Race Weekend Central

Kansas: A Potential Turning Point for Struggling (Or Winning) Drivers

turning point
1. The point at which a very significant change occurs; a decisive moment.
2. Mathematics A maximum or minimum point on a curve.

The turning point of one’s season, if there is ever one at all, could conceivably occur anytime during a given year. However, in order for one’s season needing to be turned around at all, there has to have been much of a season at all to that point. A driver could have a really poor Daytona 500, for example but if everything afterward goes fairly swimmingly, that’s not a turnaround from poor results; that’s just a good season blemished by an early outlier. The same can apply to a rough end of the season after 34 or 35 spectacular showings.

Can we expect to see a shake up in the season at Kansas? Maybe… maybe not.

Seven races into the year, the 2013 Sprint Cup season is becoming ripe for such interpretation. It’s clearer each week who the favorites are, and who’s either down for the count already or has merely stumbled across some bad luck.

Can Kansas Speedway become the change to the status quo?

It’s certainly an important track at which to look when it comes to gauging whether or not someone’s season might finally rise from the dumps or fall from the clouds. Like Texas before it, Kansas is a 1.5-miler, the type of track that takes up a large chunk of the Cup Series schedule. Though it differs from Texas in its shape (tri-oval versus Texas’ traditional oval), the track is nonetheless the sort of circuit drivers expect to see often.

However, Kansas may not be the change for which many are hoping. In fact, the track could very well further cement the current order of things.

Guess who leads all active drivers in average finish at the track? If you said, “current Cup Series points leader Jimmie Johnson,” that would be an unnecessary mouthful, but correct all the same.

In 13 races at the tri-oval, Johnson is maintaining an average finish of eighth, bested only by the one time Robert Pressley ran a race at Kansas, finishing seventh. Johnson’s won twice there, the last coming during the Chase in 2011. Five top 5s. 11 top 10s. This track is right in the center of his wheelhouse.

The favorites, behind him are exactly who you’d expect in 2013. Second, third, and fourth among active drivers are Greg Biffle (9.5), Brad Keselowski (9.8) and Carl Edwards (10.8), who enter Kansas with placings of fourth, second and fifth in the overall standings, respectively. Biffle can also add two wins to his tally at the track, while Keselowski won there once, two years ago. Edwards cannot yet count Kansas among speedways at which he’s claimed victory in Cup, but he does have four top 5s, eight top 10s and has finished on the lead lap in all but one of his 11 starts.

So, OK, maybe the makeup of the top five in points won’t alter too drastically. Come the end of the race on Sunday, perhaps Johnson will have only increased his points lead, despite strong showings by his closest competitors. That said, when it comes to a turning point, there are a few drivers likely to be looking towards Kansas with a strengthened outlook on life.

Cases in point: Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.

Between the two of them, the veteran duo has amassed four wins (two each) in Kansas. The former has the most top-5 finishes — eight — at the track in its short history, and joins Johnson as the only other driver with a double-digit tally in top-10 results (10). The latter is less formidable, but only slightly so, with Smoke accumulating stats that include six top 5s and nine top 10s at the track.

Gordon has run into some poor luck here and there this season, but he’s still currently placed 15th in the overall standings, by no means too far behind just yet. On the other hand, Stewart has had a downright dismal 2013, managing only one top-10 finish and sitting 22nd in points.

Kansas could be the adrenaline shot both these guys need, though it’s not going to come easy.

First, one has to overcome obstacles already being faced in that particular season. Gordon and his Hendrick teammates aren’t running too horribly, so this issue may not be as tough for the four-time champ. Stewart, though? His Stewart-Haas organization has been unable to get off the ground and rolling in 2013, with Ryan Newman the team’s only driver that’s had some decent results — and he’s still only 17th in points (for what it’s worth, Newman does have one prior win at Kansas!)

But there’s also the age factor. Both are still fully capable competitors, but at least at Kansas Gordon hasn’t won since 2002. Stewart’s looking back over three years ago to the Fall of 2009 to find his last victory at the track. Other results for both have been decent, but Gordon at least found more success earlier in his career than more recently.

Still, past history is past history. It’s not like either driver is, say, Terry Labonte, a talented veteran who probably isn’t going to be able to replicate most of his stats due to being in equipment far beneath that which he was used to at his peak. As drivers for two of the sport’s more competitive teams in recent years, both have at least the equipment to get it done. It could merely be a matter of getting to a track where bad luck can be reversed, either if one has a very good car or if the stars simply align.

Conversely, there’s one driver in the top five in points that hasn’t been mentioned: Kyle Busch. Though he’s fresh off a Texas win (his first at the track in Cup competition) and sits third in points (not to mention his blistering pace in the Nationwide Series so far) he’s only been able to manage two top-10 finishes in 11 Kansas races, scoring an average finish of 21st. Not exactly the kind of track record about which one’s looking to brag.

So keep an eye on Gordon, Stewart and Busch this weekend. All three have past results at Kansas that could indicate the opposite of what they’ve experienced so far in 2013, be it a few choice wins or years of underperforming. If any driver continues their past Kansas ways, the season could very well get extremely interesting for any of them, be it a rejuvenating win that reasserts them as fully-fledged competitors or a devastating loss that begins a downward spiral.

But really, probably just expect Jimmie Johnson to win Kansas.

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