Tonight, the stars and cars of NASCAR’s pinnacle division will take on the oh-so-treacherous Kansas Speedway to contest the 5-Hour Energy 400. For the first time, the Sprint Cup Series will be racing at Kansas under the lights, and with the nighttime conditions comes a whole slew of new challenges for the teams to face. Kansas is currently considered to be among the most difficult tracks to drive at the Sprint Cup level right now, and as such, tonight could see a great deal of carnage, which brings us to our first topic…
1. Just how treacherous will the track be?
Race car drivers do not like repaved track surfaces. Unfortunately for the Kansas Speedway, the track was repaved and reconfigured in the summer of 2012, and as such, the track’s pavement is still quite fresh. The drivers detest fresh pavement because it necessitates rock hard tires that have no “feel” for the track. Considering the track inherently has very little grip to begin with due to the compound that was used to pave the track, it all adds up to one very dangerous and treacherous set of track conditions.
The drivers were teetering on the edge of control throughout practice, with nearly every driver screaming “LOOSE” over their radios. When drivers teeter on the edge of control like that, wrecks are bound to happen, and at the newly repaved Kansas, wrecks tend to be the norm. There were 20 cautions combined in the two races at the facility last year, and with speeds projected to be even higher tonight, the pucker factor should only creep up even more.
If there is a rash of early cautions in tonight’s race, expect that to set the tone for a wild race overall.
2. How will the tires hold up?
Tires have been a big story throughout the 2014 season, and Goodyear’s Eagles will face their most rigorous test of the season tonight. No track on the circuit save for Michigan puts a greater strain on the tires, and with tire blowouts happening on less tire-intensive tracks this season, it will be interesting to see if the tires are able to hold up at all tonight. It’s important to note that actual tire wear is not going to be a major factor tonight, if anything they won’t wear much at all. The concern is for outright tire failures caused by undue stress on the tires.
If the tires do not fail, expect actual tire wear to be a non-issue tonight, which in turn will open teams up to a variety of pit strategies and track position gambles that have been conspicuously absent in 2014.
3. Will TV ratings soar to new lows?
Perhaps the most sobering and perplexing story of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season has been the sagging TV ratings for NASCAR on FOX. After the sport’s popularity and television ratings “bottomed out” during the 2010 Cup season, the sport enjoyed a modest 3 year period of stability (and even modest growth in 2011 and parts of 2013), and it seemed as though the sport had found a new and comfortable “niche” on television.
2014 unfortunately has been a different story. Every single race has had drops in viewership save for Darlington, and the trend doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of slowing down. Tonight’s Kansas event is a particularly worrisome race in this regard, as Saturday night events tend to do poorly in terms of ratings, and Kansas night race has little “equity” among fans, meaning that there are likely a number of fans who are not aware that the Kansas spring event switched to a nighttime format. All of this bodes poorly for ratings, which ultimately means FOX could hit yet another historic low tonight.
Perhaps my projections will be wrong and the race will outperform expectations, but there is no question that the ratings issue is not something that is going away. Keep an eye out on Sunday afternoon when the ratings are released, the results may end up sounding alarm bells in NASCAR-land.
4. Who is the favorite to win the 5-Hour Energy 400?
Tracks like Kansas tend to be among the more straightforward facilities in terms of making accurate race picks. The track does not have a strong tire-wear component which means that you likely won’t see a great deal of “comers and goers” tonight. Whoever is fast early will likely be fast for the duration of the race, and based on practice and qualifying, a few names stood out above everyone else in terms of speed.
Kevin Harvick was by far the most consistently fast driver yesterday, as he comfortably put his car on the pole and had top 7 speed in both practices. Harvick won the fall event at Kansas last year in rather dominating fashion (he won from the pole), so it seems fairly likely that a repeat could be in order tonight.
As for Harvick’s staunchest challengers, the Penske cars looked fast all day yesterday and start P2 and P3 respectively. Penske’s intermediate track program is the best in the biz right now, so I have little doubt that those two will be strong.
But for my final pick to win, Harvick just looks like he is going to be the man tonight. I’m predicting that he’ll grab win #3 tonight and do so in dominating fashion.
Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2014 5-Hour Energy 400:
1. 4-Kevin Harvick
2. 22-Joey Logano
3. 48-Jimmie Johnson
4. 2-Brad Keselowski
5. 14-Tony Stewart
6. 24-Jeff Gordon
7. 18-Kyle Busch
8. 20-Matt Kenseth
9. 17-Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
10. 5-Kasey Kahne