Column: NASCAR Cup & XFINITY Headed To The Heartland; Previewing Weekend In Kansas

Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – KANSAS CITY, KS – Playoff hopes and Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championship dreams are on the line this weekend as the series heads to Kansas Speedway for Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 (2:30 p.m. Et on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

The outcome of this race will determine which eight of the current 12 Playoff contenders will advance to the next round.

Only Dover International Speedway race winner Kyle Larson and Talladega Superspeedway winner Ryan Blaney show up in Kansas City calmed by the knowledge they’ve earned an automatic bid to the Round of 8. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin – a four-time winner this season – holds an eight-point advantage over his JGR teammate, six-race winner Martin Truex Jr.

A third JGR teammate, regular season champion Kyle Busch, is third in the standings, 15 points behind Hamlin. Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick, a three-time winner this season is next followed by Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski (seventh) and Joey Logano (eighth).

Logano currently sits in the eighth and final transfer position with an 18-point advantage over ninth place Alex Bowman. Hendrick Motorsport’s Chase Elliott is 10th, 22 points behind Logano. Clint Bowyer is 11th, 24 points back. And Hendrick Motorsport’s driver William Byron is 12th, 27 points beyond the cutoff.

Alex Bowman was runner-up to race winner Brad Keselowski in the May Kansas 400-miler, with Chase Elliott and Kansas-native Clint Bowyer finishing fourth and fifth respectively. Elliott is the defending winner of this Playoff race

It all presents dramatic possibilities at the 1.5-mile high banks in the country’s Heartland.

Eight current Playoff drivers are among the top-10 in Driving Rating, led by three-time winner Harvick. Logano, Truex and Keselowski are the only other multi-time winners among the current Playoff field with a pair of Kansas trophies each. Hamlin and Kyle Busch are the only other former Kansas winners among the 12 Playoff drivers.

Three-times the winner of this race was not among the Playoff contenders – Joe Nemechek in 2004, Tony Stewart in 2006 and Greg Biffle in 2007.

Historically-speaking, there is good motivation among those drivers who are trying to race into the Round of 8. Three Hendrick Motorsports drivers are in that group of four still vying for a chance to advance and the organization is the winningest at Kansas Speedway with seven wins. Elliott won this race last year and three-time Kansas winner Jimmie Johnson – who is not part of the Playoff mix for the first time in his seven-championship career – won last in 2015.

In recent years, Kansas has truly been a venue featuring parity among teams and manufacturers. In the last decade, Team Penske has three wins and Stewart-Haas, and Hendrick Motorsports have two apiece. Truex won twice in this time period with Furniture Row Racing – the only season sweep (2017) ever at Kansas. And Joe Gibbs Racing, which currently features the top-three drivers in the standings, has only one win in that time – Kyle Busch in Spring, 2016.

That’s five Ford wins (Penske and Stewart-Haas), three Toyota wins (Truex and Joe Gibbs Racing) and a pair of Chevy wins from Hendrick.

It all makes for an incredibly suspenseful race filled with highly-motivated competitors. And drama to come.

“I can’t wait to get to Kansas this weekend,” said Bowman, driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. “I feel like I gave that one away in the Spring. I know that the car we are taking there is really good. That’s one of my favorite tracks, regardless of everything.

“I am looking forward to getting there and it definitely is a race that puts on a great show. This track is probably the best place to showcase the current rules package.”

PLAYOFF’S ROUND OF 8 BEGINS AT KANSAS

Eight drivers begin the three-race, NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoff’s Round of 8 in this Saturday’s Kansas Lottery 300 at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

The series returns to Playoff action after an off-week and will compete at a unique venue in that the past two years, the Kansas Speedway race has been won by a non-Playoff driver. Current championship leader Christopher Bell won this race in 2017 when making only a handful of starts. And current series rookie John Hunter Nemechek won this race last year as part of a limited Xfinity schedule. The two join Nemechek’s father, veteran Joe Nemechek, as the only three previous Kansas winners entered this week.

The eight drivers who advanced to this round – in order of their points positions – are Bell, fellow seven-race winner Cole Custer, defending series champion Tyler Reddick, two-race winner Austin Cindric, veteran Justin Allgaier, rookie Chase Briscoe, veteran Michael Annett and rookie Noah Gragson. Bell holds a 12-point edge over Custer. Defending champ Reddick is third, 18 points back.

Gragson is last in the standings, but trails fourth place Austin Cindric by only 12 points; only four drivers advance to the Homestead-Miami Speedway championship race.

Of those, only Bell and Gragson have hoisted trophies in Kansas Victory Lane. Bell won the 2017 Xfinity race and Gragson won last year’s NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race from the pole position.

Bell would certainly like to regain that 2017 winning form. He suffered the first of two consecutive Playoff DNFs at Kansas last year, completing only two laps on the Kansas 1.5-mile high banks. Bell arrives at the track with an admirable 2019 Playoff track record already, however. Of the eight Playoff drivers, he has easily led the more laps (257) in the previous Playoff races than any of his current competitors. Next on the list is the rookie Briscoe, who has led 92 laps.

Defending series champion Reddick boasts the best average finish at the track – 3.5 in two starts, followed by Allgaier who has averaged an 11.6 finish in eight Kansas starts. Among the eight Playoff drivers Reddick also has the best average finish (5.0) on 1.5-mile tracks like Kansas this season. Gragson (6.7), Annett (7.0) and Custer (10.7). Bell’s average finish on 1.5 milers this season is 12.9, ahead of only Allgaier (13.1) among the Playoff eligible.

“Kansas is such a fun track to race on,” said the 21-year old Gragson, driver of the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet. “We were able to get the win there last year in the Truck Series after winning the pole and I feel really confident that we will unload with that same kind of speed this weekend.

“We’ve kept this momentum on our side through the first round of the Playoffs and hopefully we can keep that going on Saturday and put ourselves in a really good position as the Final Four gets closer.”

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