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Hollywood Casino 400 Preview: Showdown in the Heartland

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.

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 Miami in November. By visiting 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 STP 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. 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 Ford facility in its brief history, the pendulum has recently swung in Toyota's direction. Our race in April of this year was dominated and won by Toyota driver Matt Kenseth. However, there were a handful of Chevrolet suitors that were close behind. Considering that Kenseth has the hot hand entering this weekend, having won two of the first three races of the Chase, he should be a top contender again. Jimmie Johnson was a Top-3 finisher in that April Kansas event, so it could be shaping up to be another Kenseth vs. Johnson battle in the Hollywood Casino 400.

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 11 races at Kansas Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson5.34964395362,556119.1
Greg Biffle8.34652052822,501110.1
Matt Kenseth11.83772174652,366110.0
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.11.0272226165101.7
Jeff Gordon13.4443102392,46299.0
Tony Stewart13.74011371521,98497.5
Carl Edwards10.4427123911,95096.1
Martin Truex Jr.19.23071312511,68293.4
Kevin Harvick11.341091352,00992.0
Kasey Kahne14.1378133391,86391.9
Mark Martin13.8311422101,95291.0
Clint Bowyer13.127544481,55391.0
Denny Hamlin14.035969681,74489.8
Aric Almirola20.049526933689.4
Brad Keselowski9.329626171,21389.1
Kurt Busch16.63511162361,69087.8
Dale Earnhardt Jr.16.433778601,47186.8
Kyle Busch21.139159841,50679.0
Paul Menard17.121818171,17776.8
Juan Pablo Montoya19.6259281578272.5

The race earlier this season at Kansas Speedway was quite special. It was Matt Kenseth's second of seven victories to this point in the season, and his serving notice of how strong the No. 20 Toyota team would be on these intermediate ovals in 2013. He led 163 laps that day and crushed the field in a dominant victory. Kenseth has been one of the hottest drivers in the Sprint Cup Series ever since. Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson were second- and third-place finishers that day, but were merely distant dots in the rearview mirror to Kenseth considering how strong the No. 20 Toyota was that day. For Dover winner Johnson it's a shot at Kansas redemption. He has been looking to improve his Chase standing, so this is a very timely visit to Kansas Speedway for this driver and team. Aside from the Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports drivers, the Michael Waltrip Racing stable should be poised for a big weekend. Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer were both Top-5 finishers in the STP 400. The duo has strong career records at this intermediate oval, and Truex himself has flirted with victory lane here on a couple occasions. With all that Michael Waltrip Racing has been through the last month, big expectations will be the order for both Truex and Bowyer at Kansas. These veteran drivers are just the kind to step up their performance in this important race. We'll highlight the fantasy racing 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

Matt Kenseth
The championship standings leader 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 the last two races at this facility and in dominating style. Kenseth won the pole position and led 163 laps in April's STP 400. That was Kenseth's fourth victory on 1.5-mile tracks in 2013. With the championship coming into reach, you can bet the No. 20 Toyota team will be on their "A" game this Sunday afternoon at Kansas Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson
Our five-time Sprint Cup Series champion has three poles, two victories and 556 laps led in 14 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 that sixth 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 97 laps led, two runner-up finishes and three Top-5 finishes in the first three events of the Chase. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota is fresh off a fifth-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 should change this weekend. We'd be surprised if the JGR star isn't mixing it up with Johnson and Kenseth for the win this weekend.

Martin Truex Jr.
The dark horse contender to win at Kansas Speedway is Truex and the No. 56 Toyota team. The MWR driver has been a solid performer on the 1.5-mile ovals this season with three Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes in the seven races dating back to Las Vegas. While Truex's level of performance has slipped a bit since the start of the Chase, this driver and team are still performing at a very high level. Truex has a pair of runner-up finishes and a fourth-place finish in his last three trips to Kansas. He led 46 laps and finished fourth at Kansas Speedway in April, so you know the team's note book will be in heavy use this weekend.

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

Clint Bowyer
The No. 15 team is still alive in the championship quest, albeit by a very slim margin. Bowyer sits eighth overall at 51 points behind leader Matt Kenseth. He comes to his "hometown" oval this week at Kansas Speedway with some momentum and motivation to finish well in the Hollywood Casino 400. Bowyer owns five career Top 10s in 10 visits to Kansas Speedway, but three of those have come in his last four visits. He started 10th on the grid in April's STP 400 and finished an impressive fifth after 400-miles of action at the Kansas oval. We could be in for a similar performance with the championship in the balance.

Kevin Harvick
Richard Childress Racing has been putting great cars under Harvick on these intermediate ovals this season. He won at Charlotte in late May, and he's picked up five Top-10 finishes in the seven 1.5-mile oval races of 2013. Harvick has great career numbers at Kansas Speedway, so the combination of streak and history couldn't be better. The driver of the No. 29 Chevrolet has six career Top 10s at the heartland oval, and two of those have come in his last four visits. Harvick may be leaving RCR after the 2013 season, but he's finishing his career with this team on a strong note.

Greg Biffle
The No. 16 Ford team have flexed their muscles on Biffle's best tracks this season. With a victory this summer at Michigan and Top 5s at places like Fort Worth, Pocono and Loudon, it's plain to see that this veteran driver has been good this year at his favorite ovals. Biffle absolutely loves racing at Kansas, as his two career victories at this speedway attest. He's riding a two-race Top-10 streak into Kansas this Sunday, so the level of performance is high and without question. Biffle has led close to 350 career laps at Kansas Speedway and he cracks the Top 5 at an amazing 50 percent rate here. If there's a sleeper in the solid plays list, this Ford driver is it.

