Commentary

Kansas track presents different challenges despite cookie-cutter moniker

It may be a so-called "cookie-cutter" track on paper, but Kansas Speedway presents special challenges for Sunday's Chase racers, writes Mark Ashenfelter.

Updated: September 27, 2007, 7:34 PM ET
By Mark Ashenfelter | ESPN.com

Looking at the tracks that comprise the Chase for the Nextel Cup, Kansas Speedway seems rather innocuous. The 1.5-mile facility is often compared to Chicagoland Speedway -- understandable since both opened in 2001 -- when the discussion turns to "cookie-cutter" tracks.

For the most part, those tracks may induce tedious racing much more often than fear and loathing among competitors.

And after the twists and turns presented at Dover -- and the great unknown of running the Car of Tomorrow for the first time with a restrictor plate a week from now at Talladega -- it's easy see why the drivers may consider Sunday's LifeLock 400 (2 p.m. ET, ABC) something of a breather.

For some, that may well turn out to be the case.

But there's a distinct possibility several of the 12 drivers and teams in the Chase will head home happy that they're not in Kansas anymore.

Here's a look at why Kansas should just be a walk in the park for many of the drivers in the Chase. And a few reasons why it might just jump up and bite a few of them as well.

On the plus side
There's nothing too tricky about the track: Banked 15 degrees in the corners, 10.4 degrees on the frontstretch and five degrees on the backstretch, the track is one in which finding the right setup shouldn't be too challenging.

That means aerodynamics will play a bigger role here this year with the "old" car than it should next season, when the COT will be utilized in this and every race. Horsepower is equally important this year, so it's clear that most of the heavy lifting was done before the transporters ever left North Carolina.

Considering Tony Stewart won at Chicagoland in July, and gambled on fuel mileage to win in Kansas a year ago, he has no complaints about the similarity between the tracks.

"They're about as close as you can get to being the same. You aren't going to find any two tracks that are more identical than Kansas and Chicago," Stewart said. "The only difference between the two tracks: The backstretch at Chicago is a little bit rounded, while Kansas' is straight."

There's room to race: When tracks are first built, there's usually just one fast way around the track, and that's the bottom groove. Over time, as weather takes a toll on the asphalt and the track becomes worn in, a second groove often develops.

The more grooves, the better the racing. And that gives smart drivers a chance to adapt their car to the track, helping to make up for any deficiencies if they don't have the best car aerodynamically.

Stewart said both Chicagoland and Kansas have gotten better with age.

"It seems like in the last couple of years in particular that both tracks have come around. They've seasoned and it's gotten to where we can finally get off the bottom and move around the racetrack more," Stewart said. "That's what you want as a driver. That's what the teams want. You don't want to be stuck following guys and not being able to move around and pass.

"It just makes you confident that you know you have options when you go into the corner where you can help yourself out as a driver. It makes this place a lot more fun to race when you're able to move around and find different grooves. The first couple of times we came here we all dreaded it because it was just single-file racing, and all you heard us talk about was aero push. Now, you can't really use the aero push excuse too much anymore because you have the ability to move around on the racetrack more."

On the minus side
Fuel mileage could be a factor: Stewart was able to gamble and win last year on fuel mileage since he wasn't in the Chase. But drivers racing for points had to give up great track position just to ensure they didn't run out of gas.

Tony Stewart
You'd like to think that if you had success at one track that you'd have success at the other. But at the same time, there are no guarantees in this sport. As fast as technology changes, what worked a month ago might not work now. We won't know anything until we hit the track.

Tony Stewart

If there's a long green-flag run at the end of Sunday's race, don't expect to see many of the Chasers currently at the front of the standings battling for the win. But for Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin (who are at the back of the Chase pack), a fuel-mileage gamble might pay off handsomely.

A year ago, no driver in the field lost an engine, but a fuel-pump problem bit Jeff Gordon and greatly hindered his championship aspirations.

Teams only come here once a year: At some tracks, the teams have volumes of notes regarding past setups to turn to while setting a baseline to start the weekend. NASCAR, though, holds just one Cup race a year at Kansas Speedway and has only been doing so since 2001.

Granted, things change quickly, but there's something to be said about familiarity building contentment. And teams don't know this track as well as they do Charlotte or Atlanta.

"It may make it a little more difficult, but both this [No. 11] team and our teammates at [Joe Gibbs Racing] have really good notes to work from, so we feel very well-prepared going to pretty much any track," Hamlin said. "Clearly, Tony has been very good here and we've run well here in the past, so equipment-wise I know we'll be OK. As a driver, I am at the point where I am still learning a lot about the tracks we visit so every single lap, in practice or race conditions, helps a lot."

Teams only race at Chicagoland once a year as well, so Stewart hopes there's a carryover effect that will aid his cause.

"You'd like to think that if you had success at one track that you'd have success at the other," Stewart said. "But at the same time, there are no guarantees in this sport. As fast as technology changes, what worked a month ago might not work now. We won't know anything until we hit the track."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.

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