Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – KANSAS CITY, KS – Brad Keselowski added his name to the impressively long and varied list of 2021 winners with a victory at Talladega Superspeedway last weekend.
There have been nine winners through the opening 10 races headed into Sunday’s Buschy McBusch Race 400 (3 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), but notably absent on that list of victors are two of Kansas Speedway’s best, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.
Hamlin, who has eight top-five finishes in the opening 10 races, is a three-time Kansas winner and the defending race winner. In 25 starts at Kansas, the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, has eight top-five and nine top-10 finishes and he has victories in two of the last three Kansas races, dating back to the 2019 Playoff stretch.
Harvick also has plenty of reason to feel especially optimistic about the Kansas 1.5-miler. He is the statistical top mark among current drivers. His wins (three), top fives (10) and top 10s (17) are most among active drivers and his 109.7 driver rating is tops in the field as well. His last win at Kansas was 2018.
The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford has three top-five and seven top-10 runs in the 10 races to date this season, but this is only the second time since 2012 he hasn’t celebrated in Victory Lane already by race number 10. He has a pair of top-10 finishes in his last four races and two top-10s at the three 1.5-mile tracks so far this year.
“Something I tell everybody year after year, whether we’ve had a good year or a bad year, you just never know what the next year is going to bring until you get on the race track,” Harvick said. “The things that people don’t see during the offseason are the things most people don’t see – whether NASCAR changes a little rule here or Goodyear makes a little bit of a change to a tire there. Sometimes it suits you and sometimes it doesn’t. Last year, everything went our way. This year, it hasn’t really gone our way.”
“Our Busch Light team has really done a great job of scratching and clawing for every position that you can get on the weekend. It’s bought us time week after week to get our cars back to where we want them to be. It’s not a position we haven’t been in before. It’s definitely part of the sport and part of the things you have to do to keep yourself going. You are sometimes digging yourself out of a hole and figuring things out. It’s a big science project, I can say that for sure.”
“There are a lot of engineers on a lot of computers burning the midnight oil trying to make sure we start making some headway on getting our cars where we need them.”
Two other drivers certainly worth watching this week in particular include reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott and two-time series champ Kyle Busch – both still looking for their first victory this season as well.
Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, has only four top-10 finishes this season; none on 1.5-mile tracks such as Kansas Speedway. And he’s only led three laps in the last six races of the season. His work at Kansas should make him optimistic, however. He won the 2018 Playoff race at Kansas and has six top-10 finishes in 10 starts. He’s finished sixth or better in four of the last five races there.
Busch, driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, is still looking for his first win with new crew chief Ben Beshore who took that position this season. Busch has a pair of top-five and five top-10 finishes in 2021 but has only led 14 laps on the season. He has scored top-five finishes in all three of the previous 1.5-mile races, however, including a season-best of third at the Las Vegas mile-and-a-half last month.
Busch has earned 10 of his career 12 top-10 finishes at Kansas in the last 12 races there including a win in 2016. He was fifth in his last start at the track, last October.
It is worth noting that Sunday’s race marks the 700th career NASCAR Cup Series start for veteran Ryan Newman. The Roush Fenway Racing driver joins Kurt Busch (730) and Harvick (728) as the only active drivers with at least 700 starts. Newman, who has 18 career wins and whose 51 pole positions is most among active drivers, noted the upcoming milestone with his typical humor.
“Seven hundred starts means I’m old and that’s okay, but it’s a milestone no doubt,” the driver of the No. 6 RFR Ford said. “It just shows that I’m experienced, lost more than I’ve won just like everybody else in this sport and it’s pretty cool to still be doing something this long that I’m so passionate about.”
The lineup for Sunday’s race features last week’s winner Keselowski on pole position with his Talladega runner-up William Byron starting second.
KANSAS READIES FOR THE NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES
The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series resumes competition this Saturday night after a week off with the WISE Power 200 (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) under the lights at Kansas Speedway.
Six races into the season, second-generation star John Hunter Nemechek holds a 20-point edge over Ben Rhodes atop the series driver standings. They are both two-time race winners and also the only two fulltime Camping World Truck Series drivers with a victory to their credit so far in 2021.
This week’s venue, the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway could introduce another new winner, however. Five drivers in Saturday night’s field have earned victories at Kansas previously, including three-time series champion Matt Crafton, who has a record three wins (2013, 2015 and 2020) at the track.
This is one oval the drivers know well. Last year following the pandemic-induced shift in the schedule, the series raced at Kansas three times instead of its usual single stop at the 1.5-mile track. Austin Hill and Brett Moffitt joined Crafton with Victory Lane celebrations. Former series champion Johnny Sauter is the fourth active driver with a series win at Kansas – leading a dominating 101 of the 167 laps to win the 2010 race. And Kyle Busch Motorsport’s namesake driver Kyle Busch is the fifth driver entered this weekend that has won at Kansas. The two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion has collected two victories at Kansas in the Truck Series in 2014 and 2017.
The top three competitors in the Camping World Truck Series driver standings, Nemechek, Rhodes and reigning series champion Sheldon Creed have never won in a truck at Kansas, although Nemechek earned his only career NASCAR Xfinity Series win at the track in 2018, he has two top-five finishes in three Truck Series starts there as well.
Both Nemechek, who drives the No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota and Rhodes, who steers the No. 99 ThorSport Racing Toyota have earned five top-10 finishes in the opening six races of 2021. Nemechek has four top-five finishes with wins in two of the last four races. Rhodes swept the Daytona season-openers winning on the oval and then the road course the following week.
Last year’s Kansas victors are again the drivers to watch this weekend – with two of the three needing a 2021 win to insure their spot in the 10-driver Playoff field. Hill and Crafton – have made good cases to be considered favorites this week. Moffitt announced last week, that going forward he has declared for NASCAR Xfinity Series points and will compete for a championship in that series instead of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Moffitt is not entered this weekend at Kansas, instead Ross Chastain will pilot the No. 44 for Niece Motorsports on Saturday.
Crafton, driver of the No. 88 ThorSport Toyota, eked out a .324-second victory over Christian Eckes in the second Kansas race last year and finished fourth in the first race.
Hill, driver of the No. 16 Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota, led the most laps (65 of 134) and cruised to a nearly 3-second win in the last year’s first Kansas race and took top-10 finishes (sixth and third) in the second two races. Hill, who got off to a rough start to the season, has now earned top-10 finishes in the last four races and moved up 19 positions in the championship standings, to fourth place (74 points behind Nemechek).
Kansas Speedway is statistically Hill’s best track. He boasts a 5.2 average finish in five series starts there.
“Kansas has been really good for us and a place where we’ve always had a lot of speed,” Hill said. “It was awesome to get a win there last summer and felt like we were one of the trucks to beat in the Playoffs, if we didn’t have damage in the left side door.”
Nemechek will start from the pole position this week with his team owner Kyle Busch alongside on the front row. Busch is the only active driver that has won in all three NASCAR national series at Kansas Speedway – collecting two NASCAR Camping World Truck Series trophies in 2014 and 2017, and also four NASCAR Xfinity Series wins (2007, 2014, 2015, 2016) and one (2016) NASCAR Cup Series win.
No driver has ever won back-to-back Truck Series races at Kansas.