*Stewart Returns To Kansas As Defending Race Champion, Needing Chase Boost *Bowyer & Edwards Back 'Home' Again At Kansas Speedway *Big Surprise: Johnson Back In Thick Of Championship Contention *On The Line: Kurt Busch Assesses Chase Chances, On...
*Stewart Returns To Kansas As Defending Race Champion, Needing Chase Boost
*Bowyer & Edwards Back 'Home' Again At Kansas Speedway
*Big Surprise: Johnson Back In Thick Of Championship Contention
*On The Line: Kurt Busch Assesses Chase Chances, On NASCAR Teleconference
Stewart Trying To Rebound, Mount Charge
Kansas Speedway hosts the third of the 10 races in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup this Sunday and for one driver the visit to the nation's heartland couldn't come at a better time.
For Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet), the Price Chopper 400 Presented by Kraft amounts to a last stand.
Stewart, a two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, came into the Chase with momentum having won decisively at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Two races into NASCAR's "playoffs," the Indiana native has dug himself a very deep hole. He's not out of contention for a third title, trailing leader Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Freight Toyota) by 162 points, but without a quick turnaround, Stewart definitely will soon be looking toward next year.
At least part of Stewart's pain is self-inflicted. He opted to gamble on fuel mileage two weeks ago at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, running his tank dry with the checkered flag in sight and finishing 24th. This past Sunday's Dover race wasn't much better as Stewart wound up 21st.
Kansas Speedway is one of his best tracks. He's one of two multiple winners at Kansas having visited Victory Lane a year ago and in 2006.
Stewart has four top-five finishes overall in Kansas and has led four of the past five races. He has an average Driver Rating of 99.0 there.
Stewart is one of four Chase drivers to have won at Kansas Speedway, which hosted its first race in 2001. Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet), one of eight drivers within 83 points of leader Hamlin, won back-to-back in 2001-02. Greg Biffle (No. 16 3M/Sherwin Williams Ford) captured the 2007 race while Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowes/Johns Manville Chevrolet) won in 2008.
The Price Chopper 400 marks the only NASCAR Sprint Cup stop at Kansas Speedway in 2010 but that changes next season. The track will host a pair of races in 2011, on June 5 and Oct. 9. The latter event will be the fourth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Bowyer, Edwards Are 'Home Track' Favorites This Week
For two drivers hoping to make up some ground, this Sunday's Price Chopper 400 Presented by Kraft Foods couldn't come at a better time.
Everybody seems to perform better at home and for Clint Bowyer (No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet) and Carl Edwards (No. 99 Aflac Ford), Kansas Speedway is home indeed.
Bowyer, hoping to cut into a 235-point deficit, boasts an 11.0 average finish in four starts at the 1.5-mile track, about 50 miles from his native Emporia, Kansas. He's logged one top-five and two top-10 finishes and can point to some heady Loop Data statistics.
Bowyer is fourth in Green Flag Speed at 161.627 mph.
Edwards, from Columbia, Mo., can call Kansas Speedway home -- if only for the weekend.
His first top-10 finish in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at the track was crucial to landing a seat with Roush Fenway Racing, three victories in a Raybestos Rookie of the Year campaign and quick promotion to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Edwards still chases his first victory at Kansas, coming close in an unforgettable, final-lap duel with Jimmie Johnson in 2008. But Edwards can point to a sixth-best Kansas Speedway Driver Rating of 94.2; two top fives and four top-10 finishes. His 173 Quality Passes rank fourth among Kansas competitors.
Edwards stands sixth after two rounds of the Chase, but is only 73 points off the lead.
Johnson Back Where He Belongs -- In The Thick Of Title Contention
When Jimmie Johnson was bouncing around traffic like a 3,400-pound ping-pong ball en route to a 25th-place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on the afternoon of Sept. 19, some figured that the four-time defending champion was going to have more than a little difficulty winning a fifth title.
Surprise. He's back and with a vengeance.
Johnson more than halved a seemingly daunting 92-point deficit the old-fashioned way, winning the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway this past Sunday and in the process leading the most laps to score a maximum 195 points.
Translation: Johnson -- who went from seventh to second via the Dover win -- is not going to go quietly.
"He's the one that set the standard over the last four years and he's the guy that ultimately we feel we're going to have to beat in this whole thing," said current points leader Denny Hamlin.
Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus feel the same way. They are approaching the Chase in the same manner as the past four years unworried about the ups and downs of a single race.
"I'm not concerned with 'making a statement,' " said Johnson, in his post-race remarks. "At the end of the day, I'm just concerned about where I am in the points.
"A lot of that other stuff, if it's in your brain, you're not thinking about the right things.
"We're moving on. We have to go to Kansas and do the job all over again."
