Kyle Larson’s 2018 has not been what many expected. Some regression from a career-best four-win season last year could have been assumed, but 31 winless races and, now, on the brink of playoff elimination would’ve made skeptics out of wide-eyed optimists.
Larson had choice words for his team following a disappointing 11th-place finish last week at Talladega, lamenting the lack of competitiveness this season on drafting tracks.
Considering the track type distribution of horsepower from his No. 42 Chevrolet this year, his frustration seems warranted. He ranks sixth in Central Speed, down from third last year. His speed ranks 13th on the drafting tracks of Daytona and Talladega specifically, and just 10th on short tracks. It’s the intermediate facilities — the 1.5-mile tracks most prevalent in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series — on which Larson has excelled, and this weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway, a track fitting the 1.5-mile description, can’t get here soon enough.
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Larson ranks second in Central Speed on intermediates, trailing only Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 Ford, and that singular strength may rescue him from elimination. He sits 36 points out of the eighth-place cutoff spot and likely is in need of a race win in order to advance to the Round of 8. He profiles as a driver capable of pulling off the feat.
On moderate intermediates, Larson ranks as the most efficient passer in the series. In all, he’s accumulated an adjusted pass differential of plus-97 positions on the track type, which is 77 spots more than expected from a driver with a similar running position. While restarts certainly helped steady that number — he’s netted 60 positions on restarts across all tracks — he’s also a reliable long-run passer. He earned a single-race pass differential of plus-35 after starting from the rear of the field at Kansas in the spring (due to an unapproved tire change), despite the event having less than the average number of restarts. He finished fourth.
It’s appropriate that the very track type that has defined Larson’s season may also be the one that saves it.
Larson isn’t alone among bubble drivers hoping Kansas magnifies primary strengths.
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Martin Truex Jr. (18 points above the cutoff)
An atypical finish at Dover (15th) and a predictably bad outing on a drafting track (the fifth consecutive Talladega race in which they finished 23rd or worse) place Furniture Row Racing in a precarious position this weekend, but they should be counted on to defend their position above the cutoff line. Truex flashed the fastest car of the opening round of the playoffs and, across the last two seasons, made his bones on moderate intermediates like Kansas. In fact, Truex hasn’t finished worse than second at Kansas since the fall of 2016.
Brad Keselowski (18 points below the cutoff)
Keselowski’s late-race heroics during his recent three-race win streak dazzled, but considering his lack of dominant speed in the three outings — his car failed to rank as the fastest in any of those events and ranked as the 11th-fastest at Indianapolis — there was nothing to suggest he’d overcome the Big Three’s yearlong stranglehold on the competition.
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He rolls into Kansas ranked eighth in Central Speed and despite his clear penchant for late-race restarts, he fares well with fewer restart attempts. His average finish in races with less than the average number of restarts (12.6) is more than five spots better than his usual result on races heavy on restarts (17.7). A Kansas race light on cautions would suit him and allow crew chief Paul Wolfe to flex some muscle on green-flag stops.
Ryan Blaney (22 points below the cutoff)
Blaney’s No. 12 Ford ranks as the fastest among Team Penske’s stable, both overall and on 1.5-mile tracks. For as good as Blaney has been in 2018 — he already has surpassed his career high in top-five finishes in a single season (7) — it could have been better if he’d closed out a few of his empty performances in the early part of the year, namely his 37th-place finish at Kansas this past spring. In that race, he led 54 laps and claimed a Stage victory with the second-fastest car. Omitting Kansas, Blaney’s average finish on the remaining moderate intermediates (7.5) ranks sixth among all drivers.
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David Smith is the Founder of MotorsportsAnalytics.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA