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5-Hour Energy 400 Preview: Heartland Showdown

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 third time in 2014, the Sprint Cup Series goes intermediate oval racing. We visit Kansas Speedway for the spring event, which debuted in April 2012. The 5-Hour Energy 500 will take our competitors back to an intermediate oval after a one-month hiatus from these style tracks. The 1.5-mile oval of Kansas Speedway may 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 Duck Commander 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" variety so the handling characteristics will be much the same. One thing is for certain, the Penske Racing dynamic duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano that so dominated at both Las Vegas and Texas will be eagerly anticipating the 400-mile race at Kansas. The intermediate ovals have been kind to this duo early in 2014 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 this event is only entering its third season in the Sprint Cup Series schedule. 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 12 races at Kansas Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson5.35664705422,812118.9
Matt Kenseth11.84002324862,564109.6
Greg Biffle8.74722052822,574106.9
Jeff Gordon12.5474109392,66999.6
Tony Stewart13.74011371521,98497.5
Carl Edwards9.9457125912,16696.6
Kevin Harvick10.44241401732,20895.9
Martin Truex Jr.19.23221312511,79191.5
Kasey Kahne14.2397133391,99091.1
Clint Bowyer13.229644481,71490.1
Dale Earnhardt Jr.15.636696701,73889.9
Denny Hamlin14.837869681,94289.2
Brad Keselowski10.331446691,36389.2
Kurt Busch15.43891202361,86189.0
Aric Almirola 17.556526941187.6
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.20.549242630486.3
Paul Menard16.124625171,43980.5
Kyle Busch22.239359851,54376.9
Jeff Burton20.32013251,08172.0
Jamie McMurray20.52242371,04670.6

Kansas ace Matt Kenseth will be challenged to defend his turf this Sunday afternoon at Kansas Speedway. Kenseth is a two-time winner at this 1.5-mile oval, and he won this event one year ago. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has led 500 career laps at the heartland oval, and he cracks the Top 5 at a strong 38-percent rate. The Ford camp will pose the biggest threat to Kenseth's recent dominance this weekend. The Penske Racing duo of Keselowski and Logano has been pure money on these cookie cutter, intermediate ovals this season. Keselowski is a one-time winner at Kansas and Logano has two Nationwide Series wins here in his NASCAR resume. Given what these two drivers have done at Fort Worth and Las Vegas earlier this season we have to pay special attention to Penske boys at Kansas. The other big time player this weekend should be Stewart Haas Racing star Kevin Harvick. He won at Kansas Speedway last October during his farewell tour with Richard Childress Racing. Harvick owns over 200 laps led at this intermediate oval and a decent 44-percent Top-10 rate at Kansas Speedway. Aside from the Gibbs drivers, Penske drivers and Harvick, Jeff Gordon could pop back onto our fantasy racing radar screens at Kansas. He is a two-time winner at the intermediate oval, and despite his lackluster 39th-place showing at Talladega this past weekend, Gordon is a rebound candidate with a ton of upside this Sunday afternoon. He finished runner-up in our last intermediate oval race in Texas. Aside from the Gordon, Harvick, Kenseth and Keselowski story lines, we're certain that Jimmie Johnson will again manage to assert himself despite his problems at Talladega this past weekend. The Hendrick Motorsports star is still winless after race No. 10 and should be hungry coming to Kansas Speedway. He has by far the best loop stats at this facility of any driver in the Sprint Cup Series. 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

Matt Kenseth -
In keeping with the Joe Gibbs Racing theme this week at Kansas, we have to give a hearty recommendation to the No. 20 Toyota team. Kenseth's two victories in the last three races here bode well going into the 5-Hour Energy 400. The veteran driver has great loop stats at this intermediate oval and has led 500 career laps there. Kenseth is still looking for his first victory of 2014 so he can punch his ticket into the Chase. So motivation to be out front won't be in short supply. The combination of a strong driver history at Kansas Speedway is going to meet Gibbs horsepower, so anything is possible in this 400-mile event.

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski is a one-time Kansas winner and he sports some solid stats at this heartland race track. Two of his last three trips to the 1.5-mile oval have yielded Top-10 finishes. Considering that the No. 2 Penske Racing team posted a win at the intermediate oval in Las Vegas and it won the outside pole and led 85 laps a Texas a few weeks ago, we challenge you to find a team performing at a higher level at these style ovals entering this weekend. Keselowski is looking to put behind him a controversial performance and accident last Sunday at Talladega, and the best medicine for that would be a strong run at Kansas Speedway Sunday afternoon.