Knaus, asked about the weekend's controversy involving Hamlin and Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet), expressed no interest in whatever mind games might play out as the Chase continues.
"We don't pay a lot of attention to what goes on outside our four walls," he said. "We worry about our race car, our tool box and try to make it right."
On the Line: Kurt Busch Discusses Chase, On NASCAR Teleconference
The 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) was this week's guest on the weekly NASCAR Teleconference, on Tuesday. Following are some excerpts from the teleconference.
Q: How have you learned how to deal with the pressure? Is there additional pressure with the Chase, having won it?
Kurt Busch: It was an amazing 10 weeks. All different types of new scenarios. The excitement level is up at an all-time high. The stress level is at an all-time high. It's something that I thrive off of. I like the competition, the chance to go out there and beat the best.
It's just a playoff atmosphere. You can just feel it in the air. It's just like baseball, firing up in the playoffs soon. It's like football, basketball, you name it. Our 10 weeks are our playoffs. You got to be bringing you're A game every week.
Q. Any difference in your driving style? Have you felt maybe you have to be a little more conservative here at the beginning and will there be a point where you can say now you're comfortable or uncomfortable enough to put a little more 'go' into it?
KURT BUSCH: Well, I actually have the opposite problem. I started off too aggressive in New Hampshire, ended up spinning the car while I was running for third place. You got to just remember, it's 10 weeks and you have to settle in, but at the same time you're amped up and every position counts.
Q. Kurt, when you're on the track in the Chase races, how aware are you of where the other Chasers are? Is your spotter telling you, updating you on what's going on?
KURT BUSCH: No, not at all. We're just staying focused on what we have to do. If we're running fourth on the track like we were at Dover, yeah, I know two Chase guys are ahead of me. The best part about it is there was a larger quantity of Chase guys behind us. You don't necessarily focus on it. When you get towards that final pit stop, you're looking to find any Chase guys you can to finish in front of him.
Q. Kansas is the first of four intermediate tri-ovals left in this playoff. As somebody who has historically been good on those kind of tracks, can you put in perspective how important those tri-ovals are going to be in terms of the championship picture, given there's so many of them?
KURT BUSCH: Yeah, they do make up the largest quantity of a certain style of track. Kansas is pretty different compared to Texas, Charlotte and Homestead.
But, you know, it's a challenging track. We only race there once a year. There's two tracks in the Chase we race once a year, Kansas and Homestead. There's a little bit of an uneasy feeling going there if you don't have a solid notebook because you only race there once a year and it's hard to find that speed.
Q. Now that you've had almost the full season to evaluate the Dodge relationship, I'm wondering if your thoughts might have changed as to whether you prefer being the only Dodge team in getting all the technical attention directly from Dodge or if it would be better to have other Dodge teams out there to perhaps be gathering data that would be helpful?
KURT BUSCH: Yeah, I feel like we've got a great situation with Dodge, that they've got all their eggs in one basket, so to speak, with being with us at Penske Racing. Sometimes the manufacturers position themselves for tire tests. That may have hurt us, it may have helped us, in gathering tire data information. A lot of that comes from the people up in Detroit. That could have hurt or helped us in certain situations.
To me it's great we're in the Chase. We're doing the best we can to bring this championship on home. The Dodge group feels like family. We're all out there racing together.
Q. Kurt, the brother thing one more time. When you're on the track and you see the 18, do you see your brother or do you see a competitor, a rival? What goes through your mind when you're fender to fender with the 18?
KURT BUSCH: All three of those and probably many more. He's my little brother. You know, we're teammates in one aspect; we're competitors in another. You know, I'm the bigger brother, so at the end of the day I want to win, and he's supposed to finish second to me.
There's No Place Like Victory Lane For Gordon At Kansas
Jeff Gordon's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup performance thus far is reason enough why this playoff field is the most competitive in the format's history.
Here are his stats over the first two races of the Chase: an average finish of 8.5, a Driver Rating of 96.5, an Average Running Position of 9.7 and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 90.1.
Still, he has lost 23 points to leader Denny Hamlin. And since Gordon failed to win a race in the 26-race "regular season," he began the Chase 60 points back. Add them up, and it equals an 83 point deficit with eight races to go.
But this weekend's event at Kansas could help to tighten that gap, and end Gordon's career-long wins drought of 57 races.
Gordon won the first two races ever held at the 1.5-mile venue, in 2001 and 2002. Since then, he has gone winless there, but has strong numbers.
He has scored a top-10 finish in four of the last five races -- and a top five in each of the last three (including a runner-up finish last season.)
Over the last three Kansas races, Gordon has an average finish of 3.7, a Driver Rating of 113.2, an Average Running Position of 7.4, a Pass Differential (passes minus times passed) of plus-19, 33 Fastest Laps Run and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 91.4%.
