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Hollywood Casino 400

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This is supposed to be where the cream rises to the top in NASCAR.

It's crunch time!

Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway will be the fifth race of the Chase and it will also be the eighth race this season on a 1.5-mile layout and third of five in the Chase format. We should have a pretty good idea of who is going to run well this week, even though the 1.5s have been a tale of two seasons.

The first four 1.5s were dominated by Chevrolet with Jimmie Johnson winning three of them (Atlanta, Texas, Kansas) and Kevin Harvick winning the other one (Las Vegas) -- as well as finishing runner-up to Johnson three times. But then in one sweeping change, the Joe Gibbs Toyota's won the next four races on 1.5s (Charlotte, Kentucky, Chicago), which also includes the mid-May non-point All-Star race. Johnson and Harvick weren't factors at as all during that stretch as all four Gibbs' drivers got on a roll simultaneously.

But then on Sunday, we had another owner and manufacturer crash the 1.5 season party. Joey Logano took his Penske Ford out front at Charlotte and pretty much stayed there the entire race leading 227 laps. Only Denny Hamlin finished in the top-five among Gibbs cars, Harvick was back running second and another Chevy driven by Martin Truex Jr. came in with a strong third-place run. Truex Jr. led a race-high 95 laps in the May Kansas race before settling for ninth.

So what's it going to be this week? Are things cycling around? Is the cream rising to the top? Has Harvick found his groove back? And could Logano be ready to keep his roll going and show he's got a whole bunch more wins to grab?

Penske obviously found something to be so dominant Sunday. By virtue of winning last week, Logano gets an automatic ticket into the next round where the final eight drivers will be decided after next weeks race at Talladega. He can go all out with no fear and just win the race for the fun of it. Logano has a top-five finish in his past four Kansas start, including winning this race last season.

Matt Kenseth put himself in a rough spot last week with a 42nd-place finish. He's going to need lots of help and maybe even have to win one of the next two races to advance. Of his five wins this season, none of them came on a 1.5-mile track. But last week at Charlotte he was one of the few to lead laps other than Logano, 72 in all, before crashing. It's a good desperation angle to play with him as he tries to win his first Championship since 2003 -- the year before the first Chase format started.

While Logano is getting all the love from Ford right now as a championship contender, let's not forget about teammate Brad Keselowski who has finished ninth or better in all eight races on 1.5-mile tracks. Logano has been sixth or better in six of the eight.

Keselowski only has one win on the season -- he led only one lap at Fontana, the one that counted -- but Kansas has always been a place he's run well at, winning in 2011. However, he appears to be in championship mode and he's only going to take what's available to him. He isn't going to risk anything. He knows he's got a top-8 type of car all year and he's not going to try and do more than its capable of. He saw Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin make the Championship race last season without winning in the Chase and by playing it smart. Keselowski is doing the same thing.

Kesenth is a two-time winner at Kansas while Kyle Busch finished a career-best third there last season (he missed the May race due to injury). Hamlin won there in 2012 and Edwards has a 10.8 average finish. Only Johnson and Jeff Gordon have a better average than Edwards, and they each have three wins.

Outside of Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet doesn't look so hot this week -- maybe Truex Jr. Harvick won in 2013 and has finished second in two of the past three races there. He led 53 laps in the May race.

It wouldn't be a surprise to see Logano win again this week just because he can let it all fly, but I have the feeling we're going to see Kenseth be the best on Sunday. Every Chase participant wants to win on Sunday to avoid Talladega, but only five of them really have a shot. I'd love to see Gordon finally win a race and Johnson, who is not in the Chase, is going to be a factor, but I see Toyota celebrating in the end.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #20 Matt Kenseth (8/1)
2) #22 Joey Logano (7/1)
3) #4 Kevin Harvick (5/1)
4) #18 Kyle Busch (7/1)
5) #11 Denny Hamlin (10/1)

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