The final race of the Round of 12 will take place this weekend at the Kansas Speedway. With that being said, here are the five things to watch in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 (3 p.m. ET/NBCSN/MRN).
There are currently six open spots to advance to the next round with 10 different drivers vying for them. That will make this weekend’s race very interesting to say the least. It’s anyone’s game and with just 10 points separating seventh through 10th in the standings, the slightest mistake could cost any one of these drivers a shot at advancing to the Round of 8.
Really, there’s a chance several big named drivers could be eliminated from playoff contention this weekend.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. showed us at the end of round one that stage points matter and they matter in a big way. The Roush/Fenway Racing driver nabbed seven stage points in the first stage of the final race of the opening round at Dover. On the flipside, Ryan Newman gained zero stage points that day. Stenhouse advanced to the second round by just two points over Newman.
Will something like that happen on Sunday?
These are 12 deserving drivers to be here and all 12 can get inside the top 10 at any point during this race. They have to be very strategic on where they end up, because they have to be inside the top 10 at the end of both stages. If not, they could miss out on an opportunity at advancing to the Round of 8.
The point above is key, so in order to get stage points, you have to qualify well. Passing up front is hard on 1.5-mile tracks. There’s a reason those cars are there. So, if a playoff driver starts outside of the top 10, they’re going to have a difficult time of getting into there and positioning themselves for stage points in the first stage. That means qualifying on Friday is huge.
Will Past Cup Champions Busch, Kenseth, Johnson Struggle?
Five of the 12 playoff eligible drivers right now have won a Cup championship. But, three of those five could be in danger this weekend. I have Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch on notice. What’s weird is that trio of championship have combined to win six times on the 1.5-mile track.
Kenseth, hasn’t finished outside the top 15 at Kansas since Oct. 4, 2009, but since then though, only five of his last 14 starts at Kansas have resulted in a top five effort. In fact, Kenseth has just one top five finish there over the last eight starts. On top of that, Kenseth has yet to lead a lap on intermediate tracks in 2017 and has scored just two top five finishes in his No. 20 Toyota in nine starts on them all year long.
The defending series champion in Johnson has 14 top 10 finishes over his last 17 Kansas starts. But, the three finishes during that same time frame that resulted outside the top 10 have all come over the last six races there. In fact, his last six Kansas finishes are 40th, first, third, 17th, fourth and 24th respectively. He also still has just one top five finish on intermediate tracks this season and just two top 10’s over his last six starts on them.
Busch, has the best chance of all of them to win, as he’s been stellar on 1.5-mile tracks this season, but he has just one career win at Kansas. Yes, he has four straight top fives there, but he also has recent finishes at Charlotte and Talladega of 29th and 27th respectively. He’s seven points behind Johnson for the final playoff spot.
Will Truex, Busch and Larson Be Ones To Beat Again?
It’s no secret, this trio, not the trio above, are the ones to beat on 1.5-mile tracks in 2017. Truex, has won the last two races on intermediate tracks, including five of his six wins in 2017 coming on them. He’s finished in the top eight in all nine intermediate track races this season including a win at Kansas back in May.
Busch, has had some bad luck lately on those tracks, but if not for that, he would have six straight top five finishes on them. He also has five straight top five finishes at Kansas to his credit.
Larson, has four runner-up finishes in nine starts on 1.5-mile tracks this season and has been strong himself. I look for these three to be contending again on Sunday.