1. Denny Hamlin
2,012 points; four wins
Hamlin certainly appears to be a changed driver from the one that, along with then-crew chief Mike Ford, cracked under the pressure of a 2010 title fight. Quiet confidence abounds with his No. 11 team, led by the unassuming yet firm guidance of Darian Grubb (you know, the lame-duck crew chief that strapped on a pair and led a team that was an afterthought to last year’s championship). Despite his series-best four wins, only delivering in the clutch will wash away memories of Denny’s monumental collapse two years ago.
by Matt Taliaferro
2. JIMMIE JOHNSON
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2. Jimmie Johnson
2,009 points; three wins
Based on their track record alone, you can never count out Johnson and ace crew chief Chad Knaus when the playoffs role around. This season will undoubtedly be no different, and by the way, if you’re making any other team the favorite, you’re not being honest with yourself. That’s not to say the 48 team is predestined to win this whole dog ‘n’ pony show, but make no mistake: This bunch is the favorite. Johnson has won Chases coming from behind, pulling away, winning in bundles and in being consistent. Contrary to popular (and short-sighted) belief, a team doesn’t have to win in spades during the Chase to be crowned the champion. This team probably will, though.
by Matt Taliaferro
3. TONY STEWART
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3. Tony Stewart
2,009 points; three wins
For proof that a team doesn’t have to win races in the Chase to be a champion, look no further than Stewart’s 2005 title run. You’ll find he had zero Chase wins and that an 8.7-place average finish did the trick. Ironically, Tony’s 2011 five-win Chase spurt is the performance that perpetuated the “gotta-win-big” notion. Here’s the straight-talk concerning Stewart: He’s not going to win five of the next 10 but he probably won’t get skunked, either. But this probably isn’t his year to earn title No. 4.
by Matt Taliaferro
4. BRAD KESELOWSKI
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4. Brad Keselowski
2,009 points; three wins
A little bit DW, a little bit JJ, Keselowski is the breath of fresh air this sport has needed for awhile. Keselowski is a champ-in-waiting — strike that, a multiple-time champ-in-waiting. Somewhere amid the media savvy, the heads-up racing style, the mind games and the raw talent lies an intangible factor that’s hard to pinpoint (thus, its intangibility). BK’s time may indeed be now … and the window may close for a year or so depending on how his Penske Racing organization adapts to its new Ford sheet metal and new factory mates. Don’t be surprised if we see a first-time Cup champ this year.
by Matt Taliaferro
5. GREG BIFFLE
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5. Greg Biffle
2,006 points; two wins
Who? Oh yeah, the guy who won the regular season championship — not that NASCAR bothers to recognize the admirable feat. Perpetually flying under the radar, Biffle appears to be the Terry Labonte of his era — a great wheelman who never was viewed among the sport’s elite despite all evidence to the contrary. Of course, to be on par with Labonte, you have to win a Cup title and thus far, that’s eluded him. That said, he stands his best chance this year, with teammate and media-hound Carl Edwards out of the running and BFF Matt Kenseth on his way out at Roush Fenway Racing. Can the points leader after race No. 26 be considered a darkhorse? If so, Biffle’s your man.
by Matt Taliaferro
6. CLINT BOWYER
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6. Clint Bowyer
2,006 points; two wins
Michael Waltrip Racing’s much-ballyhooed two-car 2012 Chase effort makes for a great story. And seriously, it’s good to see an upstart operation legitimately delivering the goods in its sixth year of Cup competition. However, let’s be honest: MWR isn’t going to win a title this year … right? Don’t tell that to Bowyer, who is one of only seven drivers on the circuit to cash in for multiple victories this year. And probably one of only seven drivers on the circuit that’ll buy YOU a beer down the street if he pulls a stunner.
by Matt Taliaferro
7. DALE EARNHARDT JR.
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7. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2,003 points; one win
Even with NASCAR putting the clamps on Hendrick’s bushings (yes, that sounds painful … and just a bit dirty), you have to figure the 88 team has been doing some live-fire testing the last few weeks. Junior’s consistency is unquestioned and, as stated previously, that’s the real key here. Once he’s back at full song expect a return to the fourth- to 10th-place showings that were the hallmark of what’s been Earnhardt’s most successful post-DEI season to date. I’m of the opinion Junior will factor in this Chase — though whether or not he can trade licks with Johnson, Hamlin, et al, down the stretch is somewhat of an unknown.
by Matt Taliaferro
8. MATT KENSETH
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8. Matt Kenseth
2,003 points; one win
Let’s get the lame duck thing out of the way first: Yes, Kenseth is out at Roush Fenway Racing at season’s end. And having already been introduced and serenaded in front of the media by his new roomies, it may have an effect in the current neighborhood. However, if any driver/crew chief combo can work past the circumstances at hand it’s Kenseth and Jimmy Fennig. It’s hard to imagine Uncle Jack not at least attempting to over-deliver for the driver that’s been the bedrock of his foundation for the last decade. But it’s also hard to imagine the 17 team actually breaking through with so many other teams running at full bore with no distractions.
