NASCAR's Chase for the Championship will be determined on the cookie-cutter tracks, beginning with Sunday's race on the 1.5-mile oval at Kansas. Four of the final seven races will be contested on similar shaped ovals and the teams that have the right setup for this type of racecourse will benefit dramatically.
The original cookie-cutter track is Charlotte, designed by Bruton Smith in 1959. Smith determined that the tri-oval concept for a 1.5-mile facility allowed more room for grandstands with a view of pit road and the front straight. The Chase will head to Charlotte after Kansas.
Smith also designed Texas, the third-to-last Chase stop. While the grandstands, garage area and Speedway Club are more modern than its sister track in Charlotte, Texas features the same D-shaped design for a 1.5-mile oval.
Phoenix featured a completely unique layout before parent company International Speedway Corporation decided to increase the banking in a repaving project that began after this spring. Old-school drivers such as Tony Stewart objected to the change but the one-mile track will drive more like a 1.5-mile oval this year than in the past.
Finally, the Chase wraps up at Homestead-Miami, another 1.5-mile track that differs slightly from the Kansas, Charlotte and Texas tracks simply because the front straight is actually straight rather than D-shaped.
One team that has excelled on the cookie-cutter tracks is Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Chevrolet team at Hendrick Motorsports. In 62 career starts at Kansas, Charlotte, Texas and Phoenix, Johnson has 12 wins and an astonishing 31 top-fives.
He's been weaker at Homestead-Miami, but that's simply because, in the past, he hasn't been racing to win at that track. He has usually entered the final race of the Chase with a comfortable cushion. He has no wins, four top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 10 Homestead starts.
Johnson's strengths go far beyond the 1.5-mile ovals that are left on the schedule. He is also Mr. Martinsville with an incredible six wins, 13 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes in 19 starts. He is a two-time winner at Talladega with five top-fives and nine top-10 finishes in 19 starts.
That's 20 of Johnson's 54 career victories that have come at tracks left on the Chase schedule.
After a slow start to the Chase, Johnson's rivals were jumping to the conclusion that his championship run was coming to an end.
Not so fast.
Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus understand what it takes at these cookie-cutter tracks better than any other combination in the Chase. Johnson made up five positions in the Chase with his second-place finish to Kurt Busch at Dover last Sunday and that leaves him fifth in the standings, 13 out of first place.
"Experience is extremely helpful and important," Johnson said. "In 2006 we got off to a slow start and were able to rally back and end up on top. ... We've been in this position before and have been behind. There is pressure to perform each and every week -- some from the outside and ton from the inside -- inside of my own head, inside of my own team. We know what we are capable of and we've clearly done an amazing job over the last five years. But, it doesn't guarantee anything for this year."
Kevin Harvick has regained the points lead but is in a tie with Carl Edwards. Harvick gets the advantage based on the tiebreaker and both are nine points ahead of Tony Stewart, who had a miserable race at Dover but is looking to bounce back at Kansas, where he is a former winner.
Of these three drivers, Harvick has had the least success on the 1.5-mile ovals left on the schedule. He has no wins and one top-five at Kansas; two wins and six top-fives at Charlotte; no wins and three top-fives at Texas; and no wins and five top-fives at Homestead-Miami.
Harvick chooses to remain focused on his team, not the cookie-cutter success of a certain five-time champion.
"I'm not racing the No. 48; I'm racing myself," Harvick said, referring to Johnson.
The 1.5-mile tracks seem to suit Edwards' style, although he has never won at Kansas or Charlotte. He is a three-time Texas winner, however, and also has two wins at Homestead-Miami in only seven career starts. If Edwards can continue his success at these tracks and pick up his game at Kansas and Charlotte, then his chances of a first career Cup title are greatly increased.
To get that elusive title, Edwards knows one person he'll have to beat is Johnson.
"It's important to beat them [the No. 48] every week," Edwards said. "I think I'd be lying if I didn't say that of all the cars that you want to finish in front of, you want to finish in front of those guys the most because the last five years they've been the guys to beat at the end. But we aren't fixating on them because if you look, there are guys that are quietly mounting some pretty good charges. ... I guess what I'm saying is, yeah, it feels good to beat Jimmie, but I'm trying not to focus on him because he might not be the guy to beat at the end of the Chase. He might be the wrong person to focus on."
After struggling at Dover, expect Stewart to be his irascible self at Kansas, where he has two wins, five top-five and eight top-10 finishes.
Stewart was snappy when asked if a return to the 1.5-mile tracks would help his Chase.
"It doesn't matter to me," Stewart said. "It doesn't matter what the 10 races are in the schedule. You've got to be good at all of them, so we are just taking it a week at a time right now like we've been doing all year."
With his victory at Dover, Kurt Busch has moved to within nine points of the lead and could be in position to benefit at the upcoming 1.5-mile ovals. But he is miserable at Kansas with no top-five finishes and only three top-10s in 11 starts.
"It's a tough track, but a fun racetrack," Busch said. "Kansas is a good atmosphere for a mile-and-a-half for everybody. Turn Four is really tough. It has a tight corner exit. It gets really slick there on the racetrack."
Busch hasn't fared much better at the other cookie-cutter tracks, with just three wins combined at Charlotte, Texas and Homestead-Miami.
Brad Keselowski won the most recent Cup race at Kansas in June on fuel mileage for his only victory on the cookie cutters left on the schedule. Matt Kenseth has no wins at Kansas, one at Charlotte, two at Texas and one at Homestead-Miami, and he's going to need to pick up the pace fast to get back into the championship fight.
Kyle Busch has never won a Cup race at Kansas, Charlotte, Texas or Homestead-Miami, which dims his championship hopes further.
Ninth in the standings, Jeff Gordon is going to need a resurgence to get back in the Chase, but he has two wins at Kansas, an incredible five victories at Charlotte, one at Texas and none at Homestead-Miami. Throw in an astounding six wins at Talladega and seven at Martinsville and it's easy to see that Gordon is far from being out of championship contention based on his past record.
"Kansas is a good track for us," Gordon said. "I feel like Kansas is where we really turned the corner this year with our 1.5-mile program. We ran really strong there and I felt like we had a shot at winning that race. I look forward to getting back there. ... I love Charlotte, it's a track that I enjoy a lot but the car has to be right there and I've got to give feedback and make sure we have a package that's going to be competitive there.
"Every race is important. It doesn't matter where you are going, what your past experience or stats are there, it's just all about what we do in these next seven weeks. That's all it boils down to."
So it's easy to conclude the key to winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup title comes in the shape of a 1.5-mile oval. The driver and team that understand that the best will be the winner of the Chase.