Prior to last week’s playoff opening Cookout Southern 500 at Darlington, I remarked that I felt like the 2022 playoff race the NASCAR Cup Series was as wide open as anyone I could remember in recent years. In fact, I suggested that I believed anywhere up to 11 drivers were capable of making a run to at least the season finale race at Phoenix, creating a major underdog opportunity for bettors. Well, the action at Darlington did nothing to dampen that outlook, as the series favorite, Chase Elliott, finished dead last and three other title contenders were 27th or worse. The standing certainly got a major shakeup after that race, making this second event at Kansas a big one for those drivers looking to bounce back.
Elliott is not yet in desperation mode, as he dropped to ninth place with the top 12 advancing out of this round following the third playoff race. That said, there has to be immediate concern in the No. 9 camp considering that they finished just 29th in the race at Kansas back in May. Among the other drivers that struggled last weekend, Chase Briscoe figures to be in the worst shape, sitting in 15th place in the standings, 46 points back, and having finished just 24th here in May. He also has a track handicap ranking of 24th among the entrants for Sunday’s race. Kyle Busch would seem to be the most likely driver to rebound from his poor playoff opening finish, as he was third back in May and has a 2nd ranked track rating.
As opposed to last week, where the physical & mental challenge at Darlington was a lot greater, the racing at Kansas is pretty straightforward. It’s a mile-and-a-half cookie cutter track that has an oval like design resembling several other venues on the annual schedule, including Las Vegas, which the series will see next month. From a historical standpoint, drivers that show the best times in the practice sessions at Kansas have usually fared best on race day as compared to the other factors I consider in my simulation. The drivers have gotten well accustomed to running on tracks like Kansas, as witnessed by the low number of cautions in the last four playoff races here, 7, 6, 7, & 3. Of course, the most recent three races have had two automatic cautions at the end of stages, so that shows further evidence of how clean the racing here has become.
Let’s take a look at some of the key statistical indicators you are going to want to consider for Sunday’s race.
Hollywood Casino 400 Statistical Breakdown
The field raced here in May and Kurt Busch was the winner, leading 116 of the 267 laps that day. He was also the top-rated driver for that race, scoring a 137.2 on NASCAR’s grading scale. That was a full 13.2 points better than anyone else in the field. However, he will not be a factor this week, as is still on the unofficial “DL”, suffering from concussion symptoms from a crash a couple months ago. That said, Bubba Wallace is now in the #45 car for the rest of the season and will look to maintain the success. Other drivers that ran well in that May race were Kyle Larson, who finished 2nd, as well as Kyle Busch, Ross Chastain, and Christopher Bell, all of whom finished with driver ratings in excess of 100. Denny Hamlin finished 4th but failed to lead a lap.
In terms of my “handicap” ratings, the track & designation ratings can vary greatly in that the latter stems from other tracks in the “Cookie Cutter” designation. These are the my top five drivers in TRACK RATINGS heading into Sunday’s race:
- Kyle Larson – 128.7
- Kyle Busch – 105.1
- Denny Hamlin – 101.7
- Ryan Blaney – 101.5
- William Byron – 100.6
Of these drivers, all five are playoff competitors and four of them were also on the top five for last week’s race. Larson obviously has a huge edge in this statistical indicator over any other driver, and thus should be considered among the favorites to win.
My track DESIGNATION RATINGS are somewhat similar, with the top 5 looking like this:
- Kyle Larson – 122.7
- Denny Hamlin – 112.9
- Ross Chastain – 105.8
- William Byron – 105.0
- Martin Truex – 102.4
Only Truex is outside the playoff field from this group, and like last week, he should be a threat to upset the playoff field. In last week’s race, he was running up front for much of the race until his engine overheated late. Of course, Erik Jones, a non-playoff contender, won that race in the #43 car, meaning that none of the 16 playoff drivers have locked up a spot in the second round yet.
In terms of my Recent Ratings, this is the top 5 heading into Darlington:
- Chase Elliott – 112.6
- Denny Hamlin – 99.2
- Christopher Bell – 98.2
- Kyle Larson – 96.8
- Ross Chastain – 93.2
All five of these drivers are in the hunt for the championship still, and Elliott is still a big favorite, despite the slow playoff start. If you recognize the same rating for Elliott as last week, it’s because his early trouble after just 113 laps did not meet my criteria for his data being used as a “handicap race”. I do this to eliminate fluky circumstances that can greatly impact drivers strength ratings erroneously.
Final Simulation Results/My Predictions
My initial simulation run on Tuesday prior to practice and qualifying on Saturday showed Kyle Larson as the predicted winner for Kansas, followed by Bell, Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Ryan Blaney.
Saturday’s practice session was won by Tyler Reddick, who also had the top 10-lap race average as well. He was followed in speed by Chastain, Bell, Bubba Wallace, and Kyle Larson, who ranked second in 10-lap pace. A little later, in qualifying, Reddick followed up his huge practice session with a pole qualifying effort of 180.608 MPH, followed by Joey Logano & Alex Bowman.
After updating the initial simulation with Saturday’s practice and qualifying results, my final simulation showed this top 5:
- Tyler Reddick
- Kyle Larson
- Ross Chastain
- Alex Bowman
- Ryan Blaney
These were the biggest movers from the initial simulation:
Alex Bowman + 10 spots
Ty Gibbs + 9 spots
Bubba Wallace + 7 spots
Ross Chastain + 7 spots
Aric Almirola -15 spots
Austin Cindric -10 spots
Kyle Busch -9 spots
Drivers projected higher on simulation than usual: Reddick (1), Bowman (4) Gibbs (15)
Drivers projected lower on simulation than usual: Almirola (31), Kyle Busch (13), Hamlin (11)
My final Darlington predictions:
Longshot driver(s): Byron
Driver(s) to fade: Kyle Busch
Kansas receives a Handicap-Ability Grade of C on my scale. Other races down the line will again prove more predictable, as sometimes these races can be affected by fuel mileage at the end. I must remind you again that practice session speeds have proven to be most important simulation factor. Therefore, if you’re one of the NASCAR fans that has this race on the primary TV, or on a side screen in favor of the opening Sunday of NFL action, and plan to enhance your viewing with some wagers, make sure you analyze those Saturday practice speeds closely, as well as all the info in today’s race hub to get as prepared to win as possible.