by Matt Taliaferro
9. KEVIN HARVICK
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9. Kevin Harvick
2,000 points; zero wins
If there’s a Tony Stewart-like run coming in this year’s Chase, you have to figure this is the driver and team to do it. There have been some Kevin Harvick sightings since his reunion with new/old crew chief Gil Martin, and the ceiling is still a ways up. The bigger issue here is whether the 29 team can rise above what seems to be an organization-wide lack of speed at Richard Childress Racing. If the magic that propelled Harvick and Martin to consecutive third-place points finishes is back, this could be a fun group to watch crash the party.
by Matt Taliaferro
10. MARTIN TRUEX JR.
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10. Martin Truex Jr.
2,000 points; zero wins
See: Bowyer, Clint; minus the wins. Mikey’s NAPA team has been the little engine that could this season, yet a lack of victories — and there have been opportunities — is worrisome. What Truex, Chad Johnston and the boys have done thus far in 2012 is admirable. However, to win a championship you first must prove able to win races. The ultimate underdog in a back half of a field chock-full of them, Truex will look to Dover as his sink-or-swim Chase moment.
by Matt Taliaferro
11. KASEY KAHNE
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11. Kasey Kahne
2,000 points; two wins
Wild card qualifier No. 1, Kahne is a tough one to figure, though he could make some serious noise. This new team at Hendrick Motorsports hit its stride around midseason and has been as consistent as any other since. The thinking on Kahne is that, for years, he’s been an able pilot stuck in eroding situations that were not of his making. That’s not the case anymore. Time for ol’ blue eyes and crew chief Kenny Francis to deliver.
by Matt Taliaferro
12. JEFF GORDON
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12. Jeff Gordon
2,000 points; one win
The post-Richmond talk has centered on Kyle Busch and his No. 18 team’s implosion, but credit Gordon and his 24 team: They flat out-raced the opposition down the stretch to the tune of third-, second- and second-place showings. History suggests that teams which “turn it on” late and sneak into the Chase have to take a breath once there, at which point the powerhouses that were stroking go flying by. Hard to imagine this being the case with Gordon and Alan Gustafson, who’ve made their own momentum the way championship-caliber teams are supposed to.
In 2003, Matt Kenseth became the final Winston Cup Champion in less-than-dazzling fashion. He won all of one of 36 races while posting 24 top 10s for an average finishing position of 10.2. He clinched the title by merely starting the second to last race of the year at Rockingham. After promptly blowing an engine and finishing dead last, he ended the year 90 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson, and 207 ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
With new series sponsor Nextel coming on board for 2004, and a desire by NASCAR CEO Brian France to have his sport compete more closely – and resemble – the NFL, a playoff-type championship format was instituted. The Chase has evolved over the years, but the cumulative year-long points battle was replaced by a final 10-race title bout for 10-12 drivers.
With Chicagoland the site of the 2012 Chase this Sunday, let’s take a look back at the previous eight Chase campaigns, and how they rank.
1. 2004 Nextel Cup — The Chase Era Begins
When it was announced that the 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup champion would be determined by a 10-race playoff, purists scoffed. How could any new champion be judged against the likes of Petty, Earnhardt, Pearson, or even Jeff Gordon? The first 10-race playoff – or “raceoff,” if you prefer – helped relieve much of that anxiety. Going into the final race at Homestead, there were five drivers with a chance to win the title. Kurt Busch held an 18-point lead (under the old Latford points system – the equivalent of a five-point lead today) over Johnson, with Gordon, Earnhardt and Mark Martin in close pursuit.
This Chase featured some of the greatest moments of the past decade, including Earnhardt winning for the seventh time at Talladega just weeks after suffering burns and being knocked semi-conscious in an ALMS crash – and then being docked 25 points for blurting out a profanity during his post-race interview. The second to last race at Darlington was a testament to it being one of the finest tracks on the circuit with a back and forth contest between Gordon, Johnson, and Martin. The 48 team showed early on why it would go on to win five titles (thus far), by winning four of the final six races, and finishing second at Homestead.
The most poignant moment? Busch suffering a blown right front tire, and the tire liberating itself from his No. 97 Sharpie Ford, which missed knocking down the pit wall by a paper-thin margin. As the wheel continued onto the track, a caution came out, keeping him from losing a lap. The race came down to a green-white-checker finish, with Busch’s teammate, Greg Biffle winning while keeping the No. 48 at bay.
Busch’s eight-point title win over Johnson, at the time, was the closest ever. Be that as it may, the purists were incensed further, noting that had the championship been decided by a year-long cumulative points total as it had since 1975, Gordon would have won his fifth title.
