Mark Martin has been in this spot before. It was exactly a year ago, for that matter.
Heading to Kansas Speedway last fall, Martin was still looking for his first win of the season. He got it in emphatic fashion, leading 139 of 267 laps in his Roush Racing Ford.
"While we had a couple wins at Kansas, we just never could put it together for a win at Chicago until this year. As well as we ran at Chicago, we feel we should be close this weekend."
-- Jeff Gordon
It wasn't enough to help him win the Chase for the Nextel Cup, with Martin settling for his second consecutive fourth-place finish. Winless so far this season, he enters the Banquet 400 sixth in the standings, trailing leader Jeff Burton by 75 points.
If Martin is going to break into the win column and move up in the standings, this would seem the perfect opportunity.
"We really ran good there last year and we've been pretty strong on a lot of the mile-and-a-half tracks this year, so our program is pretty strong right now," said Martin, who cut his racing teeth in the Midwest. "Even though that doesn't quite qualify as my old stomping grounds, it's pretty close -- closer than a lot of places. I did do some racing at I-70 Speedway in Springfield, Mo., and there are a lot of fans that get charged up there that don't get to a lot of the other races that saw me race in the '70s up in that area. There's always a lot of excitement and enthusiasm from them, so it's something I look forward to."
The track certainly can't be considered home turf for Kasey Kahne, but the native of Enumclaw, Wash., has to be excited about a trip to a 1.5-mile track. And after getting caught up in a wreck last week at Dover, he needs to string together a lot of strong performances in a hurry to have any chance of contending.
With eight races left, there's still time, especially if some of those ahead of him get caught up in the seemingly inevitable "big one" a week from now at Talladega Superspeedway. But since Kahne is 182 points behind and in ninth place, one more poor finish will make it nearly impossible.
"I think if there's any team that can do it right now, it's ours. We've been good," Kahne said. "Our team has done an awesome job all year. We've had a great season, but we've had some tough breaks, too. That's racing.
"Things happen, and we've had a bit of both [good breaks and bad] this year. So I feel like we can definitely win some more races, lead laps, get right back in the middle of the thing. I don't think we're out. I think we're a long ways from winning the championship. I think that, you know, with the right breaks and the performance that we're capable of doing, we can get right back in it."
Hosting a race for the sixth time, Kansas Speedway's surface has had time to mature. That's one reason Martin is looking forward to the weekend.
"As most racetracks do with fresh pavement, they start off leaving a little bit to be desired, and [Kansas] doesn't anymore," he said. "It's really awesome, and if they'll keep the paving rig away from that place for a while, it's going to be a great place to race for a long time."
While plenty of attention will be on Chase leader Burton, second-place and two-time Kansas winner Jeff Gordon and third-place Matt Kenseth, it would be wise to not forget about Denny Hamlin in fourth. It was in this race a year ago that he made his Nextel Cup debut.
Qualifying an impressive seventh, Hamlin ended the day 32nd. It wasn't indicative of what was to come, though, as he posted three top-10 finishes in just seven starts to earn a full-time spot this season in Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 11 Chevy.
Tied with Kenseth 18 points back, but ranked fourth behind Kenseth in the standings as Kenseth has more wins, Hamlin is eager to race.
"This is a great track, and seeing as this is where I made my first start, I am really excited to come back here. To have it be in the middle of the Chase makes it all that much better," Hamlin said. "Kansas is different because it seems like each turn is a little different, so you have to move around and try some different entry points to be fast in all four.
"Last year the groove moved around a little during the race, so we'll try to find a place where the No. 11 is fast from the start and just try to make it better all day long."
Burton can't afford to finish 28th at Kansas as he did a year ago, but he's not worried about that race. Richard Childress Racing has shown dramatic improvement on intermediate-style tracks this season, so last week's race winner is confident.
Teammate Harvick feels the same way.
"Past stats don't mean anything just because of the way we have run this year," Harvick said. "To be able to have the runs we have had this year, including our finishes, it should be a good weekend. Kansas is like Chicagoland except for where the bumps are located. We have done well on the mile-and-a-half tracks. We should be as good or better this weekend."
Kansas Speedway might not be quite the same as racing at Atlanta or Texas, but there are enough similarities that Burton thinks he'll have the right setup.
"It is a typical mile-and-a-half speedway where aerodynamics are very important, [even though] it's not a real high-banked, high-speed type track," Burton said. "It gets slick and the grip is real low. It's not a place like Atlanta, where in qualifying you can just run wide open.
"Kansas is a finesse racetrack. It's a track where you have to be aggressive but have to have finesse as well. It's not a cookie-cutter, high-banked fast racetrack because it's so slick."
Gordon won the first two races at Kansas, and now that the team's intermediate program is back on track, he could be a factor this time around. His average finish through five races is sixth, and a similar run would help in the points standings -- assuming the five drivers ahead of him aren't also in the Chase.
Past success here provides a mental boost, but winning at Chicagoland Speedway back in July provides even more of a lift.
"The two tracks are similar, and it seems when we run well at one, we run well at the other," Gordon said. "While we had a couple wins at Kansas, we just never could put it together for a win at Chicago until this year. As well as we ran at Chicago, we feel we should be close this weekend."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com.