The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series postseason makes its second visit of the year to Kansas City and the Kansas Motor Speedway, with the running of Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 (2 PM ET, ESPN). There are three drivers in command of the race, several other hopefuls and countless other drivers not eligible for the overall championship, but still hoping for individual wins that can salvage a season and line the purse.
One of those drivers is Denny Hamlin. The 29-year-old had grown into a consistent contender coming into the 2013 season. From 2006-12, he finished in the top 10 six times, including a second-place finish in 2010. When Hamlin had a good start to this year, finishing third at Phoenix in early March, it looked like more of the same was coming.
Hamlin’s St. Patrick’s Day race in Bristol foreshadowed the beginning of the end. He led for 117 laps before problems relegated him to the back of the pack. Then a week later he suffered a serious back injury and was shelved until June. The missed time all but finished his chances of accumulating enough points to make the Chase, but there was still time to put together a respectable season.
When Hamlin finished in the top 10 four times in his first five races back, including a beauty contest All-Star race in Charlotte, it looked like that was exactly what would happen. But he never finished higher than 12th the rest of the way and most of the finishes were way off the pace.
One of the problems might have been the politics of racing working against Hamlin after his injury, according to TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill. “Kenseth and Kyle Busch (both of whom are on Hamlin’s team) were in contention, so they might have gotten the better equipment,” Bill speculated. “That happens a lot.”
It was one more piece of bad luck for a driver who had his share of it in 2013. And with both Kenseth and Kyle running in the top three, it’s unlikely to change. While it might be nice to see Hamlin salvage his season, more than likely we’ll have to wait until 2014 to see the best he has to offer.
CHASING THE CUP
Matt Kenseth continues to hold his lead, although Jimmie Johnson’s win last Sunday closed the margin to eight points. Busch is 12 points back and in very quick striking distance. On the opposite end of the 13-driver Chase are Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne who all have to drive almost perfect races the rest of the way to have any shot. And in between is a big gray area of seven contenders.
We can expect fast racing on Sunday. Kansas Speedway was a fast track to begin with, and then did some repaving in the offseason to further increase the speed and allow free-flowing racing. The “name drivers” have fared well here in recent years, with Kenseth winning in April’s race on the new surface and also winning here last here.
That likely explains Kenseth’s status as a prohibitive favorite on Sunday, where his odds to win are an exceptionally short 7-2. Johnson is at 4-1, and Kyle Busch is 6-1. Also sitting on 6-1 is Kahne, who might be inconsistent, but has a knack for winning a race when he gets in position.