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NASCAR At Kansas 2012: Chase hits its mid-point in the Heartland

NASCAR begins the second half of its Chase playoff this weekend with the Hollywood Casino 400 at the Kansas Speedway. Title contenders Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, and Denny Hamlin have won the last three Sprint Cup races at Kansas.

Chris Graythen - Getty Images for NASCAR

With apologies to Bank of America 500 champions Clint Bowyer and the No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing team, the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship hits its midpoint with this weekend's Hollywood Casino 400 at the Kansas Speedway as effectively a three-man race. Certainly Bowyer - a native of Emporia, KS, - could go a long way towards breaking back into the fight with a win at home this weekend, but as of right now, the show belongs to Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, and Denny Hamlin.

With five races down and five to go in the Sprint Cup playoffs, Keselowski holds a seven-point edge on five-time champ Johnson. Hamlin is 15 points back after slicing eight points off his deficit to Keselowski last weekend, while Johnson halved Keselowski's lead. Even though Bowyer wound up winning at Charlotte after stretching his final tank of gas for 56 laps, the race was dominated by the top-three in points. Keselowski led 139 laps before running out of gas (he still rebounded to finish 11th) and Johnson and Hamlin seemed to swap second-place all night long behind the point leader.

Fittingly, that top trio has - in their current order - won the last three Sprint Cup races held at Kansas.

In June 2011, Keselowski stretched his fuel - which has become a common theme for the No. 2 Penske Racing team despite running out of gas last Saturday - to win the inaugural spring event at the track. Johnson then laid a smackdown on the field last fall, leading 197 circuits of the 272-lap (extended by five after Jeff Gordon blew his engine and oiled down the track with three laps to go) race. This past spring, Martin Truex Jr. had a Johnson-esque run of his own, but changing track conditions allowed Hamlin to track him down and scoot by to win the STP 400.

While Keselowski does hold the lead and has managed to win races both through raw speed and fuel mileage this season, Hamlin and Johnson have been no slouches and figure to potentially make ground at Martinsville and Phoenix. All indications point to a championship battle that could dwarf the showdown between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards last fall.

Of course, they have to get through Kansas this weekend. The track lends itself to long green-flag runs and therefore is primed for a fuel-mileage race. That should bode well for Keselowski, again in spite of the team's gaffe in Charlotte, though Hamlin successfully saved enough gas to make it to the end of the race and nearly passed Bowyer late. The Achilles Heel for Johnson and the No. 48 team, however, is fuel mileage. Though he did make it to the finish without a late pit stop, he was well off the pace of Bowyer and Hamlin. Johnson is at his best when he's able to go all out, something that could play in his favor if the race doesn't come down to fuel mileage.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.