Will NASCAR see its ninth different winner of 2014 under the lights at Kansas Speedway this weekend?
The NASCAR Sprint Cup season is just ten races old and we've already seen eight different winners. Dale Earnhardt Jr, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Joe Logano, and now, Denny Hamlin have all reached victory lane. With the goose egg gone from the win column, these drivers are all-but guaranteed one of those 16 coveted Chase spots.
We head into Kansas Speedway for its first ever night race. Superstars such as Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, and Greg Biffle have all won there multiple times. None of them have won a race this year either. Could Kansas finally be their day, or night rather, to shine? Here are my picks in regards to who will be winner No. 9.
Top Choice - Matt Kenseth
This was a fairly simply choice. Kenseth won an astonishing seven races in 2013 and has emerged victorious in two of the last three Kansas races. Matt has led an impressive 262 of the 801 laps run in the previous three Kansas events - that's 33%. In the last seven races there, he's only finished worse than 7th once and that was still a respectable 11th last fall.
Other Favorites - Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle
Greg Biffle has always been known for being a master of venues like Kansas. Six of Biffle's 19 Sprint Cup wins have come at 1.5 mile tracks and like Jimmie Johnson, he's won at Kansas Speedway twice (2007 and 2010).
Dark Horses - Kyle Larson, Paul Menard, Austin Dillon
Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon are the top ROTY contenders in 2014 and both have been impressive thus far. Dillon procured the pole for the Daytona 500 while Larson has finished inside the top 10 in half the races run this season, coming one position short of victory at Auto Club Speedway. Dillon is also driving the car that Kevin Harvick took to victory lane here just a few months ago.
As for his RCR teammate Paul Menard, the stats speak for themselves. Yes, he only has won Sprint Cup victory and that was back in 2011, but he also has a solid record as of late at Kansas, with three top tens and one top five since the fall of 2012. If you look at Las Vegas, which is a bit of a sister track to its mid-west brethren, Menard had a phenomenal run there this past March and at one point, seemed like the guy who would take home the hardware when it was all said and done. Paul eventually finished 3rd after leading a handful of laps.
Possible Upset - Aric Almirola
I call Aric a possible upset, rather than a dark horse, because he is the driver no one is thinking about. He's being overlooked and disregarded as a possible threat. After a closer look however, you realize that the thought of Almirola earning his maiden Sprint Cup victory at Kansas is much more plausible than originally perceived.
In the two Kansas races last year, Aric came home 8th and 10th after running up front all day, lurking just outside of contention. Go back one more race to the fall of 2012 event. Aric led a total of 69 laps that day and was the man to beat for most of the event. Two right front tire failures tarnished his stellar performance however, relegated him to a disheartening 29th place finish. Watch for Aric to have another strong run this weekend.
As these drives pursue their first victory of 2014, there will be another contingent of racers trying to halt their charge. Team Penske's Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano each have a win this season (two in the case of Logano), and both have shown a lot of strength at tracks similar to Kansas. SHR's Kevin Harvick should also be a formidable adversary this weekend and a favorite for the win.
Since it's the first Kansas race ever run at night, be prepared to expect the unexpected as NASCAR goes racing under the lights in America's heartland.