Jeff Burton feels Gordon's pain. His numbers mirror the four-time series champions in almost every category -- including the deficit to first. Despite a runner-up finish at Dover, Burton is currently 80 points behind Hamlin.
Here are Burton's strong stats over the first two Chase races: an average finish of 8.5, a Driver Rating of 100.9 (he scored a rating over 100.0 at both New Hampshire and Dover), an Average Running Position of 9.5, a Pass Differential of plus-25, 32 Fastest Laps Run and a Laps in the top 15 percentage of 78.4%.
Where Burton's and Gordon's number diverge slightly: performance at Kansas.
Burton struggles slightly, posting only one top-five finish in nine career races.
Over the last five -- which includes an inconsistent ledger of two top 10s and three finishes outside the top 20 -- Burton has an average finish of 19.8, a Driver Rating of 73.0, an Average Running Position of 21.1 and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 37.5%.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc. ...
Keep It In The Family: That NASCAR is a family sport is a given. Brothers and sisters have competed against one another literally since the first green flag flew in Charlotte, N.C. in 1949.
So it's not surprising that a pair of siblings, Kurt and Kyle Busch (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota), are in the thick of this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Younger brother Kyle stands third in the standings, 45 points behind leader Denny Hamlin. Kurt, the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, is fourth, 14 points behind his brother.
The duo faced off against one another in just one previous Chase in 2007. Kyle came out fifth; Kurt seventh.
NASCAR's long history of brother acts racing each other for titles began a year after NASCAR was formed.
The legendary Flock brothers, Fonty and Tim, finished two-three in 1951 Strictly Stock (now NASCAR Sprint Cup) points. Tim won the 1952 championship with Fonty ranking third. He won a second title in 1955 with Fonty 11th. Fonty and Tim ranked fifth and sixth in 1953.
The Labontes from Corpus Christi, Texas, Terry and Bobby, remain the only brothers to win NASCAR Sprint Cup championships. Terry is the 1984 and 1996 champion; Bobby won his title in 2000.
Other famous NASCAR Sprint Cup brother competitors include Bobby and Donnie Allison; Geoffrey, Brett and Todd Bodine; Jeff and Ward Burton; Benny and Phil Parsons; Rusty, Kenny and Mike Wallace; and Darrell and Michael Waltrip.
Spoilers of the Week: Spoilers -- drivers outside the Chase field with the potential to win races and steal valuable points from top-12 guys -- have had good success at Kansas since the Chase format began in 2004, with non-Chase drivers winning three out of six times.
Some potential spoilers to watch for this weekend:
* Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 42 Target Chevrolet), who ran fourth last year at Kansas.
* Mark Martin (No. 5 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet), whose Kansas Driver Rating of 100.1 is fourth-best in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
* Brad Keselowski (No. 12 Penske Racing Dodge), 13th last year at Kansas.
There's another trio of 'non-Chasers" who might also be ready to play the spoiler role:
Paul Menard (No. 98 Zecol/Menards Ford); Ryan Newman (No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet) and AJ Allmendinger (No. 43 Insignia/HDTV Ford), all top-10 finishers at Dover.
Allmendinger, in fact, appeared headed for an upset victory at the Monster Mile, leading more than 100 laps before tire trouble intervened.
"With the momentum the team (Richard Petty Motorsports) has had and the confidence he's getting in a stock car, he's a real threat," said Jimmie Johnson of Allmendinger, a former open-wheel/road-course star.
Up Next: Auto Club Speedway
The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup continues next week with its fourth event, the Pepsi Max 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. on Sunday, Oct. 10. (Pre-race at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN, race at 3 p.m.)
This race has been crucial to late-season momentum-building for four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson. He has won the event the last three years.
Seven Chase drivers are winners at Auto Club Speedway: Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth (No. 17 Crown Royal Ford), three wins apiece; and Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards, one win each.
Four-time series champion Gordon, still trying to muster some Chase magic this year, won the very first NASCAR Sprint Cup event at Auto Club Speedway, back in 1997 en route to his second title.
Johnson, whose first ACS win came in 2002, is the speedway's all-time victory leader with four.
The Race: Price Chopper 400 Presented By Kraft Foods
The Place: Kansas Speedway; Kansas City, Kan. (1.5-mile oval)
The Date: Sunday, Oct. 3
The Time: 1 p.m. ET
Race Distance: 400 miles / 267 laps
TV: ESPN2, Noon ET
Radio: MRN/Sirius NASCAR Radio,Channel 128.
2009 Polesitter: Mark Martin
2009 Winner: Tony Stewart
Schedule Prior To Race Day: (Times local/CT)
Friday--Practice, 12-1:30 p.m. Qualifying, 3:40 p.m.
Saturday--Practice, 11:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m. and 12:50-1:50 p.m.