Johnson looks to escape playoff bubble at Kansas

Seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson got a playoff waiver from NASCAR when he missed the July 5 Indianapolis race after a positive test for coronavirus.

He just hopes he’ll be able to use it.

After finishing seventh in Stage 1 last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, Johnson smacked the outside wall in Turn 4 on Lap 117. Though his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet sustained severe damage, Johnson fought his way to a 26th-place finish.

With eight races left in the regular season, Johnson’s situation is critical. He’s 15th in the series standings, but with 22nd-place rookie Cole Custer winning at Kentucky and locking up a playoff spot, Johnson has no margin for error.

He’s the last driver currently in a playoff-eligible position, but he’s only two points ahead of teammate William Byron and just 14 in front of rookie Tyler Reddick, who finished second at Texas.

On paper at least, Thursday night’s Super Start Batteries 400 presented by O’Reilly Auto Parts at Kansas Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) presents an opportunity for Johnson to solidify his position as his final full season of Cup racing continues to wind down. The seven-time champion is tied for the lead in wins at Kansas with three victories.

Among drivers entered in Thursday’s race, Johnson has the third-highest driver rating at the track (102.3), behind only Kevin Harvick (108.7) and Matt Kenseth (103.1). Johnson was sixth and 10th in the two Kansas races last year after four straight finishes outside the top 10 in 2017 and 2018.

“Kansas is one of my favorite tracks we go to,” Johnson said. “I’m so encouraged as to how we ran at Texas before we had the accident. It was such a rocket. Major kudos to the guys at the shop setting up these cars week in and out for us…

“Kansas has evolved so much, and there is this aging that happens with the racing surfaces on these tracks… they come into their own after 10 or 15 years, and Kansas is now one of those tracks in its ‘prime.’ I find it to be one of the most racy and competitive mile-and-a-half tracks we race on right now.”

Johnson can only hope the racy track produces a mistake-free, competitive performance for the No. 48 Chevrolet.

Thus far, the seven races on 1.5-mile intermediate speedways this season have produced seven different winners. A week after Custer’s unexpected victory at Kentucky, Austin Dillon added his name to the list — and escaped the playoff bubble — in a 1-2 finish for Richard Childress Racing at Texas.

The usual suspects, however, are likely to be strong at Kansas. Harvick and Denny Hamlin each have four victories this year, and Hamlin is the most recent winner there. Brad Keselowski is the defending winner of the race.

Cindric seeks fourth straight Xfinity win

When he took the green flag at Kentucky Speedway on July 9, Austin Cindric had no NASCAR Xfinity Series victories on oval tracks.

When he took the checkered flag later that evening, he had his first. A day later at Kentucky, he had his second, becoming the first driver to win races on consecutive days in the same series since Richard Petty accomplished the feat in the Cup Series in 1971 at two different tracks.

Last Saturday, Cindric picked up his third consecutive oval victory when ostensible winner Kyle Busch was disqualified for a ride-height infraction. NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin is the only other Ford driver to have won three straight Xfinity Series races, a feat he accomplished at Rockingham, Richmond and Atlanta in 1997.

On Saturday, Cindric will try for a fourth straight win in the Kansas Lottery 250 at Kansas Speedway (5 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). That would tie the series record for consecutive victories set by Sam Ard at South Boston, Martinsville, Orange County and Charlotte in 1983.

From a manufacturer’s standpoint, Ford can win its sixth straight race. Though Cindric and Chase Briscoe are the only two Ford drivers in the field, they have combined to win the past five Xfinity events. Not surprisingly, they also are the top two drivers in the series standings, with Briscoe, a five-time winner, leading Cindric by 24 points.

It’s not all about Ford, though. Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota driver Brandon Jones is the defending winner, and he righted his ship with a seventh-place finish last Saturday at Texas after four straight results in the 30s, with three DNFs for crashes and another for an oil line issue.

“For me, this track is fun, because the groove moves up near the wall, so it allows you to move around the track and adjust your line during the race,” said Jones, whose victory at Kansas last year was his first in the Xfinity Series.

Double-points weekend could shake up Truck standings

Even with the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series playoff field expanded to 10 drivers this season, former series champion Johnny Sauter and 2019 playoff qualifier Stewart Friesen find themselves in the danger zone entering back-to-back races on Friday and Saturday.

In fact, no one is absolutely safe when it comes to a playoff berth except two-time race winner Grant Enfinger and recent Kentucky victor Sheldon Creed. No other series regular has scored a win this year.

That’s the recipe for a free-for-all at Kansas Speedway, which will host consecutive Gander Truck events this weekend. Drivers will have a short respite between Friday’s 7 p.m. ET Kansas 200 and Saturday’s 1:30 p.m. ET Kansas Speedway 200. Both races will be broadcast on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Both Sauter and Friesen could use strong performances in both races. An engine failure last weekend at Texas dropped Sauter to 33rd at the finish and 12th in the series standings, 22 points behind ThorSport teammate Matt Crafton in 10th, the last playoff-eligible position.

After a fourth-place run at Texas — his first top five of the season — Friesen is tied with Sauter in points during a year that has seen his Halmar Friesen Racing Team struggle with a manufacturer transition from Chevrolet to Toyota.

The championship picture has nothing to do with Ross Chastain, who will run both races. Chastain won the only Truck Series race at Kansas last year, but he’s competing for the NASCAR Xfinity Series title in 2020.