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The first stage of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship has been completed with four drivers being eliminated, but no one new has stepped up to the plate as a contender to knock off Penske Racing or Hendrick Motorsports.
Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano won the first two races and Jeff Gordon won Sunday at Dover. For Keselowski and Logano, that gives them nine wins combined on the season for Penske while Gordon tied Logano for the second most wins with his fourth victory.

This week, the series rolls into Kansas Speedway’s 1.5-mile layout and if we look back at the previous seven races run on the 1.5s this season, you’ll notice that all have been won by a Penske or Hendrick driver. Keselowski has grabbed three of them; Logano, Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne have the others.
Gordon was the winner in the first Kansas race on May 10 giving him a track record three wins all-time on the track that began Cup racing in 2001. That 2001 season is kind of a magical one right now because we're seeing history repeat itself with Gordon, who last won a season title in 2001. His four wins on the season have all come on tracks that he won at in 2001. He's won at Dover, Michigan, Indianapolis and Kansas.

That's odd stuff and maybe the reason he's been shifted back to the 5/2 favorite (Bet $100 to win $250) to win the Chase over at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. He's in championship mode and Gordon would love to see a repeat of the season -- everything but ex-wife Brooke Gordon.    

The one outsider that has a great chance to spoil the Penske and Hendrick parade this week is Kevin Harvick, who has got to be tired of having the most dominant car but having nothing to show for it. He has two wins on the season, but none since April 12 at Darlington. Last week at Dover he led a race-high 223 laps, but a cut tire ruined his day and he finished a lap down in 13th-place. In the first Kansas race he led a race-high 119 laps and finished second. Three weeks ago at Chicago’s 1.5-mile layout he led a race-high 79 laps before settling for fifth.

You get the idea. Harvick is super fast every week on just about every type of layout but something always seems to go wrong. This is a complete transformation from everything he’s been used to over his career with Richard Childress Racing where he rarely had the best car or practiced well, but would get stronger as the race went on. He was always in an underdog role and some called him the ‘The Closer‘ because of his ability, but now he’s the hunted and everyone has been reeling him in.

Harvick is one of three non-Penske or Hendrick drivers to crack the top-2 on the seven 1.5-mile tracks this season. In addition to Kansas, he also was runner-up two weeks later at Charlotte. Kyle Busch was second at Kentucky and Matt Kenseth was behind Kahne at Atlanta. The Joe Gibbs Racing drivers are still kind of a mystery. They appear to be getting better but are no where close to 2013 when they won seven of the 11 races on 1.5-mile tracks.

Jimmie Johnson’s 7.6 average finish at Kansas is the best in track history. Gordon is next closest at 10.1. This is usually go-time for Johnson in the Chase, but he really hasn’t been a contender to win any race since his incredible run that ended in June when he won three of four races. Those still remain his only three wins of the year. He is the best ever at Dover and managed to finish third last week, but never led a lap and there was never a point where anyone said to themselves that Johnson is going to steal this one. There still is plenty of time left, but if Dover can’t get Johnson going, then what can?

Sunday’s race will be a battle among all the favorites, but there are a couple of drivers that have a fair chance of upsetting the heavyweights. Kurt Busch, who was just eliminated from the Chase, should be able to run almost as well as his teammate Harvick. The Ganassi Racing duo of Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson, who also run Hendrick engines like Harvick and Busch do, have been competive all season on these tracks. Larson was third at Chicago three weeks ago while McMurray led 32 laps and finished ninth.
It's fair to say that Harvick is going to be fast again and led a lot of laps, and at some point he's going to break through with a win and this looks like a great opportunity for him.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #4 Kevin Harvick (6/1)
2) #2 Brad Keselowski (5/1)
3) #24 Jeff Gordon (6/1)
4) #22 Joey Logano (8/1)
5) #42 Kyle Larson (20/1)

NASCAR Expert Picks
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