Hollywood Casino 400 Preview: Contender Round Commences

Hollywood Casino 400 Preview: Contender Round Commences

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

This week we kick off the Contender Round in the Chase for the Cup. For the 12 remaining drivers in the field, the next leg in the chase for the championship begins. With the points reset, it's like new life for those that struggled to get out of the Challenger Round. For the fourth 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 the Kansas oval we think of the many intermediate ovals on the circuit. This oval may not be exactly like Charlotte, Texas or Atlanta, but it could easily be the most important oval regarding the Chase for the Sprint Cup Series championship by the time we reach Homestead in November.

As we visit 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 5-Hour Energy 400, will be fresh and applicable to the field for this weekend's Hollywood Casino 400. The oval of Kansas Speedway is our second intermediate oval event in the Chase for the Cup. It is one of five races on ovals of this size in the 10-event Chase lineup 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 schedule. So pay close attention this weekend as trends from this 400-mile race will set the stage at upcoming intermediate ovals. While Kansas has typically been a Toyota facility the past few seasons, the pendulum has recently swung in Chevrolet's direction. Our race in May of this year was dominated by Chevy driver Kevin Harvick, but won by another Chevy driver, Jeff Gordon. However, there were a handful of Ford suitors that were close behind. Considering that Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have both been hot entering this weekend, having won two of the first three races of the Chase, they should be top contenders again. Jimmie Johnson was a Top-10 finisher in that May Kansas event, so it could be another race where the No. 48 team can press their relevance forward in the championship picture.

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 13 races at Kansas Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson5.66144785663,042117.4
Matt Kenseth11.64182354872,623107.4
Greg Biffle9.25062052822,755104.7
Jeff Gordon11.6536147482,878101.1
Kevin Harvick9.84682022922,42599.1
Tony Stewart14.34331421522,18497.3
Carl Edwards9.6493131972,35297.1
Kasey Kahne13.3436147612,20893.0
Dale Earnhardt Jr.14.8424108791,98191.5
Kyle Larson12.0516021589.4
Brad Keselowski10.635056821,54089.2
Martin Truex Jr.19.33261312511,79688.8
Aric Almirola15.6108526966988.1
Denny Hamlin15.139969682,00287.7
Clint Bowyer14.029748481,71587.6
Kurt Busch16.54051212361,98087.3
Paul Menard16.226426171,53779.6
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.21.052242630678.2
Kyle Busch21.640459861,63676.8
Joey Logano21.7209529694073.2

The race earlier this season at Kansas Speedway was quite special. It was Jeff Gordon's first of four victories to this point in the season, and his serving notice of how strong the No. 24 Chevrolet team would be on these intermediate ovals in 2014. He led only nine laps that day but came on strong at the right time to defeat the likes of Brad Keselowski and teammate Jimmie Johnson. Gordon has been one of the hottest drivers in the Sprint Cup Series ever since, and used that win to propel him in the championship standings lead that he has held most of the season. Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne were second- and third-place finishers that day, and it was another dominant performance that slipped through Harvick's fingers as the checkered flag waved. For Dover winner Gordon it's a shot at sweeping Kansas Speedway for the season and taking another huge step toward the championship. He has been looking to make headway in the Chase standings, so this is a very timely visit to Kansas Speedway for this driver and team. Aside from the Penske Racing, Stewart Haas Racing and Hendrick Motorsports drivers, the Joe Gibbs Racing stable should be poised for a big weekend. JGR struggled tremendously the last time we visited this heartland oval, and those three drivers and teams will be looking for a bit of redemption in the Hollywood Casino 400. Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch each have strong career records at this intermediate oval, and Kenseth himself is a two-time winner at this facility. With all that Joe Gibbs Racing has been through the last month, big expectations will be the order for all three of these drivers at Kansas. These veteran drivers are just the kind to step up their performance in this important race. We'll highlight the drivers you need this weekend and the ones you need to avoid in order to dominate the day at Kansas Speedway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kevin Harvick -
Stewart Haas Racing has been putting great cars under Harvick on these intermediate ovals this season. He's finished runner-up at Charlotte and Kansas earlier this season, and he's led literally hundreds of laps on ovals of this type in 2014. However, the veteran driver's breaks haven't fallen in his favor to break though for the win. Harvick has great career numbers at Kansas Speedway, so the combination of current performance and history couldn't be better. The driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet has one win and eight career Top 10s at the heartland oval. If Harvick hopes to win the championship he's got to break through for the win this Sunday afternoon.

