Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:01 AM

Hollywood Casino 400

Hello cookie-cutter Kansas, here we come loaded with NASCAR Playoff drama as four more drivers will get chopped from championship contention this weekend. Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway will be the ninth race of the season on a 1.5-mile track and second visit to Kansas.

Only two drivers Aric Almirola and Chase Elliott, are sure to advance by virtue of winning the first two races in the second round, while Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have almost enough points to advance without needing a strong performance Sunday.

“We’ve obviously not had the round we wanted, but we had some similar issues in this round last year," said Kyle Busch. "If we didn’t have those bonus points, this weekend might look a lot different heading into the race. So I’m thankful that the system is in place that rewards the good runs we had during the regular season. We’ll just have to do what we’ve been doing all year and see where that puts us, and if we have a shot to go for the win, then we’ll obviously try to do that, as well, like we do every week with our M&M’S Halloween scheme."

Busch and Harvick have been the dominators all season long with seven wins each, and three each between the eight races run on 1.5-mile tracks so far, including Harvick's win at Kansas on May 12.

The Cup Series has tested at Kansas Speedway since the last race. There was a two-day session, Sept. 24-25, where I'm sure we'll see effects of it on display Sunday.

“At Kansas, we had a great test," said Chase Elliott crew chief Alan Gustafson. "So, we’re going to go there and work on our mile-and-a-half program and try hard to win that race. I think getting as many points as we can and closing the gap to the guys in front of us will help significantly.”

Lots of strategies will be happening among the 12 drivers still in championship contention. Others like Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin are just looking to get their first win of the season to see their win streaks stay active. Both have won at least one race a season since their rookie years.

It's a good idea to scan over the May 12 Kansas box score and see that following Harvick was Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, and Hamlin rounding out the top-five with Larson leading the most laps (101), but the best advice I can offer is to review what happened at Las Vegas to kick off the Playoffs because it's more recent and relevant to how the cars are likely to run this weekend.

We're in a completely different place from May 12 to now. At the time, I think I was whining weekly about the Big-2 of Harvick and Busch winning every weekend and dominating on the 1.5-mile cookie cutters which they combined to win the first six. But then at the halfway point of the season at Daytona, suddenly the rest of the series caught up to the Big-2 and we added Truex to the mix and called them the Big-3. Erik Jones and Chase Elliott would both win their first career Cup race, Kurt Busch and Ryan Blaney would get their first wins of the season and Brad Keselowski would win three straight races culminating with a Las Vegas win Sept. 16.

The Las Vegas race saw all three drivers from Team Penske finish in the top-five with Larson finishing second and Truex third. Truex would also lead the most laps (96), but by no means was it top heavy like we had seen most of the season on similar types. The Las Vegas race was full of parity and I'm looking for something similar Sunday.

“The way we ran at Las Vegas last month was really encouraging," said three-time Kansas winner Jimmie Johnson. "We had a top-five car until we cut a tire down. I’m encouraged about the progress on the No. 48 team and am looking forward to Kansas.”

Johnson is listed at 40/1 odds to win by the Las Vegas Westgate SuperBook.

Ironically, the last five Kansas races have been won by the Big-3. Harvick won in May and also the fall of 2016 while Truex swept the 2017 season and Busch won in the spring of 2016. Harvick's three career wins at Kansas tie him with Johnson for the most among active drivers. By the way, Harvick is using the same exact chassis that he won with in May. The Big-3 will be involved with the leaders all race, but others will be contending.

The first candidate that comes to mind is Keselowski who won at Kansas in 2011 and it's not only because of his Vegas win, but it's because he's the first driver on the chopping block to get cut sitting ninth in points. The desperation angle I like very much. It's also why I like Larson who basically has to race himself to the win to advance to the third round of the Playoffs. Blaney is in that spot as well.

Then there's Clint Bowyer coming home and he's 20/1 to win his third race of the season.

“Obviously, you want to win the Daytona 500, a championship, things like that, but winning at your home track is right up there,” said Bowyer, who owns two top-five finishes and six top-10s in 20 starts at Kansas.

“It’s always fun to go home. It’s always busy to go home. Going back to Kansas Speedway, you have so many people who have made a difference and got you to where you are, you owe it to them, just like you did when they were helping you on that racecar, to go see them. To see how they’re doing, see their kids now. Things have changed a lot since I’ve moved away and moved to North Carolina and got into this Cup racing. But, to be able to go back and see family, friends, peers, people I used to race with, businesses that used to sponsor you, it’s important to me to go back and see all of those.”

Bowyer finished second last week at Talladega, behind teammate Almirola. He should have a car capable of winning, just like his other SHR teammate Harvick.

Perhaps the most interesting odds of the week posted at the Superbook is Hamlin at 40/1. As soon as he got eliminated from the Playoffs, he went on a tear finishing second at Dover and fourth last week at Talladega. His lone Kansas win came in 2012 and had a good run there in May.

There's lots to choose from, but I've weighted my betting strategy with Kyle Larson to get his first win of the season and first ever on a 1.5-mile track -- astounding because he's always been so fast of them. He's been runner-up on two of the last three on 1.5s. It's his turn to win. Be sure to shop around on the price.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #42 Kyle Larson (7/2)
2) #2 Brad Keselowski (8/1)
3) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (9/2)
4) #4 Kevin Harvick (5/2)
5) #22 Joey Logano (15/1)

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