Five things to watch in tonight’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Kansas Speedway

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Tonight begins a key stretch for NASCAR Sprint Cup teams that could give a hint of what is to come.

The SpongeBob SquarePants 400 at Kansas Speedway is the first of three consecutive races on 1.5-mile speedways – tracks that comprise half of the Chase races. After tonight’s race, the series heads to Charlotte for the Sprint All-Star race and the Coca-Cola 600. Both Kansas and Charlotte host Chase races.

In two of the first three races on 1.5-mile tracks this season (Atlanta and Texas), the finishing order has been the same with Jimmie Johnson first, Kevin Harvick second, Dale Earnhardt Jr. third and Joey Logano fourth. Harvick won at Las Vegas in the only other race on a 1.5-mile track this season.

So can anybody break into what seems to be a relatively exclusive club over the next three races?

“These next three weeks I think are going to be very important,’’ said Carl Edwards, who has not finished better than 10th in the first three races on 1.5-mile tracks. “I think they’re going to tell us a lot about the season going forward. If in these next three weeks as a group, our (Joe Gibbs Racing) Toyotas can work on some of the things we have planned and they are successful. …’’

Then it could give teams the direction they need to head for the fall. After Charlotte, there is only one 1.5-mile track on the schedule (Kentucky on July 11) until the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins in September.

Here’s what else to watch for in tonight’s race:

Tires could be a factor. They were last fall at this track. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was leading when a tire went down and he hit the wall. Brad Keselowski also had a tire go down and he slammed the wall. Others also had problems.

Could it happen again?

“I think anytime we come to Kansas we are a little nervous about tires just because of what we’ve seen in the past and a lot of what happened here in the fall race where a lot of the fast cars were blowing right fronts out,’’ said Joey Logano, who won that race last fall and starts tonight’s race on the pole.

“It always makes you a little nervous, but at the same time we put our faith in Goodyear to make the right decisions and we feel fine about it. Our car didn’t have a problem last time, but I know we were on the verge of it because a lot of cars were.’’

Said Jeff Gordon about tire issues in last fall’s race: “I know Goodyear has made a slight adjustment to the tire to help with that. We saw a couple issues last year. We personally on Team 24 did not have issues, but you never know how close you are to the edge. Even with less downforce on the cars, the amount of power that’s been reduced has made the cars a lot faster through the center of the corner. We enter the corner slower and exit the corner slower, but going through the crucial part of the load on the tire and how we sustain that through the center of the corner is up, and that’s a reason for concern.’’

Could Martin Truex Jr. be a dark horse? It is hard to call the driver second in points a dark horse but don’t forget about him. While he enters tonight’s race with a 66-race winless drought, he scored his best finish of the season last year at this track when he placed fourth in the fall.

Truex has been strong this season with nine top-10 finishes in the first 10 races. At the 1.5-mile tracks this season, he’s placed sixth (Atlanta), second (Las Vegas) and ninth (Texas).

“The car has had good speed and it’s driven good,’’ Truex said after qualifying fourth. “This is a brand new car for us, and I feel like it’s another step as far as catching a few of those guys on speed.’’

Erik Jones makes his official Sprint Cup debut. While he replaced Denny Hamlin during the Bristol race last month, the records list Hamlin in the finishing order – as if Jones didn’t drive that race. That won’t be the case tonight. Jones, who had never driven at Kansas Speedway until this weekend, has been fast.

“We could knock off laps back and forth that were pretty good and that was nice,’’ Jone said. “Definitely confident in the race. I’m just excited to get going.’’

Could Jimmie Johnson have a rough night? He’s won two of the three races on 1.5-mile speedways this season but qualified 19th. He struggled some in practice with short-run speed. If there are a number of cautions – both Kansas races had eight last year – or cautions bunched toward the end of the race where short-run speed is necessary, Johnson could face a challenge.

“We have qualified much worse and finished pretty darn well, so directionally we are going the right way but we just wish we had the magic want to fix the short-run speed,’’ he said.