October 19, 2012 | By Bruce Martin
Keselowski Leads Heading Into Kansas
While Kansas is still famous as the home of Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz” for the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers involved in the “Chase for the Championship” the key to success won’t be following the “Yellow Brick Road” but following the road paved with fresh black asphalt at Kansas Speedway.
The last time the Cup Series was at Kansas in April the track was banked at 15 degrees in the turns. But after that race it was not only repaved but reconfigured with progressive banking going from 17 degrees at the bottom to 20 degrees in the top groove of the track in the turns. The fresh surface and the additional banking have allowed speeds to soar as much as 11 miles per hour over the previous track record.
That is why NASCAR allowed teams to test at the 1.5-mile oval on Wednesday and Thursday before practice officially started on Friday under cold and windy conditions.
And they will all be chasing points leader Brad Keselowski of Penske Racing who has a seven-point lead over “Brickyard Legend” Jimmie Johnson. Keselowski believes he has a point to prove after seeing his 14-point lead heading into last week’s race at Charlotte get chopped in half after he finished 11th in a race that he dominated by leading six times for 139 laps. Pit strategy at the end doomed Keselowski’s hopes of winning the race at Charlotte but he is intent on pickup up his game at Kansas.
“I know I speak for everyone on the Miller Lite Dodge team when I say we can’t wait to get to Kansas to prove that our finish at Charlotte was an anomaly, a blip on the radar,” Keselowski said. “And going to a track where we’ve won before gives us a little extra confidence, although it is a new surface that we’ll be breaking in. We were able to take part in the tire test there a few weeks ago and they did an outstanding job with the repave. It’s smooth and fast, and while it may be one-groove for a few races, I think we’ll see it become a very competitive place. I would definitely like to be the first driver to win on the new surface.”
Keselowski drove to victory at Kansas on the old surface on June 5, 2011 and finished third in this race last year. He has one win, two top-five and two top-10 finishes in five Kansas starts.
But with a new surface this will be a far different race than in the past and that is where it is vital to formulate the right setup for the car.
“We definitely learned a lot about the new surface at Kansas when we did the tire test in August, so we should be able to roll off the truck with some decent speed in the Miller Lite Dodge,” said crew chief Paul Wolfe. “It’s going to be a very fast place, for sure. I don’t think many people are going to venture outside the groove, so passing may be difficult for the first couple of races. That means qualifying will be very important and that’s something we will work on during the practice sessions. We’ve shown speed in our cars throughout the Chase and I expect that to carry over to what is, basically, a brand new racetrack at Kansas.”
There are five races left in the 10-race “Chase” and Keselowski is the leader of essentially a three-driver battle to decide the title. Denny Hamlin, who crashed at Kansas on Wednesday during the test session, is 15 points out. Last Saturday night’s race winner and Emporia, Kansas native Clint Bowyer has an outside shot at contending for the championship as he is fourth in the standings, 28 out. The rest of the drivers behind him, however, will have a difficult time to challenge for the championship over the latter half of this year’s chase.
Keselowski realizes he can control his destiny.
“Every week it's just another opportunity to get ourselves that much closer to having a realistic shot at the championship,” Keselowski said. “Obviously right now I'm very happy with where we're at, to be in the lead and to be halfway through. We're not at the beginning and we're not at the end, but we're getting close to what I would call the beginning of the end of the Chase, that final stretch. And certainly we've had a great start, and we need to keep it going and I feel confident that we can do that, especially here at Kansas.
“The track has been very good to me in the past, but obviously it's much different now with the repave. It's hard to exactly know what to expect, so you have to draw off of past history and thankfully this year we've had a couple of these situations with Pocono and Michigan, and I feel like we've performed respectable at both those tracks. I think we're a little bit faster here today than what we were at both of those tracks on the test days, and that is a good sign for our team.”
Keselowski realizes he will have to fight for this year’s championship against the best driver of the Chase era – five-time Cup champion and four-time Brickyard 400 winner Jimmie Johnson. He is just seven points behind Keselowski and heads to a track where he is the defending winner of this race. He has two wins, five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in his 12 Kansas starts. He finished third at Kansas in April and has a streak of seven top-10 finishes with five of those in the top five.
“It’ll help set the stage for 2013, but the cars will be so much different when we come back that it’s going to be hard,” Johnson said of this week’s test. “But at least we’ll have a data file. That’s what’s really key for the teams is to get a current data file set. So, we’ll have that and I think it’s the right call to let the teams and drivers get on the track. Let’s validate the tire that it’s right in real conditions and let everybody get a feel for it so when we show up on Friday and the NASCAR timer is official that we’re prepared and ready to go racing.”
Third in the standings and 15 points back is Toyota driver Denny Hamlin, who arrived at Kansas on Friday still answer questions about his hard crash into the wall after one of his Goodyear tires failed during Wednesday’s test session. Hamlin admitted he had a “bell run” from the hit and NASCAR officials are keeping a close eye on him throughout the week in case he shows any signs of a concussion.
"They are persistent anyway,” Hamlin said Friday. “They're there calling and texting you before you even wake up wanting to check up on you and they do it all the time. Really, in all type of wrecks that I've been a part of this year -- it's been the next day and the following day that they continue to check up on you to make sure you're feeling okay and things like that. It won't change the way I run. I just think that I'm just the next guy in line that hit a wall hard. When someone wrecks on Sunday, if someone does wreck, they'll be the next one up that's got to go through the scrutiny of basically going through the tests, going through all the questions that you have to answer. It won't affect my weekend, at least for now."
Hamlin is the most recent winner at Kansas in April and that win is included in his three top-five and three top-10 finishes. He was 16th in this race last year.
