By Jared Turner
After a wild start to the Contender Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, it’s on to Kansas Speedway for Race No. 5 of the Chase and Race No. 2 of three in this round.
With Joey Logano having won at Charlotte Motor Speedway and punched his proverbial ticket to the next round, he’s the only one of the 12 remaining title contenders who can breathe easily heading into Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400.
The 11 remaining Chase drivers all still have work to do, as none are assured of joining Logano in the Eliminator 8. However, some among those 11 face a much steeper climb than others.
By far and away the two drivers in the deepest hole are Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr., both of whom endured miserable outings in last Sunday’s Bank of America 500.
Kenseth, who began the Chase as one of the favorites to go all the way to Homestead-Miami Speedway and walk away with the Sprint Cup Series crown, sits last among the 12 Chase drivers and a whopping 45 points out of the lead. For all intents and purposes, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver is going to need to win Sunday’s race in Kansas or the following weekend’s race at Talladega Superspeedway to transfer to the Round of 8.
Kenseth, a two-time winner at Kansas, believes he can get to Victory Lane – which would guarantee him a berth in the next round.
“I’m confident,” he said after finishing 42nd at Charlotte. “I’ve never stood here after a race and been like, ‘I’m really confident we’re going to win next week.’ It’s way too hard to be that confident, but I’m just as confident as I was this morning. We’ve had really fast race cars and even when we’ve been off a little bit, the guys have been figuring out how to get the finishes and get some wins. We’ll just go there, race as hard as we can and whatever happens, happens, and we’ll do the same at Talladega.”
Earnhardt Jr., meanwhile, is 13 points ahead of Kenseth but in a precarious position nevertheless. Unlike Kenseth, Earnhardt has never won at Kansas. The Hendrick Motorsports driver is the series’ most recent winner, however, at Talladega – where he’s actually been to Victory Lane six times. So as with Kenseth, hope springs eternal for driver No. 88 with two chances to make up for a horrible day at Charlotte.
“It ain’t over,” Earnhardt said. “Don’t worry about that. I mean, we don’t have to go to Talladega and be nervous like those guys that are going to have to play it safe. We can just go hard. So, we’ve got a great car that can win that race. We can go to Kansas and run great. I like that track and don’t see why we can’t run great there and maybe win the race there.”
While Kenseth, Earnhardt and the other remaining title hopefuls sweat it, Logano can just cruise the next two weekends knowing that he’s going to be in the Eliminator Round no matter what. He has nothing to lose by going for broke, and he really doesn’t have a lot to gain either. It’s an enviable position to be in – and the Team Penske driver knows it.
“To get to the next round is big,” Logano said. “To be able to have that pressure off of us and to be able to relax and enjoy this next round — don’t get me wrong, there are still two trophies to win — but to have that pressure off and be able to have our batteries charged up and ready to attack when we get to the next round is gonna pay big dividends.”
5 To Watch At Kansas
Jimmie Johnson won at Kansas in May and has a total of three victories at the 1.5-mile track in his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy.
The defending race winner at Kansas is none other than Joey Logano, winner of last weekend’s Chase Contender Round opener at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Matt Kenseth is a two-time Kansas winner and has actually been two Victory Lane here with two different teams – Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing.
Jeff Gordon is a three-time winner at Kansas, having prevailed in the track’s inaugural race in 2001 and also won in 2002 and the spring of 2014. This will be his final Kansas start.
Kevin Harvick conquered Kansas in the fall of 2013 and comes into the weekend on the heels of a second-place finish at Charlotte that followed a win at Dover.