Stock Car Challenge preview: Kansas
Expect more high drama as the Chase for the Cup and the final segment of the Stock Car Challenge enter their third weeks at Kansas Speedway. A total of four points separate the top three drivers, 10 points separate the top four, and 18 points divide the top five. So you know the Chase for the Cup competitors will be on the top of their games this weekend. Lineup choices will not be easy.
Kansas Speedway is hosting only its seventh event this week, but has been host to several notable championship battles so far. In 2001, Jeff Gordon won the first-ever event at Kansas en route to clinching his fourth championship. In 2002, Sterling Marlin suffered an accident that killed his title hopes.
Kansas resembles its "sister" speedway, Chicagoland, as both 1.5-mile tracks debuted in 2001, but there are subtle differences between the two due to climate. Drivers should expect to find multiple grooves at Kansas. As the track surface matures, grooves widen, giving the drivers more lane choices. Fuel mileage was a key in last year's race, but no one can predict the final caution. Crew chiefs make sure to plan ahead for green-flag runs. A mature track leads to more racing and tougher decisions, such as when to pit and how many tires to take.
Keep an eye on the non-Chase drivers as well. In two of the past three races, a non-Chase driver has won the LifeLock 400. Two of six Kansas races have been won from a top-two starting position, but the past two have been won by drivers who started outside the top 10. In 2001, Tony Stewart won from the lowest starting position ever in six races at the site (21st).
Tony Stewart (23.5): Stewart has a win and a fourth-place finish in the past two races at Kansas. He has three top-5 finishes and five top-10 showings at Kansas. His average finish is 6.5. In the past two races at the site, he has a series-best average running position of 5.7, and his 497 laps in the top 15 are second-best during that span. He also has a series-best 71 quality passes in the past two Kansas races. NASCAR defines quality passes as passes of cars in the top 15 while under green-flag conditions. This season, Stewart has four top-10 finishes in the past five races. Stewart has never finished lower than 14th at Kansas and has placed in the top four a total of three times.
Jeff Gordon (23.6): A fuel pump problem took Gordon out of contention last year at a track where he usually dominates. He finished in 39th after 238 laps, but look for a strong rebound performance from him at Kansas this week. Gordon has won twice at Kansas and has four top-10 finishes at the site. He won the first two races at Kansas and had never finished lower than 13th at the track before last season's troubles. Gordon is clinging to a two-point lead over Stewart and will be primed for a strong run. He has finished 11th or better in each of the past three races, including a pair of top-5 finishes.
Jimmie Johnson (22.8): Whether you pick Stewart or Gordon to anchor your team, Johnson will fit nicely in the second spot in your lineup. He has yet to win at Kansas, but Johnson has three top-10 finishes at Kansas. His average running position of 5.9 is second-best among all drivers at Kansas in the past two races. During that span, he also leads all drivers with 74 fastest laps run and 518 laps in the top 15. Johnson has started in the top five a total of four times at Kansas. In last year's race, he led for 105 laps.
Clint Bowyer (20.5): Bowyer is a native of Emporia, Kan., and he finished in ninth place in his first-ever Nextel Cup race at his "home site." In that race, he had an average running position of 8.8, and spent 199 of the 267 laps in the top 15. He had 21 of the fastest laps run and the fourth-fastest green-flag speed. He also had 31 quality passes. "I've got so many family and friends who will be there and then there's everyone who I used to race with. It's just everything that goes along with racing an hour-and-a-half away from where I grew up," Bowyer told NASCAR.com. Emotion could fuel Bowyer to contend for his second career victory.
Greg Biffle (19.2): He looks like one of the best bets from the non-Chase drivers to push for a win. He is coming off a second-place finish at Dover, and has two top-5 finishes at Kansas. In the past two races at the site, his average running position of 6.5 is third-best among current drivers. His 68 fastest laps run is second-best during that span, and he has spent 496 laps in the top 15 during that period, third-best among current drivers.
Bobby Labonte (17.1): Labonte has finished in the top 17 in three of the past four Kansas races. Plus, he has an added incentive this week. He is shooting for a final finish in the top 15. He currently trails 16th-place Casey Mears by 160 points and 15th-place Biffle by 184. If he succeeds, it will be the best Petty Enterprises finish since 1998. "Everyone has their own goals until the end of the season," Labonte told NASCAR.com. "A lot of people are focused on the championship, but every team has a battle to fight.
Juan Pablo Montoya (16.3): He managed a 10th-place finish at Dover, to slightly extend his lead over David Ragan to 15 points for rookie of the year honors. It was Montoya's first top-10 finish since late July, and he's a good value choice as he tries to hold on to the lead for ROY honors.
Casey Mears (18.7) is another fine bargain selection. He has finished second and eighth in his past two Kansas races. Brian Vickers (15.9) has finished eighth and 11th in his past two Kansas races, and he's yet another top value to consider. Carl Edwards (21.9) has two top-10 finishes and an average finish of 10.3 at Kansas. Kyle Busch (22.0) has 67 quality passes in the past two Kansas races, second-best among active drivers.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.