Kansas could set tone for Chase, point to possible title winner

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Yet this track in the heartland is one of the most important on the Sprint Cup circuit, because, more than any other venue in the Chase, it's the tone-setter of the playoffs. Why? Because five of the 10 races in the Chase take place on intermediate-sized tracks like Kansas that are 1.5 to 2-miles in length, and Kansas is the first of these on the schedule. A driver who runs well here, more often than not, will have the upper-hand at the other four intermediates on the schedule: Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. (Oct. 10); Charlotte Motor Speedway (Oct. 16); Texas Motor Speedway (Nov. 7); and Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 21).

Look at the statistics. During his four-year title binge, Jimmie Johnson's average finish at Kansas is 6.75. Last year the drivers who finished in the top-3 in the standings -- Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon -- came in ninth (Johnson), seventh (Martin), and second (Gordon) at Kansas. A driver can still win the championship without running well at Kansas, but in the six-year history of the Chase, that's never happened. Not once. The driver who won the title with the worst finish at Kansas was Johnson in 2006 when he wound up 14th, but that's deceiving. Why? Because Johnson dominated that day (he led a race high 105 laps) but ultimately was snookered in a game of fuel mileage in the final laps. Other than that race, every eventual Cup champion in the Chase era has finished ninth or better at Kansas.

So who should we watch closely on Sunday afternoon when the Cup boys fire their engines in this significant race? Here are the five I'll be keeping my eyes on.

1. Jimmie Johnson

One week after it looked like his title chances were on life support, Johnson dominated last week at Dover, leading the most laps and winning the race. He jumped from sixth to second in the standings and this week a palpable here-we-go-again vibe has fallen over the entire sport.

How will he do on Sunday? Put simply, if he doesn't have a mechanical issue or get caught up in another driver's wreck, Johnson should be the driver to beat. He finished second earlier this year at Chicagoland -- the sister track of Kansas --and Johnson has a feel for this place like no other driver. He can run high or low; he can pass almost effortlessly; and he can seemingly make his No. 48 Chevy stick to the track even when other drivers are sliding all over the place. In other words, I like his chances. Not exactly going out on a limb here -- he's my pick to win.

2. Denny Hamlin

Hamlin is maturing before our eyes. As he watched Johnson pull away from him last Sunday at Dover, Hamlin was first inclined to push his car to the limit and try to catch the four-time defending series champ. But Hamlin thought better. Instead, he calmly took care of his equipment, hit his marks through the turns, and finished ninth. He now carries into Kansas a 35-point lead in the standings -- the biggest ever in the Chase era after two races.

How will he do on Sunday? Hamlin says he just wants a top-5 and then he'll go for wins at some of his stronger tracks in the Chase, places like Martinsville, Texas, and Homestead. It says here he'll accomplish his goal at Kansas.

3. Jeff Gordon

Gordon, very quietly, is looking like he's going to be a factor later on in the Chase. He probably isn't going to win a single race in the playoff, but he could very well rip off 10 straight finishes of 11th or better and steal the championship if the other drivers -- namely, Hamlin and Johnson -- slip up and have problems.

At Dover, which traditionally has been one of Gordon's best tracks in the Chase, he came in 11th and he's now eighth in the standings. But he should be able to make up some ground on other Chase drivers on Sunday, because he typically excels at Kansas. He has two career wins at the 1.5-mile track and he finished second here last fall.

4. Kurt Busch

Busch, who is SI's pick to win it all, remains right on schedule. His weakest tracks in the Chase are early in the playoff, and so far, so good for the 2004 Cup champion. He finished fourth at Dover and, through two races, is fourth in the standings.

Kansas is another of those tracks where he's simply hoping for a top-10. In nine career starts at Kansas, Busch's average finish is 19.7. That won't get it done on Sunday. Busch is gunning for another top-5. If that happens, watch out. Because Busch, like Hamlin, firmly believes his best tracks all fall in the second-half of the Chase.

5. Carl Edwards

Edwards needs to make a move this weekend. After finishing fifth at Dover, he's sixth in the standings. I still think Edwards will be one of four drivers with a legitimate shot at winning the title when the circuit rolls into Homestead for the season-finale, but at Kansas he needs a good points day, because this is one of his better tracks in the playoffs.

One of the top drivers in NASCAR on intermediate-length tracks, Edwards has finished sixth or better at Kansas in three of his six career starts there. If he doesn't wind up in the top three on Sunday, it will be an upset.

Still, I like Johnson. And I've got a hunch that, like last week, it's not even going to be close.