The third round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs kicks off Sunday with the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway. Only eight drivers remain in the battle for the championship, and four will be eliminated after the next trio of races at Kansas, Texas Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway.
After a second round that included wild-card races at Talladega and Sunday’s Charlotte Roval event, the schedule starting at Kansas has a much more straightforward look. It’s a return to a 1.5-mile track, which makes up the bulk of NASCAR’s schedule. The series’ first visit to Kansas featured Denny Hamlin winning on a hot July night. Conditions will be much different this weekend, as cool temperatures will give the track surface much more grip, with less slipping and sliding expected. Coupled with the rules package that places an emphasis on cars being forced down because of aerodynamics and spoiler height, opportunities for three or sometimes four-wide competition could be in place.
The drivers at the top of the cut line include Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and last week’s winner, Chase Elliott. Meanwhile, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch are looking to get the round off on a solid note to move up on the playoff grid.
Those championship implications will add an element of intrigue as drivers scramble to keep their title hopes intact. But a slew of others have nothing on their minds but winning. That list includes still-winless Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, William Byron and Aric Almirola, all capable of pulling off a non-playoff-driver surprise.
Since Kansas was repaved and reconfigured in 2012, the annual fall race has generated chaos and many memorable moments. The stage is set for a race that will have a significant impact on how the rest of the season plays out.
Here are the favorites for the Hollywood Casino 400:
Expect Harvick to return to form in this round after struggling by his lofty standards in the last three outings. Harvick’s bread and butter has been intermediate tracks like Kansas, and his previous performances at the 1.5-mile oval put him at the top of the list of favorites. He has an average finish of 6.9 over the last 10 Kansas races, the best in the series. During that stretch he has a pair of victories and was fourth in July.
MARTIN TRUEX JR.
It took a while for Truex to figure out Kansas and eliminate a lot of bad luck that got in the way of winning. But once he did, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has been stellar at the track, including a sweep of both races in 2017. He has led the most laps of anyone in the series in Kansas dating to 2015 with 457 in front of the field.
The seven-time winner this season has won the last two Kansas races. In fact, Hamlin has finished inside the top five in four of the last six races at the track. Hamlin is a three-time Kansas Speedway Cup race winner.
Now that he’s officially out of the running to defend his championship, maybe Busch will finally be able to win his first race of the season. Kansas is a great opportunity based on his previous performance. Busch has seven top-5 and 11 top-10 finishes in his Kansas career.