October 04, 2014
NASCAR auto racing driver Jeff Gordon waits for the start of practice at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., Friday, Oct. 3, 2014. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)
Colin E. Braley

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) Nearly all who rolled into Kansas Speedway this weekend still in contention for the Sprint Cup championship should feel good about their chances.

Brad Keselowski won at the track a few years ago. Matt Kenseth has two victories in the last five races there. Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick - Sunday's pole sitter - have all won at the fast, mile-and-a-half oval that kicks off the latest round of the Chase.

Even Kasey Kahne, who barely squeezed into the 12-driver field for the contender round of NASCAR's postseason, posted back-to-back top-five finishes at Kansas.

''I feel like we have a shot,'' Kahne said. ''We've had really fast cars, but things haven't gone our way the last few races, but I think our cars have been pretty quick.''

Yep, optimism abounds up and down pit road at Kansas.

Until you get to Kyle Busch.

If there's anybody who should feel a bit nervous about the three-race stretch that will pare the field to eight, it's the Joe Gibbs Racing driver. He's crashed out of the Chase race the last two years at Kansas, and three of the last four races there overall.

Each time, he had arrived with high hopes. Each time, he left in frustration.

''We'll see how this time goes,'' said Busch, who nearly backed his Nationwide car into the wall during practice Friday. ''There have been some times where we felt like we should have been faster some places this year and haven't quite been, so no reason to think that Kansas being one of our worst tracks we can't go there and try to run well.''

Kansas hasn't always been Busch's personal house of horrors. He's raced well at the track in the Truck Series and the Nationwide Series, and even this week he has been strong in practice. He'll roll off Sunday from the seventh starting position.

But when Busch hops into his Sprint Cup car, everything goes haywire. The wall seems to jump out and bite him, chewing up a big chunk of his title hopes along the way. Or some other misfortune hits, such as getting busted for speeding on pit road.

Even when he's managed to get to the checkered flag, Busch usually isn't close to the front. His best finish at Kansas is just seventh, and that was in 2006. His average the past four races is 30th, and that result Sunday would put him in plenty of trouble with stops at Charlotte and the crapshoot known as Talladega looming.

Ryan Newman might be the only Chase contender who can come close to rivaling Busch's bad luck at Kansas. He hasn't finished in the top 10 in his last seven starts.

Yet asked what his expectation is this weekend, Newman's reply was easy: ''Win.''

''It sounds simple,'' he said, ''and we've tried so hard for the first 29 races, whatever it's been. But in the end, it's just going out there and doing the best you possibly can.''

There is a premium on doing that under NASCAR's new Chase format.

The winner guarantee himself a spot in the eliminator round, and also takes the pressure off the next couple of weeks. That no small thing considering the high-speed potholes that can pop up at Talladega, where the slightest bobble at the restrictor-plate track can wipe away half of the field - and a slew of championship contenders.

That's why the last race in the current three-race portion of the Chase is the one that fills most drivers - not named Kyle Busch - with the greatest amount of dread.

''If you have two solid weeks here, a crash at Talladega might not hurt you so bad, especially if all the guys you're racing wreck as well,'' said six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who starts 32nd on Sunday after spinning out during his first qualifying run.

''Two people, or maybe one, will have that opportunity,'' Johnson said, ''but the other 10 Chasers will show up there with a lot of pressure to get to the checkered flag.''

That makes finishing near the front on Sunday all the more important.

''Our confidence is high,'' said Jeff Gordon, who won last week at Dover and will start fifth on Sunday. ''I think all the competition finds a way to step it up when you get to this point in the season, so certainly, going to have to work for it.''

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