Joey Logano -
If Logano can find lightning in a bottle again, like he did at Texas, we could see the No. 22 Ford in victory lane for the first time ever at Kansas Speedway. The Penske Racing driver is still building on his subpar Kansas resume, but that's of no concern considering how this driver and team has performed on the intermediate ovals dating back to last fall. Logano has 218 laps led, two poles, one victory and four Top-5 finishes in the seven 1.5-mile oval events dating back to last September's Chicago race. That ranks him as one of the Top-5 performers on these style tracks over the span. Logano will be in the hunt for the win at the end of the 5-Hour Energy 400.

Kevin Harvick -
The No. 29 Chevrolet team showed us some real grit at Talladega this past week. Harvick marched through a field of strong competitors to salvage a seventh-place finish at the Alabama super speedway. Hopefully things will be a bit easier this Sunday afternoon as the Sprint Cup Series visits Kansas Speedway. Harvick won here last fall in a dominating performance with his old RCR No. 29 team. He won the pole and led over 100 laps en route to the victory. That experience should prove invaluable to his SHR No. 4 team. Looking for his third win of the young season, Harvick should take away a lot from that performance last September. Happy Harvick should indeed be that after 400 miles of action on this intermediate oval.

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

Jeff Gordon -
Considering that Gordon owns two career victories and 11 Top 10s at Kansas Speedway how can you not like the Hendrick Motorsports star this weekend? Those 11 Top-10 finishes are second only to his teammate Jimmie Johnson at this intermediate oval, and nine of those are also Top 5s. Gordon had a fantastic car this past week at Talladega Superspeedway, but an untimely accident ended his chances for a Top 5 late in that race. Given Gordon's recent performances on intermediate ovals (five Top-10 finishes in the last seven starts) he should be pretty dialed-in for Sunday's 400-mile race.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson has three poles, two victories and 562 laps led in 15 career starts at Kansas Speedway. Although the Hendrick Motorsports star hasn't displayed the winning touch of late at this oval, the No. 48 team can show up with a race-winning car any weekend. Of those 15 starts Johnson has converted 13 Top 10s for a staggering 87-percent rate. The veteran driver led 34 laps and finished sixth at the similar oval in Las Vegas earlier this season. Considering all the numbers you have to feel pretty confident in Johnson's chances to come home inside the Top 10 in the 5-Hour Energy 500.

Kasey Kahne -
The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet turned in two solid performances in our two prior intermediate oval events this year, and we just can't shake those performances from our mind heading into this one. Kahne earned eighth- and 11th-place finishes at Las Vegas and Texas, and he's looking for more heading to Kansas Speedway this Sunday. He owns three career poles and 78 laps led at the heartland speedway, and four of his last five trips to Kansas have netted Top-10 finishes. In this event one year ago, the veteran driver finished a strong runner-up to race winner Matt Kenseth. Hendrick Motorsports has been pretty solid on these ovals and Kahne should continue to race with the leaders Sunday afternoon at Kansas.

Carl Edwards -
The Roush Fenway star is searching to rediscover that championship-contending form, and he's gotten off to a good start at that this season. Edwards enters the weekend fifth in the championship standings and racing well each week. He claimed finishes of fifth- and 14th-place at Las Vegas and Texas. So the No. 99 Ford team isn't far off the career marks on these style ovals in 2014. Edwards' Kansas resume shines with nine Top 10s in 13 career starts, which works out to a stellar 69-percent career rate at this oval.

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

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer will be racing at his home state track this weekend for the 5-Hour Energy 400. That's usually a good reason to select a driver for a spot fantasy racing start. The No. 15 MWR Toyota team are coming off a strong Top-5 finish at Talladega and finally building some momentum after a slow start to the season. In fact, this intermediate oval has been a good venue for the veteran driver over the years. Bowyer owns five career Top 10s at the facility and two of those have come in his last three starts at the track. With a steady finish of eighth-place in the series' last race on a 1.5-mile oval (Texas) the driver of the No. 15 Toyota has to be looking forward to this one.

Greg Biffle -
Let's start with just the numbers. He has two wins and nine Top-10 finishes in 15 career starts at Kansas Speedway. We're right in the middle of a great stretch of the Sprint Cup schedule for Biffle, and as he showed us at Fort Worth a few weeks ago another potential run at the checkers could be in store. The No. 16 Ford team has led laps and raced up front virtually every visit to Kansas and this weekend should be no exception. With 346 career laps led at this heartland oval, Biffle is no stranger to leading the pack here. This could be the start of a good Top-10 streak for the Roush Fenway Racing veteran.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Considering how hard Earnhardt has worked this season to be competitive, it's no wonder that you often find him in our solid plays or sleeper's list each week. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet sports only a 47-percent career Top-10 rate at this week's oval, but it's his 2014 work ethic that trumps that a bit. Earnhardt had 51 laps led and great runner-up finish at the similar oval in Las Vegas a few weeks ago. The NASCAR icon sports Top 10s in two of his last three trips to the Kansas oval, and that's good enough to warrant some serious fantasy racing consideration.

