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Hollywood Casino 400 Preview: Schedule Shake Up

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.

The fourth race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup brings us a new twist in the 10-race lineup. Kansas Speedway gets a second date in the 2011 calendar and becomes a part of the Chase, and an important part in crowning this season's champion. The schedule shakeup this weekend shouldn't be a disadvantage to fantasy racing players, not at all. For it was only four 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 1.5-mile 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. 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, recent races are reflecting more manufacturer parity at this oval. For instance, while Dodge drivers Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski dominated much of the day at Kansas in June, the teams of Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota were all well represented in the Top 10. Considering that race came down to fuel mileage, this event could come down to pit strategy and wise decisions vs. pure horsepower once again.

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 this is the first season we're racing twice at Kansas. 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 seven races at Kansas Speedway.

Greg Biffle4.62981622591,687118.8
Jimmie Johnson6.03332272841,612116.5
Jeff Gordon9.928487351,645107.3
Tony Stewart13.92671271521,483105.3
Carl Edwards9.9265111711,30098.7
Matt Kenseth17.1221981961,31998.6
Mark Martin10.9158211501,12492.7
Kurt Busch16.11931062301,02791.8
Kevin Harvick12.719764351,07389.4
Clint Bowyer12.8133354373086.5
Denny Hamlin15.724044361,06085.2
Brad Keselowski12.398101044384.8
Dale Earnhardt Jr.18.1199615980483.2
Kasey Kahne19.9163393894082.8
Martin Truex Jr.24.7163333287881.3
Kyle Busch20.3236527691579.5
Casey Mears14.9170303084376.2
A.J. Allmendinger15.811011029675.0
Jeff Burton20.313032469574.7
Brian Vickers17.413618048573.5

The race earlier this season at Kansas Speedway was quite special. It was Brad Keselowski's coming out party. While he led only nine laps that day, they were the most important laps of the race. Keselowski used great pit strategy to secure what would become the first of his three victories this season. He's been one of the hottest drivers in the Sprint Cup Series ever since. The other big time player in that race was his Penske Racing teammate Kurt Busch. Despite finishing ninth in the STP 400, Busch led a whopping 152 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. 22 Dodge 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 Penske drivers, Tony Stewart could continue his recent streak of dominance. He is a two-time winner at the intermediate oval and he has started to take center stage in the championship Chase the last few weeks. Smoke is a two-time winner at Kansas Speedway, so it wouldn't be a big surprise to see the No. 14 Chevrolet roll into victory lane on Sunday afternoon. Aside from the Penske and Stewart story lines, are we going to see the five-time champion Jimmie Johnson step up in defense of his dynasty and draw a line in the sand at Kansas? The Hendrick Motorsports star has been struggling to find his stride to this point in the Chase, and it is likely that this event could mark the make-or-break point in his quest to win a sixth straight championship. 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

Jimmie Johnson
Our reigning Sprint Cup Series champion has three poles, one victory and 304 laps led in 10 career starts at the heartland intermediate oval. Although Johnson hasn't displayed the winning touch this season, the No. 48 team surely feels the urgency of winning that sixth straight championship. Considering that the No. 48 team recently led 39 laps and cracked the Top 10 to start the Chase at Chicago, Johnson has the ability to pull a "Hail Mary" victory in this event.

Kurt Busch
The No. 22 team absolutely dominated at this oval earlier this season. Busch only owns three career Top 10's in 11 visits to Kansas Speedway, but he sat on the pole and led 152 laps in the STP 400 at Kansas in June. Were it not for the fuel mileage twist, the Penske Racing star would have likely waltzed into victory lane that day. Busch has likely learned the importance of fuel management after that encounter, so a smarter team and driver should show up for the Hollywood Casino 400.