Jeff Gordon -
Considering that Gordon owns three career victories and 12 Top 10s at Kansas Speedway how can you not like the Rick Hendrick Motorsports star this weekend? Coming off the big win at the Monster Mile, he comes to Kansas Speedway with the momentum squarely in his favor advancing to this next round of the Chase. Gordon out-foxed faster teams in this season's earlier race at the Kansas oval to win and he could very well pull that feat again. The veteran driver rises to the occasion when the stakes are this high, and we should see that on display Sunday in the Hollywood Casino 400.

Brad Keselowski -
The Penske Racing star comes to the heartland oval this weekend looking to advance in this new format of the Chase for the Cup. His big win at Chicago a couple weeks ago setup his advancement to the Contender Round, and he hopes to punch that automatic bid once again since we're visiting another intermediate oval. Keselowski is normally pretty strong on these style tracks as his victory at Chicago to start the Chase shows. He won here in 2011 and he has four Top-10 finishes in nine career starts at Kansas Speedway. Keselowski led 13 laps and battled with the leaders in May at Kansas, but fell short of the win. This time around can only be seen has finishing some unfinished business for the No. 2 Ford team.

Joey Logano -
Logano has been every bit as impressive as his teammate Keselowski on these 1.5-mile tracks in 2014. The driver of the No. 22 Ford won at Texas Motor Speedway earlier this season and that goes along with several Top-5 finishes and laps led on these style tracks. Logano's last two trips to the Kansas intermediate oval have yielded a pair of fourth-place finishes and a total of 96 laps led. How he's come away from those two races without a victory is almost maddening. If there's any driver in the field that can upstage the current Gordon-Keselowski-Harvick battle, it's certainly Logano and his No. 22 team.

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

Matt Kenseth -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star comes to a great track this weekend. Kenseth has owned the intermediate ovals this season and Kansas has been no exception. The veteran driver has won two of the last four races at this facility and finished 10th- and 11th-place when not in winners circle. Kenseth cracked the Top 10 at Chicago a couple weeks ago to start the Chase for the Cup, so the No. 20 Toyota team's current level of performance is well enough. With the championship coming into closer focus with each race, you can bet the No. 20 team will be on their "A" game this Sunday afternoon at Kansas Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson -
Our six-time Sprint Cup Series champion has three poles, two victories and 586 laps led in 16 career starts at Kansas Speedway. Although Johnson hasn't displayed the winning touch on these style ovals this season, the No. 48 team surely feels the urgency of winning in order to become contenders for that possible seventh championship. Considering that Johnson leads the major loop stat 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 in the Hollywood Casino 400.

Kyle Busch -
At four races into the Chase for the Cup, Busch is showing that he will indeed be a championship contender by the time we reach Homestead. Busch has one pole position, 46 laps led and three Top-10 finishes in the first three events of the Chase. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota is fresh off a 10th-place finish at Dover, so he comes to the Heartland this weekend with some real momentum and building team chemistry. Busch has never been that impressive at the Kansas oval, but it appears that has been changing the last couple seasons. His pole and 46 laps led at the intermediate oval in Chicago a couple weeks ago should have the entire team optimistic about this 400-mile event.

Kyle Larson -
It's become very clear that Larson is no longer a sleeper in fantasy racing circles. So he gets the upgrade from the sleepers list to the solid plays list for this weekend's Hollywood Casino 400. The rookie has been like anything but a rookie during the 2014 season. Larson rides a three-race Top-10 streak into Kansas this weekend and he's racing as well or better than most of the Chase field of drivers. His last visit to Kansas Speedway yielded a fifth-place qualifying effort and 12th-place finish. Considering the Chip Ganassi Racing youngster's 20 laps led and brilliant third-place finish at Chicago's similar oval a couple weeks ago, we have high expectations for the No. 42 team this Sunday.

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

Kasey Kahne -
The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet just comes to life on certain tracks and this outing at Kansas should be no different. Kahne is battling some bad luck of late, but looking to change his fortunes at Kansas Speedway this week. Considering he made the next round of the Chase by the slimmest of margins, he should kick it in high gear. He owns three career poles and 100 laps led at the speedway, and four of his last six trips to Kansas have netted a pair of runner-up finishes and four Top 5s. His Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team has been dealing with some consistency issues, but that has to stop at some point. Kahne's career numbers at this oval are simply too good to be ignored, and the upside outweighs the risk in the Hollywood Casino 400.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin has been reversing some of the inconsistent trends he's battled most of the season since the Chase began. Most notably, his performance on intermediate and larger ovals has improved since the late summer. Things are beginning to look more promising coming to Kansas Speedway this Sunday afternoon. Hamlin is a one-time winner at this oval, and has three Top-10 finishes there to his credit. Hamlin's last two starts on intermediate ovals have been much improved with third- and sixth-place finishes at Atlanta and Chicago. The No. 11 JGR Toyota team should continue to build momentum for next season with a good run at the Kansas oval.

