Analysis: Kansas performance a must for three playoff drivers

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Analysis: Kansas performance a must for three playoff drivers
© Provided by NBC Sports

The Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) isn’t the cutoff race for the Round of 8. But its importance, based on the team and how said team may fare on tracks like this one, which uses the 550-horsepower rules package, may hold equal value to next weekend’s elimination tilt in Martinsville.

A potentially unexpected byproduct of NASCAR becoming a split-horsepower series is the ability of teams to choose their paths of focus. Among the remaining seven playoff drivers not already locked into the Championship 4, just three — Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney — have elite metrics across both 550 and 750-horsepower tracks. Walking between the two worlds, though, is a difficult task, especially in a year with a lame-duck car in which the series is enforcing a restriction on parts development, wind tunnel research and computational fluid dynamics tests.

Improvement appears more aspirational than tangible (so says the lack of volatility in the yearlong speed rankings), so with confidence we can assume the upcoming races in Kansas and Martinsville mean different things to different teams.

For Martin Truex Jr., now 22 points below the cutline after a crash relegated him to a 25th-place finish last week in Texas, the upcoming 750-horsepower tracks fit his team to a tee. Today’s race in Kansas, where he finished sixth in the spring with a car that turned the 11th-fastest median lap, isn’t part of the rules package he and crew chief James Small deemed most important.

But for Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, it’s a bad day to have a bad day, because Martinsville doesn’t appear to offer them much in the name of safety:

Brad Keselowski (-15 Points)

In the 2019 spring race at Martinsville, Keselowski led 446 of 500 laps en route to victory. A lot has changed since then — the spoiler size used at 750-horsepower tracks shrunk prior to 2020, the same year the driver changed crew chiefs. This season, a laser focus on short tracks deviated.

He’s now a better performer on 550-horsepower tracks, ranked ninth in average median lap time compared to 16th on 750-horsepower tracks, sixth in Production in Equal Equipment Rating compared to 25th and 11th in surplus passing value compared to 30th. His fourth-place run last week in Texas shouldn’t have surprised at all, given this predilection. And that result may have raised expectations for today’s race while simultaneously reminding us of how he can stumble out of the playoffs at Martinsville.

He finished 33rd at Martinsville this spring (with a car ranked 13th in median lap time) after restarts — displaying a lack of positional volatility despite a perception otherwise — held true to recent trends. If there’s one track left in this round that suits Keselowski’s hard-charging short-run strength, it’s Kansas, not Martinsville.

Kyle Busch (+8 Points)

The foundation of Busch’s first year with crew chief Ben Beshore is 550-horsepower tracks. This wasn’t lost on the driver following an eighth-place showing last weekend in Texas, also a 1.5-mile track utilizing the same horsepower-and-aero package.

“That’s discouraging,” Busch said last Sunday. “You’d like to think we could keep our mile-and-a-half presence alive, and next week is a mile-and-a-half, and we didn’t do that today.”

This round — comprised of two 550-horsepower tracks out of three — suits Busch, ranked third in average median lap time on tracks using the rules package, better than others. But if Texas was a lost opportunity, Kansas represents the final, most realistic chance at victory because Martinsville isn’t on par.

He ranks seventh in average median lap time on 750-horsepower tracks — and ranked eighth specifically at Martinsville in the spring — where he’s also less productive (14th in PEER compared to first on 550-horsepower tracks) and a less efficient passer (ranked 12th compared to third).

Out of 29 races on non-drafting tracks, Busch concluded just five with a negative adjusted pass differential. All but one were at facilities utilizing the 750-horsepower package that he’ll see at Martinsville.

Joey Logano (-43 Points)

Contrary to Keselowski and Busch, an argument can be made that Logano is the worst playoff driver this season on 550-horsepower tracks. His car is the slowest, based on its 14th-place median lap ranking, among all playoff teams. His PEER on tracks utilizing the package is -0.054, the fourth worst among full-time drivers.

And despite his second-place median lap ranking on 750-horsepower tracks, it’d be good for him to turn in a quality performance today. Martinsville, which should be seamless based on what Logano’s done well this year, threw him for a loop in the spring. He had the ninth-fastest car and finished sixth, a second-tier feat, if repeated, that surely wouldn’t do much to erase a point delta (currently 43 points) to the cutline.

A win from him today would most likely look as it did in the Kansas playoff race last year: A triumph as a result of flexible pit strategy, mistake-free stops (his crew earned a 16-position net gain) and cunning aero-blocking negating an otherwise ho-hum statistical performance in which Logano ended the afternoon with a negative adjusted pass differential (-11). Minimal degradation on worn tires at Kansas, around 0.7 seconds from the beginning of a run to its natural end, opens the playbook to inventive green-flag pit strategy, into which crew chief Paul Wolfe should lean.

This is Logano’s own personal wildcard round for a reason, and after his 30th-place Texas finish without stage points, he should take anything he could conceivably get.

Read more about NASCAR

Xfinity Series heads to Martinsville with four spots to title race available Kansas Xfinity race results, driver points Ty Gibbs wins Xfinity race at Kansas Speedway

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