KC Masterpiece 400 Preview: Return to the Intermediate Tracks

KC Masterpiece 400 Preview: Return to the Intermediate Tracks

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 2018, the Monster Energy Cup Series goes intermediate oval racing. We visit Kansas Speedway for the spring event, which debuted in April 2012. The KC Masterpiece 400 takes our competitors back to an intermediate oval after a one-month hiatus from these style tracks. The 1.5-mile oval of Kansas Speedway might 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 incredible trio of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. that have so dominated the

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 2018, the Monster Energy Cup Series goes intermediate oval racing. We visit Kansas Speedway for the spring event, which debuted in April 2012. The KC Masterpiece 400 takes our competitors back to an intermediate oval after a one-month hiatus from these style tracks. The 1.5-mile oval of Kansas Speedway might 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 incredible trio of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. that have so dominated the three cookie cutter oval events to this point will be eagerly anticipating the 400-mile race at Kansas. The intermediate tracks have been kind to this trio early in 2018 and there's no reason to expect that to change now.

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 20 races at Kansas Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson8.79345665814,366107.7
Kevin Harvick8.67364105484,142106.4
Martin Truex Jr.15.15513937133,486100.0
Ryan Blaney10.018046911,19894.6
Kasey Kahne13.6748173633,50690.5
Brad Keselowski13.16391231773,04789.9
Kyle Busch 16.36251653273,18289.1
Kurt Busch15.46291482603,25887.8
Denny Hamlin16.467481743,34487.3
Kyle Larson21.032410831,35387.0
Chase Elliott18.313235457085.3
Joey Logano19.04731802942,37185.1
Clint Bowyer16.843752512,10378.3
Daniel Suarez21.5710027376.0
Austin Dillon17.62251921,02175.7
Paul Menard18.439738242,16975.6
Aric Almirola 20.820853691,07473.6
Ryan Newman20.051323112,17173.1
Jamie McMurray22.446356352,03673.1
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.19.1167372680872.5

Our most recent Kansas winner, Martin Truex Jr., will be challenged to defend his turf this weekend at the Kansas Speedway oval. The Furniture Row Racing star swept both races at Kansas last season. Truex led 104 laps in this event one year ago and out-maneuvered rivals Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick over the closing laps to secure the win in convincing fashion. He's not been in elite form just yet on these intermediate ovals this season, so he's not the clear favorite this weekend. However, it's hard to bet against the driver riding a two-race Kansas win streak into this event. The Stewart Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing camps will pose the biggest threat to Truex's crown this weekend. Kyle Busch and Harvick have won four of the five intermediate oval events dating back to last fall, and are set up to be top contenders for the KC Masterpiece 400. The duo also were the last two Kansas winners prior to Truex's current two-race win streak at the 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 Penske Racing star, Brad Keselowski. The driver of the No. 2 Ford is a one-time Kansas Speedway winner, but he's still seeking his first victory of the 2018 season. Aside from this quartet of drivers, Ryan Blaney should pop back onto our fantasy racing radar screens at Kansas. He has never won at this intermediate oval, and despite his dip in performance over the last month, Blaney is a rebound candidate with a ton of upside this Saturday evening. He nearly won this event one year ago, and he absolutely loves racing at this intermediate oval. There's no doubt that the No. 12 Ford will be up front again this week. We'll highlight the fantasy racing drivers you need this weekend to dominate the Saturday evening at Kansas Speedway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kevin Harvick -
The No. 4 Ford team showed their dominant side again at Dover last week. Harvick seems to reel off victories in strings, so is he heating up for another streak? Kansas will provide the answer. Harvick has won three poles, two victories and three runner-up finishes in his last nine Kansas starts. He finished third- and eighth-place at the Kansas oval last season due to Martin Truex Jr.'s dominance. If we fast forward to this season we see that Harvick has two victories and one runner-up finish on the intermediate tracks in three starts. One of those was a 214-laps led performance at Las Vegas, and the other a 181-laps led performance at Atlanta. The veteran driver of the No. 4 Ford is the guy to beat this weekend.

Kyle Busch -
Considering that it took Busch 13 seasons to finally win at Kansas Speedway, some fantasy racing players may pass up on the No. 18 Toyota team this week. But we would beg to differ. He struggled for many years at this oval, but finally the results have begun to show dramatic improvement. Busch rides a six-race Kansas Top-10 streak into this weekend's action, and that includes a victory in this event in 2016. The Joe Gibbs Racing star's intermediate oval performance has been on point this season, with a victory at Fort Worth and runner-up finish at Las Vegas. Busch is coming off the heartbreaking mechanical failure and DNF at Dover this past week, and he's focused like a laser on keeping his current Kansas excellence in order.