“It's been eventful, but the track is starting to come around,” Hamlin said of the reconfigured race course. “The groove is starting to widen just a little bit and so we're excited to think that hopefully it's not going to be one groove. Hopefully, there will be some moving around and with that you'll see a more competitive race hopefully. As far as our particular program, we're obviously not racing that car that we would have liked to have raced, but this car was going to be our Texas car anyway. So, it's really not a bad car and we're slowly gaining on it and we feel like we're good in race trim. Just struggling a little bit with qualifying speed trying to get what we need out of it.
"Obviously, with the temperatures being cool, the track has got a lot of grip. The speeds are extremely fast right now, but this car in particular -- we've run a second faster in this one than what we did in the old one, but everyone's now a second faster with the rubber being laid down. Hopefully, there's no rain. That would be the biggest kink that could be thrown into a double-wide race track come Sunday is if rain gets washed out it will be tougher to lay down all the rubber that we spent days putting down. We hope there's no rain. The breeze definitely is a factor in how you drive depending on where the headwind is -- you always drive into the corner with headwind a little bit more than you would the other corners. It's a normal weekend. Honestly, nothing really feels different about it. It will be extreme, track position-sensitive race track and it will be somewhat of an 'X factor' because of that -- because you just hope you have the right strategy at the end of the day to keep your car up front. If you don't, passing will be very tough."
By winning at Charlotte last Sunday night Bowyer is back in the running for the championship but will need some help over the next five races. At least he has some hope while most of the “Brickyard Legends” are in dire straits regarding the championship.
Former USAC star Kasey Kahne is fifth in the standings, 35 out of the lead with time running out. He has no wins, one top-five and four top-10 finishes in 10 previous Kansas starts. He was second in this race last year and eighth back in April.
“The most important thing will be getting rubber down on the new pavement,” Kahne said. “It should make for some better racing on Sunday, and hopefully we can learn some things for the other mile-and-a-half tracks that are coming up.”
Ford driver Greg Biffle is sixth, 43 points out of the lead and Toyota’s Martin Truex, Jr. is seventh, 49 back of the leader.
Two-time Brickyard 400 winner and three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart isn’t giving up on the championship but he is eighth in the standings, 50 points out of the lead with five races remaining. He has two wins, five top-five and eight top-10 finishes in 13 Kansas starts. He was 15th last year and 13th this past April.
“Nobody knows the secrets at a new race track unless they’ve tested, and even then they may not know the secrets,” said the driver from Columbus, Indiana. “It’s a whole new ballgame and it’s totally up for grabs. It’s really anybody’s race.”
Four-time Brickyard 400 winner and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon is ninth in the standings, 50 points out of the lead, but Stewart gets the tie-breaker for eighth position.
Gordon won the first two races at Kansas in 2001 and 2002. Those are his only two wins at this track and part of his eight top-five and nine top-10 finishes. He was 34th in this race last year after his engine failed and finished 21st back in April.
“This is a trip to the 'unknown,” Gordon said of the new Kansas layout. “I liked the old surface, but I'm sure there were reasons - whether it was the foundation or the construction - the track needed a repave. Whatever they put in front of us, we'll just do our best as a team to adapt to it and make the car as fast as possible on the new surface.
“It’s just got a lot of grip and is really fast especially in today’s conditions cool, the wind is not as bad as it has been. It’s going to change on Sunday, it’s going to be warmer, the sun will possibly be out. Things are going to be a lot different on Sunday than they are today. Today we have seen some extremely fast speeds, qualifying is going to be ridiculously fast. We are definitely finding the limits of the tire, the grips level, aerodynamics. From inside the car you’ve got to be extremely committed. It is as fast of a track as I can imagine us being at this year. It kind of reminds me a little bit of Michigan, but maybe even more demanding than that.”
Kevin Harvick is the 2003 Brickyard 400 winner and he is 10th in the standings, 56 points out of the lead. He has never won a race at Kansas, has one top-five and six top-10 finishes in 13 starts. He has finished sixth in the past two Kansas contests.
“I’m not a big fan of repaving anywhere, to be honest, and I enjoyed racing on the old surface at Kansas,” he said. “However, I understand they had some issues with the track that made (repaving) necessary, so obviously it’s what they had to do. Paul (Menard) and the No. 27 team went out there for the Goodyear test in August, so we have some data to go off of entering the weekend that should help us. The guys that took part in the test had good things to say about the track, so we’ll see what we’ve got to work with when we get there on Wednesday.”
And “America’s Princess of Speed” Danica Patrick makes one of her limited Sprint Cup starts this weekend. Her previous record at Kansas in the IZOD IndyCar Series included a pole during her rookie season in 2005, no wins, one top-five and three top-10 finishes in six starts. In her lone Nationwide Series Kansas start in April, Patrick started 15th and finished 15th.
“It’s a fast track sure, but you’re running along the wall a lot of the time and the accidents can be big but at least you’re clipping as opposed to having so far to travel,” Patrick said. “I think that new tracks need to come in, they need to grip up and you need to lay the rubber down. The grip level outside of that is not the same. It’s very different as opposed to tracks that are seasoned. When you get off line it’s going to be really tricky and dodgy for sure. I think the tire here is hard and it doesn’t feel like it’s got a ton of grip. You know there is a lot of track time so hopefully that helps, but I think it’s going to be really tough to pass. I mean I could see that in practice. The times at least in the Cup car, I’m not that fast at all and people could come up behind me and I would just let them go because it’s hard to pass. You take the air away from them because you’re running the same line. It could make it a little interesting in the race if there are not two grooves.”