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With four 'cookie-cutter' 1-1/2-mile tracks coming up in the playoffs, which NASCAR drivers are the best at this part of the game?

 In June Brad Keselowski used fuel mileage to win the Kansas 400, a race teammate Kurt Busch dominated. Which way will the Roger Penske title contenders play the game this time around? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   KANSAS CITY, Kansas
   If it's all about winning -- and NASCAR racing should be, of course – then let's size up a key aspect of this fall's Sprint Cup championship chase: these 1-1/2-mile tracks, and who has been winning on them and who not.

   It's another cookie-cutter track this week, Kansas Speedway (no, the casino gaming tables and slots won't be open yet), and it's looking like this year's NASCAR championship will be won or lost on these 1-1/2-milers – Kansas, Charlotte, Texas and Homestead four of the tour's final seven venues.
   Or at least that's CW, conventional wisdom.
   That of course doesn't take into account the wild-card races at Talladega and newly repaved Phoenix.
   Still, this year's Sprint Cup champ will almost certainly have to perform very, very well at these four mid-sized tracks.
   Yet about all we can say, right now, is that one of Jack Roush's Ford guys will likely win the Homestead finale. And he's got two, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth in the chase.
   Here, Brad Keselowski won in June, in a race that teammate Kurt Busch dominated but that Keselowski won on fuel mileage, one of many fuel mileage races over the summer and early fall.
   So who, among the 12 playoff drivers, has the best record on these cookie-cutter tracks?
   There are 11 races this season at the 1-1/2-miles. And chase racers have won all seven so far:
   Edwards, at Las Vegas (though Tony Stewart dominated);
   Kenseth, Texas, in an awesome performance;
   Kevin Harvick, Charlotte, in a last-man-standing gas mileage finish (though Roush men led more than half the 600 miles);
   Keselowski, Kansas;
   Kyle Busch, Kentucky;
   Jeff Gordon, Atlanta;
   Stewart, Chicago, in another gas mileage run.

   Is there a pattern here?
   Well, for one – no Jimmie Johnson in victory lane.
   At one time Johnson was Mr. Charlotte, for his prowess at that 1-1/2. However over the last six seasons Johnson has won just once at the sport's hometown track, that in the fall of 2009.
   In fact Johnson's only other wins four years or so on the 1-1/2s were last year at Las Vegas and in 2008 here in Kansas City.
   That may be somewhat surprising.
   Of course that may only serve to refute the theory that the road to the NASCAR title runs over all these 1-1/2s. After all Johnson has won the last three  Cup titles, while winning only three times at the 1-1/2s. That's three-for-40…

   Let's look for other patterns.
   Like consistency.
   And another thing does stand out: at these 1-1/2s this season it's typically been that one man clearly dominates.
   Stewart at Vegas….Kurt Busch at Kansas (leading 152 laps)….Kyle Busch at Kentucky (leading 125 laps).
   But it appears the strongest runner overall on these tracks has been Kenseth. He led 169 laps at Texas, 103 laps at Charlotte, 64 laps at Atlanta, and 46 laps at Chicago.
   Kurt Busch has been quite strong too: he led 152 laps at Kansas, 64 laps at Chicago, 50 laps at Texas, and 41 laps at Kentucky.
   Kyle Busch, though strong at Kentucky (leading 125 laps) and at Charlotte (55), hasn't been as strong elsewhere in this category.
   Edwards: He led 69 laps at Vegas, 61 at Charlotte, 29 in Kansas, 14 in Atlanta, 39 in Chicago….
   Gordon's only noticeably powerful performance was at Atlanta.
   Earnhardt? He's led only four laps at these 1-1/2s this year.

   Going back the past three seasons, are there patterns?
   Just considering at this year's other chasers and their wins at these tracks over the 2010, 2009 and 2008 seasons, what else do we find?
   Edwards has six wins…Kurt Busch four…Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin both three apiece…Stewart two….Gordon one….and the rest went winless.

   Stewart won last year at Atlanta, and the year before at Kansas.
   Teammate Newman has gone winless on these tracks since 2008.
   Kenseth went winless too in 2010, 2009 and 2008.
   Harvick also went winless in 2010, 2009 and 2008.
   Hamlin won last year at Texas twice, and in 2009 he won Homestead.
   Kurt Busch last season won Charlotte and Atlanta; in 2009 he won Texas and Atlanta.
   Kyle Busch went winless last year, but in 2009 he won Las Vegas, and in 2008 he won Atlanta and Chicago.
   Gordon went winless also last season; in 2009 he won Texas. In 2008 he was again winless.
   Edwards won Homestead in 2010, after a winless 2009. In 2008 he was a big winner, at Las Vegas, Texas twice, Atlanta, and Homestead.
   And Earnhardt? His last win at a 1-1/2-mile track was at Chicago, way back in 2005.

   This season's 1-1/2s, for the men in the playoffs, in brief:

   At Las Vegas in March Edwards won, but Stewart dominated.
  At Texas in April it was Kenseth winning, with strong runs by Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kurt Busch.

   At Charlotte in May, in that gas mileage finish where just about everyone ran out of gas, top chase finishers were Harvick, Kurt Busch, Earnhardt. However strongest runners (by far) were Kenseth, Edwards and Kyle Busch.

   At Kansas in June Keselowski won on gas mileage, after teammate Kurt Busch dominated. Other top runners were Earnhardt, Hamlin, Gordon, Kenseth, Johnson and Stewart.

    At Kentucky Speedway in July Kyle Busch ran away to win, but Johnson, Newman, Edwards, Kenseth, Keselowski (who led a lot), Kurt Busch and Gordon ran well.

   At Atlanta, over the rainy Labor Day weekend, it was Gordon winning, with Johnson, Stewart, Kurt Busch, Edwards, Keselowski, Harvick, Hamlin and  Kenseth all strong.

   At Chicago three weeks ago it was Stewart winning, in another gas mileage finish. Harvick, Earnhardt, Edwards, Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Newman and Johnson also ran well, particularly Kurt Busch. And remember Kenseth was very strong until running out of fuel.

   At Homestead last fall Edwards dominated.

   All that said, the edge on these cookie-cutters looks to lie with Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Edwards….though Stewart, Edwards worries, may have found some new tricks in his chassis for this chase.
   But, to get an even clearer picture of what to anticipate in Sunday's Kansas 400, let's analyze the Average Finishes here among this year's playoff drivers since 2008:

   1 – Jeff Gordon (3.75, over the last four races)
   2 – Jimmie Johnson (4.75)
   3 – Carl Edwards (5.75)
   4 – Denny Hamlin (7.75)
   5 – Kevin Harvick (11.0)
   6 – Brad Keselowski (12.3, over the last three races)
   7 – Tony Stewart (13.25)*
   8 – Matt Kenseth (14.25)**
   9 – Ryan Newman (15.5)
   10 -- Kurt Busch (15.75)
   11 – (tie) Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch (18.25)
   * dropping Stewart's 40th in 2008, his average would be 4.3. 
   ** dropping Kenseth's 39th in 2009, his average would be 6.0.

   With that, it would appear that the top chase finishers here Sunday should easily be Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards.
   Unless this becomes another fuel mileage run again….

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