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Contender or pretender? This NASCAR Chase round may surprise

It’s called the Contender Round and every Chase driver fears what could happen over the next three races.

They know any one of them could find themselves in the bottom four when the field shrinks from 12 to eight at the end of the round. This round, after all, has two of the most unpredictable tracks — Kansas and Talladega — sandwiched between a stop in Charlotte.

It’s what makes the new Chase format in NASCAR Sprint Cup intriguing, though.

“I’m ready to get going. These three tracks should be a lot of fun,” Jimmie Johnson said. “The first two, I feel that we really have a good chance. We have a good chance at all three of winning, but the first two would make the experience of the third race of the Contender Round much more enjoyable.”

It starts Sunday at Kansas, site of the Hollywood Casino 400.

Some drivers complained about the repaving job at Kansas two years ago, but those issues are beginning to resolves themselves. Still, it’s a tricky track that can throw anybody off.

As Johnson said, “The track has been slowly losing that newly paved kind of tough-track-to-get-a-hold-of thing that goes on. Hopefully we can move the groove out. It doesn’t look like the temperatures are going to be all that hot to help encourage that.”

Two favorites

Jeff Gordon: He won last week and won at Kansas earlier this season. He’s got the hot hand going into this race and would love nothing more than to secure a spot into the next round early on.

Matt Kenseth: He won seven races last year. He has yet to win this year, but continues to stay in the championship mix. It’s got to turn around for him at some point, right? Kansas would be a logical track, as he has two career victories there.

Two dark horses

Denny Hamlin: He’s won at Kansas before and is getting overlooked with a few mediocre runs. But he’s a driver who can turn it on at any point and Kansas could fit him well.

Clint Bowyer: His championship dreams have been dashed, but there would be nothing sweeter to his season than winning his home-state race the same week he and his wife welcomed their first child.

Quotables

“I feel great. You never know what can happen. I knew we had a car that was capable of racing our way in, but I didn’t think it was going to be that close. Just happy this all resets and all starts from scratch again and we’ve got another life.” — Hamlin on advancing to the Contender Round

“We didn’t do too well these first three so the reset button is in favor of our team. We feel like we are not realizing our potential, and I think it is obvious we are not realizing our potential. This gives us an opportunity to sort of get back into the championship battle. Had they not structured it so, I don’t know that we would be feeling too confident about our chances at this point. Now it’s all back to zero. We can get regrouped and get confident again and come out of here with a great finish we are back in it.” — Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Telling number

0No driver has had a season sweep at Kansas Speedway. Jeff Gordon won there earlier this year and is looking to become the first.

Chase standings

Rk. Driver Pts.
1. Brad Keselowski 3,000
1. Joey Logano 3,000
1. Kevin Harvick 3,000
1. Jimmie Johnson 3,000
1. Jeff Gordon 3,000
1. Kyle Busch 3,000
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 3,000
1. Matt Kenseth 3,000
1. Ryan Newman 3,000
1. Carl Edwards 3,000
1. Denny Hamlin 3,000
1. Kasey Kahne 3,000

Upcoming schedule

Date Track
Today Kansas
Oct. 11 Charlotte Motor Speedway
Oct. 19 Talladega
Oct. 26 Martinsville
Nov. 2 Texas Motor Speedway
Nov. 9 Phoenix International
Nov. 16 Homestead-Miami
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