Of all the things last weekend’s opening race of the NASCAR Playoffs could have offered, few expected what the ultimate outcome was: a preservation of the status quo.
With Erik Jones winning the Southern 500, not a single one of the 16 drivers currently in the NASCAR Playoffs were able to advance to the next round with a victory. In fact, most are lucky to have simply escaped Darlington with their championship hopes relatively intact. Crashes and mechanical issues plagued the playoff contenders, shaking up the playoff standings considerably without necessarily crippling the chances of most making it out of the Round of 16.
After 500 miles of trying to survive the track Too Tough to Tame, the NASCAR Cup Series makes its return trip to Kansas Speedway for the Hollywood Casino 400, the second race of the Round of 16. While Kansas does not have quite the reputation or history that Darlington does, no one should confuse it for being an easy track. This speedway rewards a driver who is able to run right up against the outside wall, particularly as its now decade-old asphalt has aged and given up the amount of grip it once had.
How to Watch the NASCAR playoffs at Kansas
Date: Sunday, Sept. 11
Location: Kansas Speedway — Kansas City, Kansas
Time: 3 p.m. ET
TV: USA Network
Stream: fuboTV (try for free)
What to Watch
In nearly two full decades with some sort of playoff format, the opening race of the NASCAR playoffs had never been won by a non-playoff driver. That all changed in last Sunday’s Southern 500, as Erik Jones became the first-ever driver not eligible for the championship to win the first race of the playoffs — thus denying any driver in the Round of 16 an automatic berth into the Round of 12.
The idea that another playoff non-combatant could play spoiler at Kansas is a very plausible one, as three out of the first four years of NASCAR’s playoffs saw a non-playoff driver win at Kansas. Joe Nemechek became the first to do so in 2004 before Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle did the same in 2006 and 2007, respectively.
Based on the results of the spring race, one prime candidate to upend the playoff picture could be Bubba Wallace. Wallace had one of the fastest cars at Kansas in May and finished 10th, but his 23XI Racing Toyota was capable of running in the top five and potentially contending for a win before pit road miscues and penalties caused him to lose track position time and again.
After yet another missed opportunity at Darlington, Martin Truex Jr. is also one to watch. Truex has two career victories at Kansas, including the 2017 playoff race, and finished sixth here in the spring.
Earlier in the season, Kansas illustrated the growing pains of the Next Gen car when it came to Goodyear tires’ ability to handle the car’s loads on intermediate racetracks compared to the previous generation of car. The Spring Kansas race featured a spate of left rear tire failures, affecting drivers like Chase Elliott, William Byron, Martin Truex Jr. and more.
Goodyear has since addressed that issue, meaning that this weekend will see teams run a different tire compound than they did in May. For this weekend at Kansas, as well as upcoming 1.5-mile track races at Texas and Las Vegas, Cup cars will run left side tires with a construction enhancement to be paired with enhanced right side tires that have already debuted.
“The loads generated on this Next Gen car are quite different than the past, so we evaluated what we saw early in the season and designed some construction updates that we were able to test on track before we unveiled the right side enhancements at the Pocono and Michigan races earlier this summer,” read a statement by Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing. “We had good feedback from the drivers throughout the process and have had good results on the track since.
“The combination we are running at Kansas this week, which will also be run at Texas and Las Vegas, introduces a left side construction enhancement to be paired with that right-side already introduced. This combination was confirmed in testing at Charlotte in early August.”
While the updated tire constructions should make them more durable and less prone to failure, the tradeoff is that race teams will have their abilities to adjust to the tendencies of the tire tested, which could alter which teams can carry over their performance from the springtime.
Toyota Terrific (?)
Outside of tire failures throughout the field, the defining characteristic of Kansas’ spring race was the sheer strength of all the Toyota teams. All six Toyota drivers finished in the top 10, with Kurt Busch taking the win followed by Kyle Busch (third), Denny Hamlin (fourth), Christopher Bell (fifth), Martin Truex Jr. (sixth) and Bubba Wallace (10th).
Those results should have had Toyota drivers and brass alike brimming with confidence for this return trip to the heartland — if it wasn’t for what happened in Darlington last week, where the manufacturer appeared to have the Southern 500 in hand before two engine failures late in the race. Martin Truex Jr. was leading late in the race when he broke a water pump belt, and Kyle Busch suffered a valve train failure while leading under caution shortly afterwards.
According to RACER, Toyota Racing Development took both Truex and Busch’s engines back to their headquarters for a thorough examination after the race. Regardless of their findings, the hope will be that Toyota can replicate their springtime performance and that their motor problems at Darlington were both isolated incidents and not the beginning of a pattern.
Pick to Win
(Odds via Caesars Sportsbook)
Kyle Larson (+650): It’s been awhile since I picked Kyle Larson to win outright, but this weekend seems like a very good chance to do so given how Larson has run at Kansas since joining Hendrick Motorsports. Larson has led 291 out of 801 laps at this track over its last three races, including a performance last fall where he led 130 of 267 laps on his way to victory.
Granted, Larson only led 29 laps here this spring, but it was when it counted: Larson led 24 laps late in the race before being passed for the lead and the win by Kurt Busch with nine laps to go. With Busch still sidelined due to a concussion, Larson projects as an easy pick to win Kansas with his toughest competition from the spring not in the field.