monster Mile, so he's rolling along well coming home to Kansas Speedway this week.  He comes to Kansas this week a steady 10th-place in the driver standings and looking to continue improving with each race.  The intermediate ovals thus far in 2019 have been really good.  Bowyer has finishes of fifth-, 14th- and second-place on the three 1.5-mile ovals to-date.  The Emporia, Kansas native considers Kansas Speedway to be his hometown track, so you know he'll be fired up for this event.  With Top-10 finishes in five of the last six races entering this weekend, Bowyer should stay on a roll in the Digital Ally 400.    

Erik Jones Jones snapped a month-long slump with his Top-10 finish at the Monster Mile last Sunday.  That puts the young JGR driver squarely back on our fantasy racing radar this week at Kansas Speedway.  Early this season, the Joe Gibbs Racing youngster made real waves on the intermediate tracks.  Jones nabbed seventh-, 13th- and fourth-place finishes at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fort Worth.  He'll be very happy to see a return to cookie cutter oval racing this weekend.  Jones has five-career Cup starts at Kansas Speedway, and the results have been improving to this point.  Last season was his best, and Jones posted seventh- and fourth-place finishes at Kansas Speedway.  We believe he'll pick right up where he left off this Saturday night. 

Alex Bowman Speaking of momentum plays for this week, probably the biggest will be the No. 88 Chevrolet team and driver Bowman.  The young Hendrick Motorsports driver is coming off two consecutive runner-up finishes at Talladega and Dover, and it looks like this driver and team are finally clicking this season after a terribly slow start.  His efforts on the intermediate ovals earlier this season were decent with Top-15 finishes at both Atlanta and Las Vegas and an 18th-place effort at Texas.  Much better results should be straight ahead.  Kansas Speedway has been a good oval for Bowman during his brief career.  Two of his last three starts at the oval have netted Top-10 finishes.  His start here last October yielded a 10th-place qualifying effort and ninth-place finish.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Ryan Blaney It's really tough to put Blaney in the slow down list any weekend, but there are some instances where he's more of a gamble than a safe fantasy racing play.  His last four starts on ovals of this size and configuration have been pure struggles.  It could be that the new aero package has given Blaney some difficulty adjusting to the change in handling.  All three of his finishes this season at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Texas were outside the Top 20, and that despite leading 86 combined laps in those races.  The No. 12 Ford team's qualifying efforts at these 1.5-mile tracks has been poor as well.  Kansas Speedway has been a fairly good oval for the young driver (five Top 10's in eight starts), but we believe it's way too risky to deploy him in the Digital Ally 400. 

Daniel Hemric Any thoughts of using Hemric in deeper fantasy racing leagues or weekly lineup leagues should probably be dismissed at Kansas Speedway.  The Richard Childress Racing rookie showed some real moxie finishing fifth at Talladega recently, but that's been the lone bright spot in a tough rookie campaign.  Hemric enters Kansas weekend a distant 26th in the driver standings, and coming off a tough 25th-place finish at the Monster Mile.  Intermediate ovals have shredded the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet thus far this season.  Finishes of 20th-, 23rd- and 33rd-place at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Texas foretell what to expect from Hemric at Kansas.  It'll be a tough slog.  Saturday night will be his first-ever Cup start at Kansas Speedway, and the learning curve will be pretty steep.    

Ryan Newman The driver of the No. 6 Ford has been busy rebuilding the No. 6 Roush team this season, and doing a good job we might add.  However, this may be a week to pass on Newman and his resurgent team.  The 1.5-mile tracks are normally good venues for Newman, but he's struggled on these midsize tracks to this point in 2019.  Finishes of 13th- 24th- and 11th-place at Atlanta, Las Vegas at Texas are well below historical norms for this driver.  Kansas Speedway is also one of Newman's lesser intermediate ovals.  With just seven Top-10 finishes in 26-career starts at Kansas Speedway, the veteran driver checks in at a lowly 27-percent Top-10 rate at this oval.  Three of Newman's last four Kansas starts have resulted in DNF's.   

Paul Menard Menard is another veteran driver who's been doing great and underappreciated work of late.  Top 10's in two of the last four races have erased what was a slow start to the season for the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing team.  Menard has mostly been a Top-15 finisher on the intermediate ovals this season, but this weekend could be different.  Kansas Speedway has presented a number of challenges to Menard throughout his NASCAR career.  Just six of his 20-career starts at the Kansas oval have netted Top-10 finishes (30-percent).  However, he's experienced a lengthy drought at the facility as Menard has just one Top-10 and two Top-15 finishes at Kansas in his last eight starts.  His average finish across that span is 22.8, which is well above his career average of 18.4.  The trend line is a bit shaky to say the least.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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