Paul Menard -
The Richard Childress Racing veteran has struggled a bit the past couple weeks, but he should be very happy to see the Kansas oval this Sunday. Menard has three Top-10 finishes in his last four trips to this speedway, and that's been the theme this season for the No. 27 team on intermediate ovals. He's posted Top-10 finishes in three of the seven races this year on 1.5-mile tracks. While things have been less than satisfactory for this driver and team of late, we expect an uptick in performance for Menard in this 400-mile race. Crew chief Slugger Labbe and Menard have some very good notes on this oval.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The dark horse sleeper at Kansas Speedway is Truex and the No. 78 Chevrolet team. The FRR driver has been trying to become relevant again on these intermediate ovals, and he's made some headway. His Top-15 finish at Chicago a couple weeks ago is evidence of that. While Truex's level of performance has slipped a bit since leaving Michael Waltrip Racing last season, this driver is still very skilled and capable of performing at a very high level. Truex has a pair of runner-up finishes and a fourth-place finish in his last five trips to Kansas. He finished 21st at Kansas Speedway in May, but we're willing to bet he'll many spots improved over that this weekend.

Ryan Newman -
Historically speaking, this is not that great a venue for Newman. He has one career victory and four Top 10s in 17 starts, but most of those accomplishments came early in his Sprint Cup Series career at Kansas Speedway. The factors to pay attention to this weekend are Newman's Chase status and his recent performances on 1.5-mile tracks. The Richard Childress Racing veteran has Top 10s in three of the seven intermediate oval events of 2014, and he's fresh off a Top-15 finish at Chicago a couple weeks ago. With Newman's participation in the Chase, motivation won't be an issue, and you should get a good effort from the No. 31 team.

Danica Patrick -
Two of Patrick's three Top-10 finishes this season have come on intermediate ovals. It was at this track in May of this year where the No. 10 Chevrolet team raced with the leaders the entire event and she picked up a brilliant seventh-place finish in the 5-Hour Energy 400. Patrick kept this same vibe going recently with a strong sixth-place showing at the Atlanta oval just a few weeks ago. While a Top-10 finish may not be in the cards this time around, it certainly is a good possibility and worth giving the SHR driver the start for that simple fact. At worst, Patrick is likely a safe Top-20 finisher in the Hollywood Casino 400.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Greg Biffle -
The No. 16 Ford team appear to have packed it in for the season. We hate to say that about any team and driver, but after the failure to break into the Top 15 for the third-straight race of the Chase it would appear morale is low. Biffle found himself on the wrong side of the cut after the Dover event and now is eliminated from the Contender Round of the Chase. Prospects for a rebound at Kansas Speedway are low. This used to be an intermediate oval where Biffle flexed his muscles, but outings of late have lacked a lot on the performance side. He's failed to crack the Top 10 in his last four races at this facility and has an average finish of 18.8, which is well above his career average of 10.7.

A.J. Allmendinger -
Another demoralized team and driver would be Allmendinger and the No. 47 team of JTG Daugherty Racing. Clearly dejected after his failure to advance in the Chase, Allmendinger was a tough interview after the Monster Mile. The veteran driver faces an uphill challenge to get up for the Hollywood Casino 400. Intermediate ovals have not been kind to this driver and team in 2014. Allmendinger only has one Top-20 finish on these style ovals this season. His Kansas stats aren't the best either. The driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet hasn't finished inside the Top 20 since 2010 at the 1.5-mile oval and three of his last four starts have been finishes outside the Top 30.

Kurt Busch -
Another of the Chase cut victims lines up to make a likely sub-par start at Kansas Speedway this weekend. Busch missed the cut for the Contender Round and will try to get motivated for the Hollywood Casino 400. It's going to be difficult as the No. 41 SHR team has not been very good at all on these intermediate tracks this season. Busch's lone Top-10 finish in these seven events came a couple weeks ago at Chicago. Otherwise it's been a campaign of finishes all over the map with two disappointing DNF's. The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited Kansas, Busch had a terrible handling car and finished four laps down in 29th-place.

Clint Bowyer -
2014 has been a tough season for the Michael Waltrip Racing star. Bowyer has worked hard to put the scandal of last year's Richmond race behind him and try to stay focused on the racing. However, it's been difficult and had a lot of impact on the No. 15 team. Bowyer is normally been a good start on these style ovals over his career, but his body of work this season is nothing short of a dumpster fire. The veteran driver has one Top-10 finish in these seven events to-date, and an average finish of 24.4. Bowyer's crash and 39th-place finish to start the Chase at Chicago a couple weeks ago looms large on our minds. He finished a very uncharacteristic 23rd earlier this season at Kansas Speedway.

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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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