Kasey Kahne
The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet just comes to life on certain tracks and the 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. He owns three career poles and 78 laps led at the speedway, and his last four trips to Kansas have netted a pair of runner-up finishes and four Top 10s. His Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team has been dealing with some bad luck, 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.

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

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
This pick flies in the face of historical data, but he's riding the hot hand coming into the Hollywood Casino 400. Earnhardt has only six career Top 10s in 14 starts at Kansas Speedway, but it's his recent body of work that has our attention heading into Chase race #4. He followed up his 17 laps led and sixth-place finish at Loudon with an even better performance at Dover last week. Earnhardt won the pole and led 80 laps en route to the runner-up finish. The No. 88 Chevrolet team is on fire coming to the heartland oval this Sunday. Earnhardt finished runner-up at this oval in 2011, so he's capable of big things in Sunday's 400-mile contest.

Kurt Busch
The Furniture Row Racing star has been incredibly strong on intermediate ovals this season. Busch has three Top 5s and four Top 10s in the seven races of this year on ovals of this size and configuration. That includes an impressive fourth-place finish to start the Chase a few weeks ago at Chicago. Things should be no different now that the series visits Kansas Speedway. The No. 78 team's notebook will come in handy this Sunday. Busch piloted the team's Chevrolet to Top 10s in the last four-straight intermediate oval events. They have these facilities dial-in right now and they're firing for effect.

Jeff Gordon
Considering that Gordon owns two career victories and 10 Top 10s at Kansas Speedway how can you not like the Rick Hendrick Motorsports star this weekend? Well, this weekend should be no different. Gordon rides a three-race intermediate oval Top 10 streak into Kansas this Sunday. The No. 24 team started the Chase off with a strong sixth-place finish at the similar oval in Chicago. Gordon finished 10th in this event one year ago, so he's a proven performer in this particular race. The veteran driver rises to the occasion when the stakes are this high, and we should see that on display Sunday at the Kansas oval.

Ryan Newman
Historically speaking, this is not that great a venue for Newman. He has one career victory and four Top 10s in 15 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 Stewart Haas Racing veteran has Top 10s in four of the seven intermediate oval events of 2013, and he's fresh off a Top-10 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. 39 team.

Joey Logano
We're going to buck historical trends with this driver as well. In eight career trips to Kansas Speedway, Logano has yet to hit the Top 10. In fact, he finished a disappointing 39th here in the spring after a crash and DNF. We believe the driver of the No. 22 Ford will reverse these trends with his Sunday performance in the Hollywood Casino 400. Logano has been a top performer on the intermediate ovals this season with four Top-5 finishes in seven races to this point. He's led 111 lap and cracked the Top 5 three of his last four 1.5-mile oval events. There's very little hope of a championship at this point for the Penske Racing driver, but he's not failing to perform.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The pending Rookie of the Year is finishing the 2013 campaign strongly. Stenhouse has a pair of Top-10 finishes in the last four races, and he even won the pole position at the intermediate oval in Atlanta a few weeks ago. Nothing should slow down the surging driver of the No. 17 Ford at Kansas Speedway. Stenhouse finished eighth at the similar oval in Chicago to start the Chase for the Cup and he finished a respectable 11th in April at the Kansas oval. We expect a solid Top-15 performance from this Roush Fenway Racing driver on Sunday afternoon.

A.J. Allmendinger
Allmendinger will make another start in the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Toyota this weekend. The journeyman driver has generally been a Top-20 finisher this season and even more so on the intermediate ovals. Allmendinger finished 21st at Chicago to start the Chase with this team, so he was just a tad outside the Top 20. However, the record for this driver in 2013 is pretty clear. Allmendinger has one career pole position and 44 laps led in just three starts at this oval. So it's obvious that he likes racing at Kansas Speedway.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Brad Keselowski
The Penske Racing star comes to the heartland oval this weekend looking to shake his recent bad luck and inconsistency. Keselowski is normally pretty strong on the intermediate ovals, but three of his last four starts on these style tracks have netted finishes outside the Top 30 with two DNFs. The driver of the No. 2 Ford is a one-time Kansas winner and he has four Top 10s in seven career starts at the intermediate oval. However, recent inconsistency makes him a risky fantasy racing play for the Hollywood Casino 400.

Juan Pablo Montoya
It could be that Montoya's thoughts are shifting towards his gig next season in IRL. Clearly something is distracting the EGR driver as his late summer hot streak has cooled heading into the Chase. Montoya had a string of four Top 10s in six races between July and August. However, the last four events have seen the No. 42 team come back to Earth with only a pair of Top 20s over that span. Montoya has only one Top 10 in seven career starts at Kansas Speedway, and his finish here in April was a disappointing 27th-place finish. Need we say more?

Brian Vickers
While Vickers has done an admirable job in the No. 55 Toyota on the short tracks this season, the intermediate ovals have been another story all together. The journeyman driver has two Top 10s vs. two DNFs in five starts on ovals of this size and configuration in 2013. His last outing at Chicago to start the Chase was an engine failure and terrible 38th-place finish. While we can't blame that on Vickers, the trend is truly disturbing. Inconsistency is the word that comes to mind. In eight career starts at Kansas Speedway, Vickers has only one Top-10 finish to his credit. There is better fantasy racing options for the Hollywood Casino 400.

Denny Hamlin
Hamlin's malaise continued at the Monster Mile this past weekend. The Joe Gibbs Racing star finished a subpar 20th in the AAA 400 and extended his current Top 10 drought to an eye-popping 15 races. Things don't look very promising for a turnaround at Kansas Speedway. Hamlin is a one-time winner at this oval, but his 30 percent career Top 10 rate places this facility in his bottom third of the Sprint Cup Series tracks. Hamlin's last three starts on intermediate ovals have been disasters with DNF's in each. Continue to stay away, far away from the No. 11 Toyota team.