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Price Chopper 400 Preview: Intermediate Ovals Matter

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

We're only two races into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and many things have already happened to this point. Most drivers are still in the hunt for the championship, while a couple others have already taken a big hit and will have to battle uphill for the rest of the Chase. This week the Sprint Cup Series visits the 1.5-mile oval of Kansas Speedway for the one and only race at the venue this season. Kansas Speedway is the first of four intermediate ovals in the Chase lineup of tracks. All the teams will be paying close attention to set-up and handling this weekend, because these ovals make up 40 percent of the races that crown the Sprint Cup champion. Lessons learned at Kansas could help a driver to walk away with the championship at Charlotte, Texas or Miami.

Since we're making the first visit to an intermediate oval in some time, we need to take a brief look back in history. These numbers will be even more important than normal, since the series only visits Kansas Speedway once per season. As you'll see in the table below, some of the hottest drivers in the series are making a very timely start at Kansas this weekend. Here are the loop stats for the last five races at Kansas Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson6.62172042841,189122.6
Greg Biffle4.21811171991,170119.6
Jeff Gordon12.01974561,123104.7
Mark Martin8.212518150940100.1
Tony Stewart17.0163585695299.0
Carl Edwards11.6173714082494.2
Matt Kenseth21.41137317079493.7
Brad Keselowski13.0452122593.4
Clint Bowyer11.096354358593.4
Casey Mears8.6154262983988.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr.20.6158495972487.6
Martin Truex Jr.27.0121303266584.7
Kasey Kahne17.6120231171183.9
Kurt Busch18.2109547850082.0
Kevin Harvick15.097151957781.2
Denny Hamlin19.011828265480.9
A.J. Allmendinger13.0744020480.1
Kyle Busch21.8156436550274.4
Elliott Sadler18.011319259174.4
Jeff Burton19.88621247973.0

If Jimmie Johnson hopes to win a record, fifth straight Sprint Cup Series championship, it could all begin at Kansas Speedway this weekend. However, he will have to contend with red-hot Joe Gibbs Racing star Denny Hamlin and Kansas ace Greg Biffle. Biffle won this event in 2007 and he dominated a large part of this race last season before finishing third. Biffle has led well over 250 laps at the heartland oval, and finished in the Top 3 in each of his last three starts there. The other big time player this weekend should be our championship standings leader Hamlin. He has been rock solid this season on intermediate ovals with wins at both Ft. Worth and Darlington as well as a pole win at Atlanta recently. Hamlin doesn't have a very impressive resume at Kansas Speedway, but the surging driver of the No. 11 Toyota has his eyes on the prize, and that's the Sprint Cup Series championship. That should be enough motivation to make a run at victory lane this weekend. Aside from this duo Tony Stewart could pop back onto our radar screens at Kansas. He is a two-time winner at the intermediate oval and he has had very good cars in recent weeks. Smoke won this event one year ago in a very opportunistic fashion so it wouldn't be a big stretch to see the No. 14 Chevrolet roll into victory lane on Sunday afternoon. Aside from the Chase story lines, 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

Greg Biffle
Let's start with the numbers. One win and five Top 5's in the last six starts for Biffle at Kansas. We're right in the middle of a great stretch of the Sprint Cup schedule for Biffle, and as he showed us at Dover last weekend the sky could be the limit again this Sunday. The No. 16 team has led laps and run up front virtually every visit to Kansas and this weekend should be no exception. The Roush Fenway veteran is always in the mix with the leaders at Kansas Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson
He has two poles, one victory and 178 laps led in his last three starts at the heartland intermediate oval. Although Johnson hasn't displayed the winning touch of late, the No. 48 team raced with the leaders at Atlanta recently and led a vast majority of the laps at Chicago a few weeks ago. This team's intermediate oval program is not in doubt at all. Kansas Speedway presents the four-time defending Sprint Cup champion with an excellent opportunity to scratch the win column early in the Chase.

Denny Hamlin
Considering how well Hamlin and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team raced to enter the Chase for the Cup, it's not surprising to see them in the contenders list each week. Hamlin doesn't have a stellar Kansas record, but he did post a career-best fifth-place finish in this event one year ago. In his last intermediate oval outing the Joe Gibbs Racing star led the first quarter of the Emory Healthcare 500 at Atlanta before his engine expired. We're willing to bet the team has worked out the bugs in the engine program by now.

Tony Stewart
The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited an intermediate oval, we saw Stewart and the No. 14 team stroll into victory lane at Atlanta. The NASCAR icon was very strong that evening, leading 176 of the 325 laps run. Smoke's career numbers at Kansas are impressive as well. He's a two-time winner at Kansas Speedway, including this event one year ago. Stewart cracks the Top 5 at a 44 percent clip at the Kansas oval so you know he'll be racing with the leaders this weekend.

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

Carl Edwards
The Roush Fenway star will carry the momentum of a good run at Dover into Kansas this weekend. Edwards has four Top-10 finishes in his last five visits to the intermediate oval, so the numbers are on his side. The health of the No. 99 team's intermediate oval program is doing well right now as well. Edwards led 32 laps and finished runner-up at Atlanta just a few short weeks ago. We know that with the Chase for the Cup on his mind, Edwards will deliver at Kansas.

