Tampa Bay Sports Day

NASCAR: Elliott Needs a Strong Performance at Kansas

Chase Elliott arrives at Kansas Speedway this weekend as defending winner of Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 and all the good juju that past achievement conjures will be welcomed with wide-open arms.

Thanks to an impressive rally through an afternoon of multi-car crashes and tough luck that targeted every Playoff driver, Elliott finished a solid eighth-place at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway’s rain-delayed finish on Monday.

It wasn’t quite enough points-wise to overcome an engine failure and 38th-place finish at Dover a week earlier, so the sport’s reigning Most Popular Driver remains in a precarious points position heading to one of his best tracks this week.

After two races of the three races making up this Playoff round, Elliott is ranked 10th among the 12 Playoff drivers. Only the top eight advance with championship eligibility after Sunday’s checkered flag. Elliott trails eighth-place Joey Logano by 22 points.

The good news for Elliott is that Kansas has traditionally been one of his better tracks. He has four top-10 and three top-five finishes in seven starts there including the win last year. He’s finished fourth or better in three of the last four races – leading a combined 89 laps in the last two races.

Although glad to rally for a top-10 finish in Monday’s Talladega race, Elliott fully recognizes that his 2019 championship aspirations ultimately depend on how he fares at Kansas.

“You have to have the mindset to go out there and control what we can control and do everything we can to get a win,’’ Elliott said. “That’s all we can do.’’

Hamlin’s luck has changed quickly

Denny Hamlin’s measured and motivated run to a career first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup title remains on course after a dramatic but satisfying third-place finish on the unpredictable Talladega Superspeedway high banks Monday. It was his third top five in five Playoff races this season and was especially impressive considering Hamlin started last in the Talladega field after an engine problem in qualifying.

It brings Hamlin’s top-five total this season to 16 – a career-high mark. He has 20 top-10 finishes meaning 80 percent of the time he’s in the top 10, it’s a top-five performance.

His place atop the series points standings – eight points up on his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. – is his best standing of the season and undoubtedly has fed the confidence of this popular driver, who is an annual championship favorite. Seven times in his 14-year fulltime Cup career, Hamlin has finished sixth or better in the title chase. He was a career best runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in 2010 and twice has finished third in the championship, including a headline-making 2006 rookie campaign.

The driver of the No. 11 JGR Toyota is a former Kansas Speedway winner, earning the trophy in Spring, 2012. Since then he’s been especially good in the Fall Playoff races – finishing runner-up in 2015 and fifth in 2017. The track has been hit-or-miss statistic-wise for Hamlin. He has two top 10s – both fifth-place finishes – in the last seven races. He was 16th this May and 14th in this race last October.

Very Happy Harvick

Few drivers may be happier to arrive at Kansas Speedway than Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick. His three wins at the track ties NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon for most ever and his three runner-up finishes are most of any driver in this week’s field.

Not only has Harvick been outstanding here in the past, he shows up this week in a highly-motivated championship mode. His 17th-place finish at Talladega last weekend – one of dozens of drivers collected in three large multi-car accidents – was his worst in nearly two months. He has five top-five finishes in the last seven races including a statement-making win from the pole position in the Indianapolis regular season finale.

And Harvick is an absolute favorite to earn his fourth victory of 2019 this weekend at the Kansas 1.5-miler where he’s already hoisted more hardware than any of his competitors. In 27 starts, Harvick has eight top-five and 14 top-10 finishes – and won a series high five pole positions.

He’s led laps in 11 of the last 12 races – three times race-high numbers. That includes 104-laps out front in May when he finished 13th. He was 12th in last year’s Playoff race at Kansas – the two sub-10th-place finishes snapping a streak of five straight top-five runs.

Harvick joins Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman as the only drivers to have started all 27 Cup Series races held at the Speedway, which opened in 2001. Jeff Gordon won the track’s first two races in 2001-2002.

“I don’t really know [why],’’ Harvick said about his recent success at Kansas. “It’s a racetrack where I’ve won a couple races at and for whatever reason it just kind of its my style and what we do with the cars.

“We’ve had a lot of good race cars there to capitalize on the good characteristics that fall into my driving style and we’ve been able to have some good results with it.’’

Turnaround time for Kyle Busch

It’s been an uncharacteristic few months for the 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch, who hasn’t won a race since Pocono, Pa. – 17 races ago. The regular season champ has had an up-and-down Playoff run finishing 19th or worse in three races and top 10 in the other two. He’s led laps in only two of the three Playoff races – but that includes 202 laps out front at Richmond, where he finished runner-up.

Busch is ranked third in the championship standings coming to Kansas – 15 points behind leader and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin.

The 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway has been a significant venue this season for Busch. His 30th place finish at Kansas in May snapped a historic run of 11 straight top-10 finishes to open the season. It also snapped an impressive run of eight consecutive top-10 finishes at Kansas that included a victory in 2016 and a runner-up finish to Chase Elliott in last year’s Playoff race.

Busch is the only driver with victories in all three NASCAR national series at Kansas. In addition to his Cup win, he has four Xfinity Series victories – including an unprecedented three straight from 2014-16 – and a pair of Gander Outdoors Truck Series trophies (2014 and 2017).

Peaking Penske

With Ryan Blaney’s victory Monday at Talladega and his two Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano inside the Top 8 of the Playoff standings heading to this Playoff round’s elimination race, this team has every reason to feel optimistic.

Blaney has an automatic berth in the Round of 8 – the second time he has advanced that far in the Playoffs. And Keselowski and Logano are currently two points apart, ranked seventh and eighth.

Keselowski is the most recent Kansas winner, taking the trophy in May after a dramatic overtime finish – his second career victory at the track. He has 10 top-10 finishes in 19 races there including a runner-up showing (2017-1) to go with his wins. Before being collected in an accident at Talladega, Keselowski had four top-11 finishes in the four previous Playoff races, including a best of third in the Las Vegas opener.

He has three victories (at Atlanta, Martinsville and Kansas) this season in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford and would love to join Martin Truex Jr. (2017) as the only drivers to sweep a season at the Kansas 1.5-miler.

Logano, the defending Cup champion, has certainly had to work hard for a chance to become the first back-to-back Cup champ since Jimmie Johnson won five consecutively from 2006-10.

The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford has a pair of Kansas wins – the 2014 and 2015 Playoff races – and seven of his career eight top 10s are also top fives. He was 15th here in May. In last October’s Playoff race, he won the pole and led a race-best 100 laps but finished eighth.

Logano managed an 11th-place finish at Talladega despite being caught in a multi-car accident. He’s had four finishes of 11th or better in the five Playoff races – the lone exception a 34th-place finish at Dover.

Blaney, who has already earned his ticket to the Round of 8, has five top-10 Kansas finishes in nine starts with a decided tip to the Playoffs. The driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford has earned four top-10 finishes in the last five Playoff races at Kansas with a career-best third place at the track in the 2017 Fall race.