Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, KC Masterpiece 400 at Kansas Preview

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams are at Kansas Speedway for the KC Masterpiece 400 on Saturday, May 12th at 8 pm ET.  Pre-race coverage is on FOX Sports 1, MRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Distance: 400 miles (400 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 80),

Stage 2 (Ends on lap 160), Final Stage (Ends on lap 267)

What to Watch For:  Jimmie Johnson boasts the best driver rating (107.7) at Kansas and is tied with Jeff Gordon for most wins (three).

Four of the sport’s biggest stars made their first Cup start at his 1.5-miler – Erik Jones (2015), Ryan Blaney (2014), Austin Dillon (2011) and Denny Hamlin (2005).

No driver has ever earned his first Cup victory at Kansas.

Ryan Blaney won his first career pole position here last May becoming the youngest driver (23) to start on pole.

The top-five starting positions have produced the most wins (46 percent). Five times in 24 races, the polesitter has won – the last being Martin Truex in Fall, 2017.

Brad Keselowski holds the record for victory from the farthest spot on the starting grid (25th in 2011).

Five drivers have two runner-up finishes at Kansas: Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards.

Four drivers have started all 24 Kansas races – Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman.

Truex swept the 2017 races at Kansas. He, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon are the only drivers to win consecutive races.

Harvick Brings the Heat

For those wondering if the 2018 season’s hottest driver, Kevin Harvick may be slowing down any time soon, the answer is a definitive “no” judging by his historical statistics. A week after claiming his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series-best fourth victory at Dover, Harvick arrives in Kansas for the KC Masterpiece 400 with every reason to feel completely optimistic and confident.

Harvick’s 10.0 average finishing position on the Kansas Speedway’s 1.5-mile high banks is second only to Jimmie Johnson in the series, while he leads the loop data category of average running position (9.415 in races since 2005). He has two wins, three Busch Pole Awards and his top-five (seven) and top-ten (13) efforts are also second only to Johnson.

The driver of the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Ford arrives as the hottest driver on the circuit courtesy of a hard-fought victory Sunday on the Dover Monster Mile. He has only one finish worse than fifth (a seventh at Bristol) since mid-March.

Harvick’s recent work at Kansas includes five top-tens in the last six races and seven of the last nine – including two wins in that span. He was third in the 2017 spring race.

“It’s been a fun place to go to. I feel like we should’ve won more races there than we have, but I think you can say that at a lot of places, and sometimes the circumstances dictate that,” said Harvick, who will drive with Busch Light sponsorship on his No. 4 Ford this weekend.

“I’m confident our Busch Light Ford will be fast. Anything less than a win there is usually a disappointment.”

Seven-Time’s Record Resume

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson arrives in Kansas still looking for his first win of the 2018 season – and first in the last 34 races. But he has plenty of reason to feel good about his shot on the 1.5-miler.

Johnson leads all drivers in races since the advent of loop data (2005) with a 108.7 driver rating and is tops in the field at Kansas for fastest laps (566 to Kevin Harvick’s 410 – his next closest competitor), quality passes (934, nearly 200 more than next closest driver – Kasey Kahne with 748) and percentage of laps in the top 15 (82.5 %).  He is second to Harvick in average running position (9.786) and is second to Martin Truex Jr. in laps led (581).  That means in every major statistical category Johnson is ranked either first or second.

Johnson has three wins at Kansas, the most recent coming in the spring of 2015 when he beat Harvick in an intense battle over the final laps. He holds a track record for domination leading 197 of the 272 laps en route to a win in 2011.

He finished ninth at Dover last week to collect his third top-ten finish in the last four weeks and continues to climb in the standings. He’s ranked 12th now after being 20th only five races ago.

Truex Jr. Hoping to be Back on Track

Martin Truex Jr. has to be looking forward to his trip to the Midwest. The Furniture Row Racing driver has won the last two races at Kansas, leading a substantial 195 laps in that time.

He won the Busch Pole for 2016 spring race and the 2017 fall race. And Truex’ 713 laps out front is second in the series to Matt Kenseth’s 774. In fact, Truex ranks among the top-three best efforts in three major loop data categories (races from 2005-2017) – also including fastest laps (third with 393) and driver rating (third at 100).

Truex finished fourth at Dover last weekend, snapping an uncharacteristically poor string of luck for the reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion. He had three finishes of 26th or worse in the four races leading into Dover and he’s ranked a season-low ninth in the championship standings – and is ready to continue the rally.

“Our performance so far this season has been up and down a little bit,” Truex said. “But speed-wise we’ve been there each and every week. We’ve had really fast cars and I feel like we’re right there in speed where we were last year.”

Kyle Busch Finding his Groove at Kansas

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points leader Kyle Busch has three wins and a sizable 22-point advantage atop the Cup standings. But he’s had mixed results at the Kansas track – and would like to get back to his winning ways this weekend.

For a champion driver with so much domination on his record, this track has been an unusual challenge for Busch, comparatively speaking. He isn’t ranked among the top-five drivers in many of the primary statistical categories. At one point, he had three consecutive DNFs (2012-13 seasons). And he didn’t score his first top-five there until October 2014.

However, Busch boasts six top-ten finishes in his last six races at Kansas, winning this event two years ago.

“The last few races there, the track really has started to change and the groove is starting to spread out, and it makes me more comfortable when a track gets worn in,’’ Busch said. “[Crew chief] Adam [Stevens] and the guys have been bringing really good racecars to the track every weekend and, when you have great cars and run up front, good things are going to happen.”

Look Who’s Back

Former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth makes his Roush Fenway Racing season debut this week at a track he has found a bit of success. He has two wins – back-to-back in 2012-13 – his last year with Roush and his first after moving to Joe Gibbs Racing. His 11 top-tens are third among active drivers to Jimmie Johnson (17) and Kevin Harvick (13).

Only one time in six races from 2010-2013 did he finish lower than seventh place at Kansas. His 774 laps out front at Kansas is most among his competitors this week…and, in fact, are most all-time at Kansas. He’s led 272 laps in just the last five races at the track. He has three top-three starts in the last four races there, including the fall 2016 Busch Pole position.

This will be the first start for Kenseth back at Roush, where he won Rookie of the Year in 2000 and the 2003 Monster Energy Series championship, his fourth full-time season at NASCAR’s premier level.

He was replaced by Erik Jones at Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of last year and it was announced last month that he would split time with Roush Fenway Racing driver Trevor Bayne in the famed No. 6 Ford the rest of the season.

“My hope is it goes smoothly on Friday and I get comfortable fast,’’ Kenseth told NBC Sports. “I’ve been reading a lot of notes and looking at a lot of stuff, so I’m somewhat up to speed. As much as I can be without driving yet.”

Optimism Springs for William Byron

Hendrick Motorsports rookie driver William Byron turned in another productive performance last week at Dover and moved up two positions in the season points standings (to 18th) heading into his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debut at Kansas. Although no driver has ever earned his first Cup win at the track, it’s been a good place historically for the 20-year old North Carolinian

Byron scored his first NASCAR national series victory there, winning in only his fifth NASCAR Camping World Truck Series start in 2016. He finished fourth in his only NASCAR Xfinity Series start there last year.

Byron has run in the top-ten in nine of the first 11 Monster Energy Series races this season and run inside the top-five in eight of the last nine races. He’s led laps in four races and his 31-lap total out front is more than teammates Jimmie Johnson (zero) and Chase Elliott (eight).

Byron holds the lead in the 2018 Sunoco Rookie of the Year battle with a 32-point edge over Darrell “Bubba” Wallace.

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