KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Just about everything that could go wrong at Kansas Speedway has for Kyle Busch.
During the April race weekend, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing wrecked in practice. He crashed out of the Truck Series race the next day. Then he spun twice more in the Sprint Cup race, finishing 38th after a hard crash ended his afternoon.
Things haven’t been a whole lot better this weekend, either. Busch hit the wall hard in the opening minute of practice on Saturday and again will be in a backup car for today’s race.
If there’s ever a time to figure things, it’s right now. Busch is off to a strong start in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, sitting third in the points race. He’s within striking distance of leader Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, two drivers who have fared much better in the heartland.
Busch has strung together three straight top-five finishes, and after testing Goodyear’s new tire at Kansas this summer, he’s confident he can turn around his fortunes.
“It’s not that you might not like a track or might not like a race or something like that,” Busch said. “It’s just a matter of trying to figure it out. Once you kind of get it figured out or get the right situations kind of lined up, you can have a shot.”
Kevin Harvick, who is tied with Jeff Gordon for fourth in points, ended a 254-race pole drought and will lead the field to the green flag. He’ll start alongside Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Johnson will start in the second row next to defending series champion Brad Keselowski, who is trying to play spoiler after failing to make the Chase.
Busch has taken the green flag in 12 Cup races at Kansas and has yet to win. It’s the only track where he has never finished in the top 5, his best run a seventh-place in 2006.
Busch has crashed out of the last two races at the 1ﾽ-mile tri-oval, the first two races at Kansas since a re-grade and repave significantly altered the way it drives.
“I thought we were running decent there last fall. Actually, I was leading and I spun myself out while I was leading,” Busch said this week. “So, hopefully, we have a good car like that this time around and I don’t make a mistake like that.”
If he does, he could head to Charlotte next weekend in a deep hole.
His JGR teammate, Kenseth, has won the past two races at Kansas, and is carrying momentum into the weekend.
He opened the Chase with a pair of wins and was seventh last week at Dover, giving him an eight-point lead over Johnson and 12 points on Busch.
“I don’t really know,” Kenseth said, when asked whether he can extend his string of solid results at Kansas. “It’s six months later, weather is a lot different, there’s a lot that has changed since the last time we were here in April.”
Busch and Kenseth both have one thing going for them: JGR has dominated on intermediate tracks in NASCAR’s Gen-6 car, winning nine times this season.
Johnson is also bringing plenty of positive vibes to Kansas, where he’s finished in the top 10 nine straight times, including a victory in the 2011 fall race. The five-time series champion won last week to move to second in the standings.
“The mile-and-a-half stuff has been good for the 48 team,” Johnson said.
“I wish we would have closed a few more wins, but we had good speed after working with the new tire.”
This will be the second race that NASCAR uses Goodyear’s “multi-zone tread” after its debut last month at Atlanta. The tire has two distinct sections, one that’s designed for more durability and one that’s designed to give drivers better traction.
Teams had an extra testing session on Thursday to get acclimated to the tires, but they were still trying to figure them out Friday and Saturday, as evidenced by a slew of spins — Kenseth and Johnson also went for a whirl during testing and practice.
Gordon will start in the seventh row, and fellow Chase contenders Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch will be coming from deep in the field.
“All we can do is our best to get the best out of our car,” Gordon said. “We can’t control what our competitors do. We can only control what we do, and to me it’s living up to our full potential and let the chips fall the way they’re supposed to.”