If you’re trying to fill out your fantasy lineup for Saturday’s SpongeBob SquarePants 400 at Kansas Speedway, be sure to include Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson.
As past champions, both are established among the best drivers on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, but Johnson and Harvick also have combined to win the last six races on 1.5-mile tracks.
That makes Harvick, the current Sprint Cup points leader and reigning series champion, and Johnson, a six-time series champ, pretty solid bets to claim the checkered flag in the second night race at Kansas Speedway’s 1.5-mile tri-oval.
“The (No.) 4 car (Harvick) has been the team to beat for the last two years,” Johnson said. “The mile-and-a halves have really been the bread and butter for (us), so I think those two worlds are kind of colliding.”
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The run of dominance started when Harvick won the Bank of America 500 on Oct. 11 at Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Contender Round under the new Chase for the Sprint Cup format.
Johnson won the AAA Texas 500 on Nov. 2 during the Eliminator Round at Texas Motor Speedway.
Harvick clinched his first Sprint Cup title by winning the season-ending Ford Ecoboost 400 on Nov. 16 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Johnson won and Harvick placed second March 1 during the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Harvick won the Kobalt 400 on March 8 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Johnson won and Harvick placed second April 11 during the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
The two don’t race for the same team — Johnson is with Hendrick Motorsports and Harvick drives for Stewart-Haas Racing — but Hendrick supplies the chassis and engines for both teams, which swap information freely and obviously have figured out the best formula for success on intermediate tracks.
“Stats don’t lie and the stats say that those guys — or really anyone with a Hendrick (Motorsports) engine or chassis — is going to be capable of winning right now,” said Denny Hamlin, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing. “To be realistic, we need stuff to go our way (to win). We need cautions and track position. We just can’t drive through the field like that —what those guys are capable of — and we’re a work in progress.”
History also is on the side of Johnson, who won at Kansas in 2008 and 2011, and Harvick, who raced to victory there in 2013.
“Right now, they’re the heat,” said Clint Bowyer, an Emporia, Kan., native who drives the No. 15 5-Hour Energy Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing. “They’re making all the grip. They have the downforce, which you have to have on these mile-and-a-half tracks. That’s what makes speed. … You also need horsepower under the hood and, right now, they have both of those packages down pat.”
Obviously, that bodes well for the rest of the Hendrick drivers — Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne — and the Stewart-Haas drivers — Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart.
“I’m glad I’m where I’m at,” said Earnhardt, who finished third behind Johnson and Harvick last month at Texas. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, because it doesn’t look like them other cars are much fun to drive.”
That might be changing, and there is a ray of hope for other drivers.
For starters, the last time a driver other Harvick or Johnson won a 1.5-mile track was the fall race at Kansas Speedway when Team Penske driver Joey Logano claimed the checkered flag Oct. 5 during the Hollywood Casino 400.
Harvick finished 12th despite leading 61 laps, while Johnson finished only 180 laps and finished 40th after an early-race accident.
“I think you’re going to see these … Toyotas come up here pretty soon, so I think you’re going to see a shift,” Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, said after last month’s win at Texas. “They may feel like they’re pretty far off, but there’s only a whisper away from what’s good and what’s bad anymore. The days of having an advantage to where you’re two-, three-tenths faster than somebody consistently is really difficult to maintain with the restrictions that NASCAR puts on us right now.”
Success on such tracks is critical as five of the 10 races in the Chase are run on 1.5-mile tracks, including Kansas Speedway.