Carl Edwards
The Roush Fenway star will carry the momentum of a good run at Dover International Speedway into Kansas this weekend. Edwards has six Top-10 finishes in his eight career visits to this intermediate oval, so the numbers are on his side. The driver of the No. 99 Ford led 29 laps here in June and battled at different stages of the race with Kurt Busch. Edwards cracked the Top 5 that day and put his name with the leaders after 400 miles of racing. He'll be in the mix again this Sunday afternoon.

Tony Stewart
Stewart has the Sprint Cup Series trophy well within reach as we enter the fourth race of the Chase. The NASCAR icon peeled off two wins to start this season's Chase for the Cup and instantly became the front-runner to unseat Jimmie Johnson atop the NASCAR world. Smoke's career numbers at Kansas are impressive. He's a two-time winner at Kansas Speedway, and he sports a 73 percent Top 10 rate at the 1.5-mile oval. Stewart led 20 of his 152 career laps led in June's STP 400. Considering the momentum of this driver and team, he's an almost mandatory fantasy racing play this weekend.

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

Kevin Harvick
Let's start with the numbers. He has three Top 10's in his last five trips to Kansas Speedway. Harvick raced in the Top 10 for much of June's STP 400 before the fuel mileage game relegated him to an 11th-place finish. The Richard Childress Motorsports star recently finished second at Chicago's intermediate oval, so the chances of a great run are there. Harvick is focused entirely on the championship, so he'll be going for broke in the Hollywood Casino 400.

Brad Keselowski
Keselowski shocked the NASCAR world with his big victory at Kansas Speedway earlier this season. That win set the young Penske Racing driver on a hot streak that hasn't cooled a bit over the last 16 races since. Keselowski has picked up two more wins and finds himself very relevant in this season's championship picture. As if the win at Kansas Speedway wasn't enough endorsement, his Top-5 finish at the intermediate oval in Chicago to start the Chase should dispatch any fears. Keselowski has used good pit strategy and fuel management more than once this season, and that's a big strength heading to this facility.

Jeff Gordon
Considering that Gordon owns two career victories and nine Top 10's at Kansas Speedway how can you not like the Rick Hendrick Motorsports star this weekend? Those nine Top 10's lead all active drivers at this intermediate oval. Gordon is riding a five-race Top 5 streak at the 1.5-mile oval into this weekend's event. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has been dealing with some bad luck to start the Chase, but that shouldn't be a concern at such a good venue for him historically. Gordon will almost certainly add to his growing pile of Top 10's at Kansas Speedway.

Matt Kenseth
When we visit Kansas we always think of the Roush Fenway Racing Ford teams. Not necessarily as top contenders, but more as steady Top 10 performers. Kenseth has three Top-10 finishes in his last four trips to Kansas Speedway. The veteran driver has great loops stats at this intermediate oval and has led well over 200 career laps there. Kenseth won the pole recently and led 46 laps at Chicago before the fuel mileage bug-a-boo derailed his victory chances. So we're certain you'll see the No. 17 Ford running with the leaders in the Hollywood Casino 400.

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

Kyle Busch
Being four races into the Chase for the Cup, we would like to think the urgency of the championship picture could reverse some trends for Busch this weekend. Busch has only one Top 10 in eight career starts at the intermediate oval, and that's sobering stat for the Hollywood Casino 400 this weekend. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota is fresh off a sixth-place finish at Dover, so he comes to the Heartland this weekend with some Chase hopes. Rather than see Busch as a race winning contender at Kansas, we'd prefer to think of him more as a Top 10 candidate.

Kasey Kahne
The driver of the No. 4 Toyota just comes to life on certain tracks and the outing at Kansas should be no different. Kahne is fresh off a Top 5 at the Monster Mile and looking to carry that momentum to Kansas Speedway this week. He owns two career poles and 77 laps led at the speedway, and two of his last five trips to Kansas have netted Top-10 finishes. His Red Bull Racing Toyota has been in the Top 15 each of the last three races, so the team is racing well coming to this intermediate oval. Kahne should improve upon the 14th-place finish he posted at Kansas in June.