David Reutimann
Intermediate ovals have been the strength of this team and driver for the last two seasons. Reutimann collected a win at Chicago earlier in the summer and he won a rain-shortened event at Charlotte last season. The No. 00 Toyota team unloads fast Camry's for the Michael Waltrip Racing star at 1.5-mile tracks, and Kansas should be no exception. He finished a career-best eighth in this event one year ago and we believe Reutimann can better that mark in the Price Chopper 400 this Sunday afternoon.

Jeff Gordon
Considering that Gordon owns two career victories and seven Top 10's at Kansas Speedway how can you not like the Rick Hendrick Motorsports star this weekend? He's finished in the Top 5 in the last three visits to Kansas and he's been almost flawless on intermediate ovals this season. Gordon has been a few notches off peak performance of late, but that should be a concern at such a good venue for him historically.

Clint Bowyer
The No. 33 team has really come on of late, and Bowyer is looking to finish well in the Chase despite the penalty he received for his win at New Hampshire. Bowyer owns two career Top 10's in four visits to Kansas Speedway, and he finished a stellar fourth at the similar oval in Chicago a few weeks ago. The Richard Childress Racing star has been one of the hottest drivers in the series the last two months, and that roll should continue at Kansas Speedway.

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

Jamie McMurray
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing has been putting great cars under McMurray recently. Despite having only cracked the Top 10 twice in seven tries at Kansas, the veteran driver makes a great fantasy racing play this weekend. McMurray won the pole, led 72 laps and finished fifth at the similar oval in Chicago earlier this summer. He started the Chase with good runs at both New Hampshire and Dover so the good finishes should keep on coming this weekend.

Jeff Burton
Burton should continue his good performances on intermediate ovals this season with a good run at Kansas Speedway. The Richard Childress Racing veteran driver raced with the leaders at both Chicago and Charlotte recently and posted great seventh- and fourth-place finishes in those events. His Kansas resume is pretty strong as well with two Top 10's in his last four trips to the heartland oval.

Kasey Kahne
The No. 9 Ford just comes to life on certain tracks and the outing at Kansas should be no different. Kahne owns one career pole and 50 laps led at the speedway, and two of his last three trips to Kansas have netted Top-10 finishes. His Richard Petty Motorsports' Ford was pretty strong at Chicago in July, and we typically look at the 400 as a good indicator of performance for this race. Kahne should challenge the Top 10 in the Price Chopper 400.

Martin Truex Jr.
David Reutimann won't be the only MWR team racing with the leaders this Sunday. Teammate Truex should follow his lead well. The No. 56 Toyota team finished 11th and 12th at both Chicago and Atlanta and Truex showed the same muscle as teammate Reutimann. The veteran driver has led 32 laps in his last three Kansas starts combined, but the finishes have not followed. We're willing to bet this trend will change this time around. A career-best effort could be in store for Truex this weekend.

Paul Menard
If you're looking for help in deep leagues or weekly lineup leagues this weekend at Kansas, Menard is a driver to consider. While the season as a whole has been an up-and-down affair for the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 98 team, there have been some bright spots along the way. Menard posted one of his three Top 10's this season at Chicago and he had a fast car at Atlanta before an engine failure derailed a possible Top 10 run there. A Top-20 finish seems very likely at Kansas Speedway.

A.J. Allmendinger
Allmendinger has found a streak of consistency this season. It's really remarkable what he's been able to do in the RPM No. 43 Ford. The upside with this driver is always tremendous. Allmendinger has two career Sprint Cup starts at Kansas Speedway with ninth- and 17th-place finishes the result. He forged Top 20's at both Chicago and Atlanta recently, so unless bad luck strikes the No. 43 team should be a Top 20 candidate at Kansas as well.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Mark Martin
Historically speaking, this is a great venue for Martin. One win and four Top-10 finishes at Kansas Speedway would normally place the No. 5 team in the solid plays list this week. However, Martin has struggled through the 2010 season. With only seven Top 10's on the season and none in the last seven races entering this weekend, it's hard to be optimistic about his chances. Martin's last two starts on intermediate ovals have yielded 15th- and 21st-place finishes. Not what we expect from the legendary driver.

Kyle Busch
We would like to think the urgency of the championship could reverse some trends for the Joe Gibbs Racing star this weekend, but we're very pessimistic about his chances at Kansas. Busch has only one Top 10 in six career starts at the intermediate oval, and that's very ominous statistic for the Price Chopper 400 this weekend. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota finished an unspectacular 17th at the similar oval in Chicago earlier this summer, and that is not the kind of performance you expect from Busch.

Ryan Newman
Newman was wildly successful earlier in his career at the heartland intermediate oval. His first three visits to Kansas Speedway netted one victory and two runner-up finishes. Since 2004 it's been tough plowing at the 1.5-mile oval for the veteran driver. Newman has failed to crack the Top 15 in his last six visits to Kansas. Despite his momentum entering this event, we have to be very wary of the No. 39 team on Sunday.

Kurt Busch
Another good Chase driver that hits the flops list this week is Busch. This is mostly due to his poor career record at the facility. The No. 2 team has been a good performer on intermediate ovals this season, and that's reason for optimism. However, Busch's two Top-10 finishes in nine career starts at Kansas Speedway has us concerned. Recent trips to this oval have yielded mostly Top-20 finishes for this team, and that's not a good enough reason to roll the Penske Racing star in your fantasy lineups.