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 fifth- and fourth-place at Atlanta and Las Vegas, the only blemish is his crash at Fort Worth. Truex swept both victories at Kansas Speedway last season, so he's the driver all eyes will be focused on this Saturday night. In this event one year ago the veteran driver started third on the grid, led 104 laps and won his first Kansas victory. We expect to see the Furniture Row Racing star running up front and defending his race crown of one year ago.

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski is a one-time Kansas winner and he sports some solid stats at this heartland race track. His 177 laps led and eight-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 this event one year ago he finished runner-up to Martin Truex Jr. Keselowski is looking to build on the performance he had at Atlanta earlier this year (38 laps led and runner-up finish), and the fact that he finished sixth at a similar oval in Las Vegas earlier in the season only bolsters his contender status for the KC Masterpiece 400. The Penske Racing star is heating up, and he'll be in the mix for the win this weekend.

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

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 driver has not been in race-winning form on these ovals in recent races, but he's been unshakably consistent. He rides a five-race Top-10 streak on 1.5-mile ovals into this weekend's action. Logano has close to 300-career laps led at Kansas Speedway, so he knows how to race up front at this facility. His six-career Top 10s work out to a lowly 35-percent rate, but that number has been on the rise. Logano won't likely be in the mix for the win, but he will assuredly be a Top-10 finisher in Saturday night's KC Masterpiece 400.

Ryan Blaney -
It really shouldn't be any surprise that we endorse the No. 12 Penske Ford team for this week's race at Kansas Speedway. Blaney's intermediate oval experience this season has been pretty good. He has finishes of 12th-, fifth- and fifth-place at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fort Worth. The effort at Las Vegas also netted a pole position for the young driver. Of all the tracks the Monster Energy Cup Series has competed on to this point of the season, the 1.5-mile ovals have been Blaney's best tracks. The young driver loves racing at Kansas Speedway as his stats bear out. Blaney has three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in his six-career starts here. That includes a sweep of the Top 5 last season at the Kansas oval.

Kurt Busch -
Busch's performance on intermediate ovals so far this season has been pretty spot on with a pair of Top 10s in three starts. His current two-race Top-5 streak coming to Kansas is a hopeful sign that the No. 41 team is heating up. Busch's Kansas record isn't the best with only a 33-percent Top-10 rate, but he has been coming on strong here since the 2013 season. The veteran driver has four Top-10 finishes in his last six visits to Kansas Speedway, which has boosted his career average. Busch's last start at the track netted a brilliant runner-up finish last October. A finish between sixth- and ninth-place would be a reasonable expectation for Saturday night.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson has three poles, three victories and 601 laps led in 23-career starts at Kansas Speedway. Of those 23 starts Johnson has converted 17 Top 10s for a staggering 74-percent rate. The Hendrick Motorsports star hasn't been in race winning form in some time, but there are signs that the No. 48 team is turning the corner. Johnson has three Top 10s in his last four races entering this weekend, and on an array of different configurations of tracks. He'll carry that momentum into Kansas Speedway this weekend. For the surging Hendrick Motorsports star, this is a very timely visit to one of his favorite intermediate ovals. We declare the Johnson slump to be officially over.

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, 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 finished ninth- and third-place earlier this season at Atlanta and Las Vegas. He had a rough outing at Fort Worth, but we'll grant him a mulligan for that one. The young driver has eight-career starts at Kansas Speedway with little to show for other than a pair of Top-10 finishes. That history at this track is about to be changed for this driver. Larson has the speed on these ovals, and he'll be in the Top 10 mix in Saturday night's KC Masterpiece 400.

Denny Hamlin -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star hasn't been sharp as a tack on the intermediate ovals thus far this season. That's the primary reason Hamlin is in the sleepers list this week instead of higher up in the article. 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, five Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes in 19 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 moxy to crack or at least challenge the Top 10 this Saturday night. Hamlin's last outing in Kansas was pretty memorable. He qualified on the second row and finished fifth in last October's Hollywood Casino 400.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer is fresh off a runner-up finish at the Monster Mile, so he's surging coming home to Kansas Speedway this week. He comes to Kansas this week a lofty fourth in the driver standings and looking to continue improving with each race. The intermediate ovals thus far in 2017 haven't been homeruns, but they've been more like base knocks and doubles for the veteran driver. Bowyer has finishes of third-, 18th- and ninth-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. Bowyer has found his way back to victory lane in 2018, so there's no limits to what a very motivated Bowyer can do at his hometown track.