David Ragan
Roush Fenway Racing has been putting great cars under Ragan this season. Despite having only cracked the Top 10 once in five tries at Kansas, the young driver makes a great fantasy racing play this weekend. Ragan finished 13th in June'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 larger ovals have been great venues for the No. 6 Ford team, so we expect to see a good effort from Ragan this weekend.

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 only returned to Top 15 form recently and is not the race-winning driver of two years ago. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet finished ninth 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. Martin's career average finish of 13.4 at Kansas Speedway is a nice piece of assurance heading into this Sunday afternoon.

Regan Smith
The Furniture Row Motorsports driver is having quite a season. Smith enters this weekend ranked a respectable 25th in the series standings with a career-best five Top-10 finishes this season. He will attempt to build on the momentum of his Top 20 run at the Monster Mile with a good effort at Kansas Speedway on Sunday. Smith has only three career starts at the intermediate oval in Kansas, with a career-best finish of 24th that came in this year's STP 400. He's been a Top-20 finisher each of the last four races, and we don't see the prospect of that changing this weekend.

Brian Vickers
The veteran driver of the No. 83 Toyota has been heating up of late. Vickers is riding a three-race Top 15 streak coming to Kansas Speedway this weekend, and he's always been a consistent performer on intermediate ovals. He qualified fourth and finished 16th in this June's STP 400, but we feel as though he can better that mark in this weekend's 400-mile event. Vickers recently parlayed a fourth-row starting spot at Chicago into a 13th-place finish in the Geico 400. We expect Vickers to be a dependable Top-15 finisher in the Hollywood Casino 400.

A.J. Allmendinger
Allmendinger has really been a go-to guy in fantasy racing circles this season. If you play in a weekly lineup league, similar to Yahoo Fantasy Racing, Allmendinger has been a corner-stone driver. The driver of the No. 43 Ford has a pair of Top-10 finishes in his last five races, and he's generally been a Top 15 driver most weeks of this season. Allmendinger owns a pair of Top 10's in his four career starts at Kansas Speedway, so he's no stranger to racing up front at this 1.5-mile oval.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

David Reutimann
While intermediate ovals have been the strength of this driver and team in the past two seasons, the current stock of the No. 00 team is at almost an all-time low. Reutimann is ranked a lowly 28th in the driver standings entering this weekend, with only two Top-10 finishes on the year. His last appearance at Kansas Speedway was an uninspiring 22nd-place finish in June's STP 400. For Reutimann, that's a performance well short of expectations on any 1.5-mile oval. Expect the MWR driver's struggles to continue in Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400.

Joey Logano
Logano is not just slumping, he's currently in the high weeds. The young Joe Gibbs Racing driver has dropped like a rock in the standings the last two months. Logano's current seven-race Top 10 drought has caused him to plummet from 17th to 22nd-place in the championship standings. In his four career starts at Kansas Speedway, he's yet to crack the Top 15. This intermediate oval has been a real puzzle for the driver of the No. 20 Toyota. Logano's average finish of 26.8 at Kansas is concerning enough to keep from deploying him this weekend.

Greg Biffle
The struggles of this Roush Fenway Racing star have been really puzzling. Even more so considering that his teammates Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth are in very close competition for this season's championship. Biffle's hardship in 2011 is best summed up by his contact with the inside wall at Dover this past weekend and disappointing 27th-place finish in the AAA 400. Kansas Speedway has been a great venue for Biffle through the years, but his immense struggle to finish 10th there in June is illustrative of the troubles of the No. 16 team this season.

Jamie McMurray
The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver has had plenty of ups and downs in 2011, but no real consistency has formed. Even tracks where we expect McMurray to be competitive, he somehow falls short of the mark. The No. 1 team finished 29th at Kansas Speedway earlier this season and continued a season of struggles on intermediate ovals. McMurray started the Chase at the similar oval of Chicago with an engine failure and terrible 38th-place finish. This has been the luck of this driver and team this season.