Clint Bowyer, left, and Mark Martin talk after qualifying for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., Friday, Oct. 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Brad Keselowski will have a lot of ground to make up over the repaved surface of Kansas Speedway after a lousy qualifying lap left him starting deep in the field today.
The leader in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship thinks he has a couple of things going for him.
He's performed well at Kansas in the past -- he won over the 1.5-mile track last year, and his average finish in his last three races is fifth. And he's performed well over tracks that have had a facelift this year, winning at Chicago and finishing fourth at Pocono.
"The track has been very good to me in the past, but obviously it's much different now with the repave," said Keselowski, who entered the weekend with a seven-point lead over Jimmie Johnson. Keselowski will start 25th after struggling to find speed in Friday's qualifying.
"It's a different track today," Keselowski said after practice Saturday, "and I suspect it will be a different track tomorrow."
The freezing and thawing of the Midwest put the original surface at Kansas through a beating, and big chunks of asphalt were breaking loose during the April race weekend.
When the decision was made to resurface it, owner International Speedway Corp. decided to re-grade the entire track. The original, uniform 15-degree banking was changed to 17-20 degrees of progressive banking, which officials hope will promote passing during long green-flag runs.
"It feels totally different than any other track that we race," said Denny Hamlin, third in the Chase. "Before, you could compare it to a couple other tracks, but this is really a beast in its own that we're running the speeds that we're running on the banking that we're running."
Every driver who qualified broke the track record of 180.856 set by Matt Kenseth in 2005. Kasey Kahne, who is fifth in the Chase, will start on the pole with a lap of 191.360 mph.
"I've always liked Kansas," Kahne said. "I've liked how you have been able to move around and run a lot of different lines and things. I feel like this track will go there eventually."
Johnson said today's race will be "a big guessing game," and that tire wear and fuel mileage are going to be important. So will starting position, given the difficulty that drivers expect in passing, which is why Keselowski understands he put himself in a tight spot.
"We just have more work than we wanted," he said. "If you don't qualify well, you just have to make sure that your car is fast in race trim, and that's what we'll try to do."
It was about this time a year ago Tony Stewart went on the charge that ultimately carried him to his third Sprint Cup championship.
The schedule changed this year because of the repave at Kansas this summer, but it was this same weekend at Talladega that Stewart followed up an eighth-place finish at Charlotte with a seventh-place run. He won the following two races at Martinsville and Texas, was third at Phoenix and then clinched the title by winning the season-ending race at Homestead.
"We're in a little different scenario this year than last year. We're a little further back," said Stewart, who's eighth in the Chase and 50 points back of leader Brad Keselowski.
Stewart squandered an opportunity to pick up ground two weeks ago at Talladega when he triggered a 25-car pileup trying to protect the lead on the last lap. The chaotic crash collected 10 of the 12 title contenders and dropped the defending champion from winning the race to a 22nd place finish.
"I had an opportunity to gain 20-some odd points and that would have put us in a very similar situation where we were last year," Stewart said. "That was an opportunity that got away because of a mistake that I made. We've learned that until they mathematically tell you you're out, you still have just a good of shot as anybody. We'll keep plugging away."
PIT ROAD PERIL
The new grading at Kansas Speedway has changed the way drivers enter and leave pit road, and that could create some excitement during green-flag pit stops on Sunday.
The transitions are steeper than they were under the previous configuration, so drivers have spent part of practice getting a bearing on the angle they'll take entering pit road.
They'll also have to blend later on the straightaway when they get back on the track.
"It's really hard to get on pit road. The tires are so hard," Chase leader Brad Keselowski said. "It's just one of the many challenges that a repaved track has, and one of those things you have to figure out. Whoever does that best will have an advantage."