It’s a clean slate starting today at Kansas Speedway…And it isn’t.
This year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup enters the Contender Round today in the Heartland, and the remaining 12 drivers in championship contention have had their points reset to 3,000 each – no bonus points for Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and Jeff Gordon following their respective Challenger Round victories.
But while everybody’s on even footing going into today’s Hollywood Casino 400, the biggest story arc of the Chase is likely to remain intact: Team Penske vs. Hendrick Motorsports.
The aforementioned Keselowski and Logano gave Penske two wins in the Challenger Round, while Gordon put Hendrick on the board with a win last weekend at Dover.
Those wins no longer matter thanks to the lack of bonus points. However, the two squads have been the class of the field on 1.5-mile ovals like Kansas and Charlotte Motor Speedway – which will host the first two races of the Contender Round before the elimination race at Talladega Superspeedway.
Keselowski’s won three times on 1.5-milers this season (Las Vegas, Kentucky, and the Chase opener last month at Chicagoland), while teammate Logano has one such win from this past spring at Texas. As for the Hendrick camp, Gordon (Kansas in the spring), Johnson (Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte), and Kahne (Atlanta) have each contributed a single win on these ovals.
And when you look back at the Kansas spring race this year, Penske and Hendrick drivers made up four of the Top 5 finishers: Gordon in first, Kahne in third, Logano in fourth, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in fifth. Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick was the sole exception in second – although one could argue that the Penske/Hendrick bloc indeed swept the Top 5 in that race since Hendrick supplies SHR’s engines.
At this point, it would appear that the blindingly fast but seriously snake-bitten Harvick is the one most likely to muck up the Penske/Hendrick fight.
He’s on the pole today and should have a say in the outcome, but bad luck such as the flat tire that derailed a likely win for him last weekend at Dover has to disappear from here on in.
The question, of course, is will it? And the answer, of course, is uncertain. Especially this week, as Kansas has proven very tricky in the lead-up to today.
Speeds have been noticeably high and we’ve seen multiple incidents in practice and qualifying (one driver in particular, potential spoiler Kyle Larson, thinks we could be in for a rough Sunday after a somewhat messy Nationwide event yesterday). Like New Hampshire two weeks ago, this Contender Round opener may degenerate into a battle of attrition.
But if they can avoid the potential mayhem, look for today to be settled between Penske, Hendrick, and “Happy.”