Just as the Memorial Day holiday has become the unofficial start of summer, Kansas Speedway is set to usher in the beginning of the NASCAR summer racing calendar as the Camping World trucks and the Sprint Cup Series bear down on the heated Great Plains this week.
Kansas has been a regular stop on the NASCAR schedule since Kansas Speedway opened in 2001. In previous years, though, the Kansas City Sprint Cup race was always in October, most recently as part of the 10-race, season-ending Chase for the Cup Championship. In reworking its track locations and race schedule for future seasons a year ago, NASCAR officials awarded a second Cup race to Kansas Speedway to be held earlier in the season. The additional race does not replace but rather complements the long-standing October date, which will remain part of the Chase schedule.
Kansas' gain was Auto Club Speedway's loss, as NASCAR took a second annual date away from the Fontana, Calif., race track because of declining attendance. "Kansas has always been sold out and had a great atmosphere and had a great attendance," veteran driver Kevin Harvick, the winner of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte this past weekend, told The Kansas City Star. "If both races (at Kansas) are sold out, then it's a success. If it's not, then you need to go to Iowa."
Local NASCAR favorite Carl Edwards bristled at Harvick's notion of going to Iowa. No need for that, Edwards mused. Let the Iowans come to Kansas, he said
Kansas Speedway could easily be called the home track for NASCAR drivers Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer. Edwards, the current points leader in the Sprint Cup drivers' standings, calls Columbia, Mo., about an hour-and-a-half drive east of Kansas City, home. Bowyer grew up about the same distance away, except on the west side of the Kansas-Missouri divide, in Emporia, Kan.
Aside from their proximal similarities, both drivers were born in 1979 (Bowyer just celebrated his 32nd birthday on Monday; Edwards turns 32 in August), both are in the top 10 in points earned so far this season (Edwards is the leader; Bowyer currently stands eighth), and both are seeking their first Sprint Cup win at Kansas Speedway. Edwards has won a race at Kansas, but it was in the then-Craftsman Truck Series in 2007. Until this year, the truck series race has always been held around this time of year in conjunction with an IndyCar Series race held the same weekend.
Another driver for whom this weekend's race at Kansas Speedway will be special is Jamie McMurray, who pilots the No. 1 car in the Sprint Cup Series for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. McMurray is a former resident of Joplin, Mo., the city that suffered a large death toll and massive destruction from a devastating tornado outbreak a little over a week ago. Although he hasn't lived in Joplin for close to 15 years, when he moved with his family to North Carolina, McMurray still carries a very special feeling for the city he once called home and the people of the storm-ravaged southwestern Missouri city.
"It's amazing to look at the pictures and see the destruction and what's happened to Joplin," said McMurray in an interview with Randy Covitz of The Star. "Friends sent me pictures of the neighborhood I grew up in, and it's gone. A friend sent pictures of my house, and I didn't even know what he sent me," he said.
At the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday, McMurray's No. 1 Chevrolet carried the message "Hope Joplin, Mo." in large letters along the backside of his stock car. McMurray's lead sponsor, Bass Pro Shops, got its start in Joplin.
McMurray and his close friend Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops, are postponing their traditional pre-(Kansas) race fishing trip they take every year to volunteer in the massive relief effort under way in Joplin. They plan to join efforts with a Springfield, Mo.-based organization, Convoy of Hope, and assist in bringing food and supplies to the tornado victims in Joplin.
Racing at Kansas Speedway this time of year brings a different type of challenge than what the NASCAR drivers have experienced here racing in the fall. The fall weather in Kansas City generally is not as hot and humid as it gets this time of year. Edwards says he hopes the sun is beating down, the temperature is around 90 degrees and the racing surface is hot and slick "because that race track is so wide and fun to race on."
Last year's winner at Kansas and a two-time winner here, Greg Biffle, one of Edwards' teammates at Roush-Fenway Racing, says he expects there will be the need to make a little adjustment from what he is used to on this track, but it won't be like night-and-day different. "Kansas is a really fun track to me," he says. "I like it because it's a little bit less banking, it drives a little flatter and there's a little more technique involved."
Friday is practice day at Kansas Speedway for both the trucks and the Sprint Cup cars. Qualifying for both the Saturday Camping World Truck Series race and Sunday's STP 400 will be on Saturday. The Sprint Cup STP 400 will get under way at noon Sunday.