Own Kansas Speedway, own the Chase
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Kansas Speedway is no cookie-cutter track.
It's a 1.5-mile intermediate oval, the same distance as six other NASCAR tracks, including three others in the Chase, but to call Kansas a clone of the others is a serious miscalculation.
Don't take my word for it. Take it from a real track expert, Dodge Motorsports engineering manager Howard Comstock.
"Some people that complain about too many 1.5-mile tracks in the Chase are missing the mark if they include Kansas," Comstock said. "The only similarity between Kansas and places like Charlotte, Texas and Homestead is track length.
"Kansas requires a completely different and hybrid setup strategy that includes some flat-track thinking, some banked-track consideration and hopefully some good notes from previous trips to this unique track."
See what I mean? This place is weird. It is half flat track and half banked track, which is enough to drive a crew chief half crazy. Oh, wait a minute. That was redundant.
The ability to win at Kansas on Sunday takes a lot of creativity and cooperation between the crew and the driver.
"Kansas is a little bit different," said Rodney Childers, crew chief for David Reutimann. "It kind of stands out. It's really tight in Turns 3 and 4, and you have to get the car turned quick so you can get in the gas straight off the corner."
Of the seven 1.5-mile ovals, four are fairly similar. Texas, Charlotte, Atlanta and Las Vegas (reconfigured to add banking a few years ago) all are high-banked, D-shaped ovals.
Those four tracks produce big speeds because drivers don't have to get off the gas much. The same is true at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but its shape is a true oval.
The one track that has some of the same characteristics as Kansas is Chicagoland Speedway.
"We're just kind of basing our setup off of Chicagoland,'' said Slugger Labbe, crew chief for Paul Menard. "The tracks were supposedly built the same, but Kansas appears to be a little rougher."
Some teams plan to race the same car they raced at the Joliet, Ill., track. One of those is the No. 33 Chevy team of Clint Bowyer, who finished fourth at Chicagoland.
"I know if I run well at Chicago, we'll take that same setup to Kansas and run well there, too," Bowyer said. "We ran awesome at Chicagoland. That gives me a lot of confidence in Kansas. The tracks are so similar. I think we have a great shot at winning."
Even a win won't get Bowyer back in Chase contention. His team's 150-point penalty ended his championship hopes, but Bowyer would love to win at the track that's only 90 miles from his hometown of Emporia, Kan.
Using the car that raced well at Chicagoland is no guarantee of success at Kansas. Chicagoland has more banking in the turns (18 degrees versus 15 degrees) and one degree more in each of the straights.
The biggest difference is weather conditions. The Chicagoland race is midsummer at night. Kansas is a day race with a predicted high of 62 degrees.
"With the weather that cool, the track should have a lot of grip," Labbe said.
The Cup teams haven't raced in weather this cold in months. The teams also haven't raced at Kansas in a year. Kansas and the season finale at Homestead are the only Chase tracks the Cup series doesn't race earlier in the season.
That will change next year, when Kansas gets two Cup dates, including one on June 5. But for now, the teams have to go by 2009's setup numbers.
"It's a challenging track," said Kurt Busch, who ranks fourth in the Chase entering Sunday's race. "Only racing there once a year, there's a little bit of an uneasy feeling going in. If you don't have a solid notebook, it's hard to find that speed."
It can make a Chase driver downright queasy if he knows the history here. The guy who wins the championship usually runs well at Kansas. Only once has the eventual champ failed to post a top-10 on the Kansas plains.
Jimmie Johnson finished 14th in 2006 but went on to win his first Cup title. That was also the only year the champion was outside the top two spots in the standings when he completed the third race of the playoff.
Running near the front at Kansas and winning the Chase go hand in hand. It's the first of the four 1.5-mile ovals in the 10-race playoff.
Call them cookie-cutters if you want, but not all 1.5-mile tracks are alike. Kansas Speedway is the oddball of the bunch.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at email@example.com.