KC Masterpiece 400

We're top heavy with favorites this week, so let's scour the next level of candidates and see if one slips through the cracks and can steal the checkers in Saturday night's KC Masterpiece 400 at Kansas Speedway. But first, we need to understand just how good and ahead of the curve these favorites are on this particular type of track.

There have been six of the most diverse race tracks on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule the past six races, but this week we go to what the series has the most of, a 1.5-mile track. There's 11 of them on the schedule and Saturday's race will be the fourth on what some like to call the cookie-cutter circuit.

The only thing really similar about the 1.5-mile tracks is the distance. Every driver will tell you that each of the layouts has their own special nuance that makes it unique among the other. Most of them are banked differently which drastically changes the set-up and speeds between them and some have newer or older pavement than others that change the overall complexion.

But there's no denying results when you put them all together. Last season Martin Truex Jr. won seven of the 11 races on 1.5s, including both Kansas races, and the effect was winning his first Cup Series Championship. He probably should have more than two Kansas wins.

“Winning three straight at Kansas would be pretty special,” Truex said. “We’ve been so good there the past three or four years but also had some heartbreakers after having the best car and not winning. Getting those two last year meant a lot. It was gratifying to get the job done but still feel the track owes us a few more.”

Truex has led 713 laps, second-most in Kansas history behind Matt Kenseth. He's had five races there leading 91 laps or more. Still, he's been a notch below Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch on these types finishing fifth at Atlanta in February and fourth at Las Vegas in March.

Because there are more of these track in the series than any other, they take on a role of higher importance and it's the area that most teams focus their attention. It's all about winning championships, right? And this is the formula -- success at 1.5s -- proven to work. Just ask Jimmie Johnson and his seven titles.

This season the cookie-cutter King has been Kevin Harvick, who has won two of three races run on 1.5's already, and the race he didn't win at Texas last month, he led 87 laps and finished second. That's a championship resume, for sure, and he comes off his season-leading fourth win (Dover) of the season that is only 11 races old.

“Our intermediates have been really good, and we’ve been good everywhere as a company," Harvick said. "As you look at Kansas, in general, it’s been one of my best racetracks through the years. And since I’ve come to SHR, it’s probably been one of our top-two racetracks. 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. I’m confident our Busch Light Ford will be fast. Anything less than a win there is usually a disappointment.”

His dominance on the intermediates has been incredible and he definitely has an edge, a secret his crew isn't entirely sharing with anyone. Not even his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates who are all having success. Just not Harvick-type of success.

We've recently seen these smaller different tracks with so many other drivers being competitive enough to win and we also saw Talladega, the biggest track, where every driver could win with restrictor-plates strapped on, so we may be under the belief that many teams have caught up to Harvick's winning set-up on these types, but I don't believe it.

Harvick is going to have to have a tire burst, penalty, engine failure or be involved in a wreck to lose this week. If he avoids all those possibilities, I don't believe anyone can beat him. He is the Truex of last season. He is the best, and I have no problem saying that despite Las Vegan Kyle Busch having three wins on the season, which includes winning just ahead of Harvick on the 1.5 at Texas. Busch agrees, kind of.

“Man, I think we’re pretty equal, honestly," said Busch, who has a 2016 Kansas win to his credit. "I think I’ve got to give them the notch a little bit. I think they’re a little bit better than we are."

As if Harvick didn't already have the credentials to merit being the favorite this week based on current form, he also has some amazing Kansas stats with a 9.9 average finish in 24 career starts. And if we look at his last nine starts there since 2013, he's got two wins, six top-fives, three poles, led laps in eight of the races and hasn't finished worse than 16th. He was third in this race last season. But wait, there's more: the chassis he's using this week is the same one he won with in the fall of 2016 which also had two other runner-ups that season.

If being able to get 4/1 odds on Harvick, consider yourself fortunate. But I need some candidates to win that will give me a nice payday if something wild happens to Harvick like happened at Fontana when his temper got the best of him early ruining his day with a 35th-place finish.

Stuff happens, so why not have an alternate plan and hope Harvick gets another late pit road speeding penalty. Because drivers like Harvick, Busch, and Truex have tilted the scales so far on the odds board with low numbers, all others should be offered with chunky numbers.

How about Ryan Blaney at 15/1 who finished fifth at Las Vegas and Texas? He led 83 laps in this race last season while driving the Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford and then finished third there in the fall. His Penske Ford is better this season.

Harvick's teammate, Kurt Busch, should also be considered and you might find 30/1 on the Las Vegan if shopping around. He led 52 laps at Atlanta and finished eighth and led 40 laps at Texas and finished seventh. Their teammate Clint Bowyer was third at Atlanta and ninth at Texas, and the Emporia, Kansas native wants to win on his home track more than anything, almost.

“Kansas is obviously at the top of the list, right up there with a Daytona 500, of places I’d really like to get a victory at some point in my career,” said Bowyer, who is 25/1 to win Saturday night. “I won’t complain no matter where we win our next race, but winning at Kansas would be extra special for a lot of people in the Bowyer family.”

Joey Logano, listed at 18/1, also finished seventh or better on all three 1.5s this season in his Penske Ford and teammate Brad Keselowski was runner-up at Atlanta.

Logano is a two-time winner at Kansas (2014, 2015), Keselowski has won there once (2011). These Penske guys are the ones to watch closely because I could see them being the ones to close the gap on Harvick's edge. They all drive Fords and after a few more runs on these type of tracks, I think they'll figure something out.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #4 Kevin Harvick (7/2)
2) #12 Ryan Blaney (15/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (4/1)
4) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (4/1)
5) #22 Joey Logano (18/1)