NASCAR travels to Kansas for first night race of 2017

This weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads from the high banks of Talladega Superspeedway to America’s Heartland and Kansas Speedway. The GoBowling 400 will be the first night race of 2017 and the fourth intermediate race of the season. Sparks are bound to fly on the track and off, as only one will emerge victorious from the intensely fast track.

WHAT: GoBowling 400, 400.5 miles, 267 laps (stages of 80, 80 and 107 laps, respectively)

WHEN: Saturday, May 13, 2017. Green flag at 7:46 p.m. ET. TV coverage on Fox Sports 1

WHERE: Kansas Speedway (1.5-mile asphalt tri-oval) located in Kansas City, Kansas

FAVORITES: Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. & Kyle Larson (6-1)


Photo: Jerry Markland/Getty Images

LAST YEAR’S WINNER

Kyle Busch won his first career race at Kansas after years and years of trying. The win was Rowdy’s third of the then-young 2016 season. He led the final 36 laps en route to the victory, passing Toyota teammate Martin Truex Jr. after the No. 78 pitted late for a vibration.


THE FIELD

Ryan Blaney earned his first career pole during qualifying Friday evening, piloting his No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford around Kansas Speedway at 189.600 mph (28.481 seconds). The pole award is the first for WBR since Ricky Rudd in 2004 and their second since 1984.

Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

“This year has been a big step up in qualifying,” said Blaney. “Your car and track changes and you have to be on top of that. Everyone has done a great job of staying on top of that. We have been really close a couple times this year but it feels good to get it done. I know it is only qualifying but it feels really cool to get this first pole. It says a lot about this entire team.”

Rounding out the top five starting spots when the green flag flies will be Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kyle Busch. Completing the top 12 will be Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon and Jamie McMurray.

As has been a story all season long, a handful of cars didn’t even attempt a lap in qualifying due to not passing the inspection station before the session began. Eleven cars didn’t pass, to be exact. They included Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Erik Jones, Dale Earnhardt Jr., David Ragan, Michael McDowell, Landon Cassill, Reed Sorenson, Corey LaJoie, Timmy Hill and Carl Long. They will all start outside the top 24. Zero drivers made a qualifying attempt when the first round was halfway over, also due to inspection issues.

Photo: Getty Images

“This is just, wow. Super disappointing,” an unpleasant Bowyer told FOX after his time to qualify went by the wayside on Friday evening. “You are off ten-thousandths of an inch. It is ridiculous. Most people can’t even understand how little that is. I get it. If you are off, you are off, but I watched my guys move the car and adjust the car accordingly for it and then actually overcompensate on it because we were worried about not making it. Then they wheel it back in and fail the exact same amount? Twice? That makes no sense. None.”


HOME COOKING FOR BOWYER

Winning at your home track is something that drivers in any form of motorsport want to do. Last week, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. did it, as Talladega is the closest track on the circuit to his hometown of Olive Branch, Mississippi. In Formula 1, winning the Grand Prix in your home country is a big deal. For Clint Bowyer, being an Emporia, Kansas native, this weekend is huge for him.

Photo: Getty Images

“It’s always busy,” Bowyer told MRN Radio on “NASCAR Live” this week. “It’s always home. You have family and friends calling to see you and wanting tickets. There’s just some race tracks that every week you look at and every thought you have […] in your career it’s always that track that you want to win on. And this one is it (for me).”

Bowyer only has two top five finishes and five top 10’s in 17 career races at Kansas. He has also posted five DNF’s and has an average finish of 17.2. However, the No. 14 Ford might be the best equipment that Bowyer has ever been in throughout his entire career. If he were to snap his 159-race winless streak at his home track, Emporia might throw the party of the millennium.


ROUSH LOOKS TO BUILD OFF ‘DEGA

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s win last weekend at Talladega snapped a 101-race winless streak for Roush Fenway Racing and marked the driver of the No. 17’s first career win. But the win shouldn’t come as a surprise when looking at the uptick in RFR’s performance thus far in 2017.

Since downsizing their organization to a two-car team, both Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne have seen their results and performance improve. In fact, if the season ended today, both cars would be in the playoffs, a far cry from last season, when neither finished in the top 20 in points.

“We’ve got a lot of things going and there is a ground swell of confidence that we haven’t seen in the recent past,” said team owner Jack Roush. “Trevor (Bayne) is going to win this year too and we are going to get both of these guys in the playoffs for the championship this year […] I was confident that Ricky (Stenhouse Jr.) would win a race this year.”


PANIC BUTTON TIME AT JGR?

Ten races in, zero wins, and a whole lot of head scratching is going on at Joe Gibbs Racing. At this point last season, JGR had won 50 percent of the races. This season, they have none.

Photo: Jerry Markland/Getty Images

The fearsome foursome of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Daniel Suarez have amassed 14 top 10’s and six top five finishes through 10 races this season. But none have really contended for race wins week in and week out. In fact, one could argue they have not even been a top five organization this season (Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing and Wood-Brothers Racing). It’s up for debate.

The good news? JGR finished first, fourth, 11th and 37th (crash) in this race one year ago. It’s a matter of when, not if, JGR wins a race this season. There’s a great chance that happens this weekend, as Kyle Busch and Hamlin have one win each and Kenseth has two at Kansas.


ANY MORE SURPRISE WINNERS?

We’ve seen two “surprise” winners through the first 10 races of the season: Ryan Newman at Phoenix and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. last week. But the bigger talking point is who hasn’t been to victory lane.

Names like Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Chase Elliott, the list goes on. Will Kansas Speedway produce another winner we didn’t see coming, or will one of the bigger names emerge victorious? Typically, 1.5-mile tracks don’t produce obscure winners, barring fuel strategy or any other extenuating circumstances. But hey: you truly never know.


PREDICTION

Per usual, I’m sticking to my guns as stated this week on Victory Lane (no days–or weeks–off, kids) and picking Kevin Harvick’s Freaky Fast Ford to find victory lane for the first time in 2017. He’s been a master at 1.5-mile tracks since the start of the 2014 season, when he joined forces with Stewart-Haas Racing and Rodney Childers. He has led 2,112 laps at intermediate tracks since then, most among all current drivers. He also boasts two wins, six top fives and 11 top 10’s. Harvick has also finished second or better in five of his last seven starts at Kansas.

The No. 4 bunch is also bringing a car that dominated the race at Atlanta and has won three poles and led laps at all three races it’s been used in. Considering all of that, you have yourself a pretty compelling argument as to why Harvick will earn a trophy this weekend.