NASCAR has been running Sprint Cup races at Kansas Speedway since 2001, but the track the series returns to this weekend isn’t the same track that drivers have known for years. It’s still in the same location, and it’s still a mile-and-a-half tri-oval, but a freshly-paved surface makes it an entirely new animal.

It’s an animal with teeth, too, as both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin can attest to. In August, following the track’s resurfacing, Earnhardt crashed hard during a tire test, resulting in an undiagnosed concussion. Recovering from his second concussion of the year, Earnhardt will again turn over driving duties to Regan Smith.

On Thursday, Hamlin crashed his primary car in practice, at a speed just north of 200 miles per hour. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was evaluated twice by the infield care center staff before being cleared to drive this weekend. Despite having to rely on his backup car, Hamlin remains upbeat, insisting all the team’s cars are competitive.

Tires will factor into this Sunday’s race as well, since teams will be running the same tire compound as they ran in Michigan, also freshly paved. As Greg Biffle told, “This tire has all the grip in the world, and then it has none. It’s all in, and then it’s all out. There’s no forgiveness.”

That should make for some interesting racing (and put pressure on the teams for the right pit strategy), even if it’s hard to pick a favorite to win on Sunday. Chase for the Cup points leader Brad Keselowski has won here, but only at the earlier-season STP 400 race.

Second place Jimmie Johnson has won in Kansas twice, including last year’s Hollywood Casino 400, but so has Greg Biffle (currently sixth in points), Tony Stewart (currently in eighth) and Jeff Gordon (now in ninth). This may sound like a cop-out on our part, but we suspect the winner will be whoever balances fuel economy and tire wear better than anyone else.

Look for Sunday to be cloudy, with just a 20-percent chance of rain. If you can’t be in Kansas City yourself, you can catch the race on ESPN beginning Sunday at 1:00 p.m. Eastern.

Image credit: Wikipedia user Balaji, CC 2.0