Matt Kenseth -
Matt Kenseth made big headlines last week when he signed a part-time racing contract with his old boss Jack Roush at Roush Fenway Racing. The former champion sat out the first 11 races of this season without a ride, but now he'll share the embattled No. 6 Ford with Trevor Bayne for the remainder of the season. While it remains to be seen what rust may have formed since Kenseth's last race was last November, and it remains to be seen what the true potential is of the No. 6 team, we have to give Kenseth some respect for his accomplishments at Kansas Speedway. His three pole positions, two victories, and near-800 laps led at this facility can't be easily dismissed. The veteran driver also has chimed in with 13-career Top 10s (54-percent) at the Kansas oval. He needs to be kept waiting in the wings of everyone's fantasy racing lineups this weekend.

Erik Jones -
While everyone has been talking about the return of Matt Kenseth this week, we'd like to focus on the fellow who took over his No. 20 ride at Joe Gibbs Racing to start the year. Jones has been in a bit of a rut the last month, but he'll look to hit the reset button at Kansas Speedway Saturday night. Early this season, the Joe Gibbs Racing youngster made real waves on the intermediate tracks. Jones nabbed 11th-, eighth- 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 three-career Cup starts at Kansas Speedway, and the results have been very poor to this point. We believe this will be the start where he begins to turn things around at the Kansas oval.

Daniel Suarez -
Speaking of momentum plays for this week, probably the biggest will be the No. 19 Toyota team and driver Suarez. The young Mexican rides a three-race Top-10 streak into this weekend's action, and is coming off a brilliant third-place effort at the Monster Mile last week. His efforts on the intermediate ovals earlier this season were forgettable aside from a Top-15 finish at Atlanta. Suarez made his first two starts at Kansas Speedway last season, and he nabbed a seventh-place finish in this event one year ago. We believe all the indicators look good for the driver of the No. 19 Toyota to keep his current Top-10 streak alive after this 400-mile battle.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
Despite some upward trends in recent weeks, this may be a weekend to lay off the Roush Fenway Racing veteran. Bristol, Talladega and Dover were good ovals for the driver of the No. 17 Ford, but Kansas warrants the slow down list for Stenhouse. His intermediate oval performance this season has been uneven at best with finishes of 16th-, 14th- and 25th-place. His Kansas stats aren't a ringing endorsement either with no Top 10s and only four Top 15s in 10-career starts. Stenhouse's last start at Kansas Speedway resulted in a crash and his first-ever Kansas DNF. He wound up 29th in last October's Hollywood Casino 400. It's best to keep Stenhouse on the shelf for now.

Ryan Newman -
The driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet has fallen into a bit of a rut in recent weeks. He enters Kansas weekend 20th in the driver standings and without any Top 10s on the cookie cutter ovals to this point in the schedule. The 1.5-mile tracks are normally good venues for this Richard Childress Racing driver. However, he's struggled on these midsize tracks to this point. Finishes of 22nd-, 11th- and 27th-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 24-career starts at Kansas Speedway, the veteran driver checks in at a lowly 29-percent Top-10 rate at this oval.

Jamie McMurray -
This has to be one of McMurray's least favorite ovals on the circuit. His Kansas Speedway resume looks like a vast desert as far as accomplishments go. The veteran Chip Ganassi racer has no poles, no Top-5 finishes, and only four Top-10 finishes in 22-career starts at this facility. McMurray has led a scant 54-combined laps in 15 seasons of racing at Kansas Speedway. It all works out to a 21.0 average finish, with many of his finishes being off the lead lap. Given McMurray's recent struggles, this is a huge warning sign to avoid the No. 1 Chevrolet team this week. He crashed and finished 34th last October in his last Kansas outing, and that's not good karma for this weekend.

Alex Bowman -
While Bowman has shown some signs of improvement throughout the spring we have to give some caution to big expectations for this weekend. The intermediate ovals have been rough on the No. 88 Chevrolet team to this point in the schedule, and Bowman is coming off a rather disappointing 23rd-place finish at Dover. Bowman's efforts of 20th-, 16th- and 28th-place at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fort Worth average out to a 21.3 average finish. That's not at all what we would have expected for this driver and team coming into this season. Bowman is still finding his way to a degree in a Cup car, and the challenges Chevrolet teams are facing right now is pretty huge. It's best to keep Bowman on the bench for this Kansas race.

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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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