Martin Truex Jr. -
Intermediate ovals have been the strength of this driver for a number of seasons. As Truex showed this past week at Talladega, he can get to the front and mix it up with the Top 10 in this Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet. Kansas is no different for the No. 78 Chevrolet team. Truex owns three Top-5 finishes in his last four trips to Kansas Speedway. In this event one year ago he led 46 laps and narrowly lost the race to Matt Kenseth. We expect to see the FRR veteran racing up front and competing for that second Top-10 finish of the season in Sunday's 5-Hour Energy 400.

Paul Menard -
Richard Childress Racing has been putting good cars under Menard this season. He's cracked the Top 10 five times in 2014 and sits a respectable 17th in the driver point standings entering this event. Menard rides a three-race Kansas Top-10 streak into this Sunday's 5-Hour Energy 400. When the Sprint Cup Series last visited Kansas Speedway last October, it was the No. 27 Chevrolet team that battled and finished an impressive seventh in the Hollywood Casino 400. Menard is certainly worth a look for this Sunday's 400-mile race.

Aric Almirola -
Almirola has really changed his fortunes on these 1.5-mile ovals in the last couple seasons. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver posted a respectable 12th-place finish in our last intermediate oval race which came at Texas Motor Speedway just a month ago. When we look at his Kansas experience we find that the driver of the No. 43 Ford has had a good recent run there. Almirola finished eighth- and 10th-place in his two starts at this oval last season. He even led 69 laps here in the fall of 2012 before an untimely crash erased his opportunity to crack the Top 10 in that event. This maturing driver building a good resume at Kansas Speedway, and Sunday's start should be another quality outing.

Kyle Larson -
He's been the strongest of our vast rookie field in 2014, so it really shouldn't be any surprise that we endorse the No. 42 Chevrolet team for this week's race at Kansas Speedway. Larson's intermediate oval experience dating back to the end of last season has been pretty consistent. He earned a good 15th-place finish in last season's finale at Homestead. In the two events of this season, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver has pegged 19th- and 5th-place finishes on the board. Larson has no Nationwide or Cup Series starts at Kansas, and that's about the only downside we can find. However, the young driver's experience and skill should overcome any first-time jitters.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Kyle Busch -
Historically speaking, this is not that great of a venue for Busch and the No. 18 Toyota team. Despite being one of the top drivers in the series recently on intermediate ovals, his Kansas luck and stats are so bad one has to step back to appreciate it. Busch has 13 career starts at the 1.5-mile track and only two Top-10 finishes in those races. That works out to a lowly 15-percent rate. His last three starts at Kansas Speedway have resulted in three crashes and DNF's with finishes outside the Top 30. Busch hasn't cracked the Top 10 at the Kansas oval since the spring of 2012.

Kurt Busch -
The 10th race of the season is a good check up point for Busch and his new Stewart Haas Racing No. 41 team. The report card is a bit of a mixed bag. Ten events into the 2014 season, the veteran driver has one victory, two Top-10 finishes and finds himself a disappointing 27th in the driver point standings. Busch has had good cars this season and deserves more than the two Top 10s, but the luck and breaks have not gone his way. The two intermediate oval races to-date have netted the veteran 26th- and 39th-place finishes at Las Vegas and Fort Worth. Busch's career 25-percent Top-10 rate at Kansas Speedway is a clear indication to stay away this weekend.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
Things have been pretty tough this season for the sophomore driver. Stenhouse just earned his third Top 10 of the season at Talladega, but that ended a five-race Top 10 drought. Intermediate ovals have been struggle for the Roush Fenway Racing driver. Stenhouse has only one Top-15 finish in his last six starts on these style ovals. His last three efforts alone have been 22nd-, 27th- and 26th-place finishes. The young driver's Kansas report card is short, but inconsistent. He earned 11th- and 30th-place finishes there last season. All-in-all it's better to stay away from the No. 17 Ford team this weekend at Kansas Speedway.

Justin Allgaier -
While his racing has improved dramatically in the first 10 events of 2014, there are still some soft spots in the No. 51 team's armor. Allgaier has proved handy on the short tracks and even on the larger ovals, but the 1.5-mile tracks have been a real puzzle to this point. The HScott Motorsports driver has four efforts on these ovals dating back to last fall's Chicago race. The results have been 27th-, 39th-, 31st- and 24th-place finishes. Checking in at a hefty 30.3 average over that span is less than inspiring. Allgaier's only career Cup start at Kansas last fall resulted in a crash and DNF.