2. 2011 Sprint Cup — The Tiebreaker
Ever poo-poo guys who stay out to lead a lap to get a bonus point or wrench on their car after caving the side of it in, just to come back out 80 laps down in hopes of picking up a position? If so, the 2011 Chase should be the slap in the face that illustrates that every position counts.
Tony Stewart stumbled into the Chase like a drunk guy at the club demanding another Red Bull and vodka. Smoke even admitted weeks earlier that if his team did make the Chase, that they’d just be in the way. All of that changed at the drop of a hat, as the No. 14 took the first two wins of the Chase at Chicago and Loudon.
Stewart ultimately would win five races of the 10 (put the calculator down, it’s a 50 percent win percentage), to Carl Edwards’ zero victories. Edwards played it safe, taking the slow and steady route to what should have been the year that he broke through for a title. Edwards finished second at Homestead despite leading the most laps and Stewart won, despite having a piece of Kurt Busch’s bell housing lodged in his radiator ductwork. With the two tied at race’s end, the Chase went to the first tie-breaker: Wins. And Stewart’s five bested Edwards’ one, which came at Las Vegas in March — a skid he has yet to break.
A bit of coincidence regarding that Vegas race: Edwards only won due to fuel miscalculation by Stewart, who had the race in hand until the closing laps.
3. 2006 Nextel Cup — Johnson’s Rally
Jimmie Johnson’s first title will be remembered for starting a dynasty. However, the most amazing thing about Johnson’s 2006 Chase performance was the hole from which he climbed out of to win.
After finishes of 39th, 13th, 14th and 24th to begin the Chase, the 48 team found itself in a seemingly insurmountable 156-point hole to Jeff Burton. Sitting eighth in the standings, the team, which wasn’t THE TEAM at the time, began its comeback in modest-enough ways, finishing second at Charlotte.
Who could have guessed that that finish would begin a streak of five consecutive runs of second or better, relentlessly beating away all comers. Johnson made up 10 points on first at Charlotte, a dropped the hammer at Martinsville, narrowing his deficit to 41 points with a dominating win.
From there, it was child’s play, moving into second in the standings (-26) after Atlanta and by Matt Kenseth for first the following week at Texas. Another runner-up showing followed in Phoenix, and by Homestead he only needed to play it safe to protect his 63-ppoint advantage. He did so, of course, coming home ninth and beating Kenseth by 56 points.
4. 2005 Nextel Cup — Winning Races and Climbing Fences
By the time the 2005 season rolled around, a couple of constants had been confirmed: Tony Stewart liked to eat, loved Indianapolis Motor Speedway and climbing things (specifically, catchfencing). Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson was in his fourth full Cup campaign, and had racked up a whopping 16 wins by the time that season’s Chase began.
The 48 came out strong, winning the second race at Dover, but then triggered a 30 car pile-up at Talladega, which would ultimately be Johnson’s downfall (despite another win at Charlotte).
Roush Racing was poised to win its second straight Chase by sheer numbers, owning half of the Chase field with Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards. Edwards was in his first-full year of competition, but wasted little time in showing he was for real, snatching a win away from Martin at Texas and sweeping both Atlanta races for the year. Biffle won the season finale at Homestead by a bumper over Martin, but the title fight that day was on between Stewart and Johnson.
Johnson needed to win to beat Stewart for the title, but ended up beating themselves — as they had on more than one occasion that season. Johnson blew a left rear tire on lap 127 of 267 and nearly took out Jeff Gordon in the process. The incident capped a season of friction between Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, leading to the now-famous “milk and cookies” meeting arranged by owner Rick Hendrick in the offseason.
Stewart, on the other hand, shimmied his bulbous behind up the fence yet again, claiming his second championship in four years and becoming the first driver to claim a Cup title under two different point systems since Richard Petty in 1979. Petty, in fact, won titles under four different points systems. Beat that, Tony.
5. 2009 Sprint Cup — Score One for the Geritol Gang … Almost
When you’re 50 years old, you’re usually planning the next decade of work so you can punch out a few years early and retire. When you’re Mark Martin, you take a new full-time job and still answer the bell at 0600 every morning to start pounding steel.
After taking a couple of years off from the mental and physical grind of a yearly 10-month prize fight, Martin joined Hendrick Motorsports for his last best shot at bringing home the hardware. Through the regular season, Martin and the No. 5 team racked up four wins – his most since 1998 – and served notice that there was a new contender to the throne, both at HMS and in the Cup Series.
Out of the blocks fast with a win in Loudon, it would be up to Johnson to battle back and beat Martin to win a fourth consecutive title. The 48 team responded, with a 271-lap leading drubbing at Dover and follow that up with wins at Fontana and Charlotte. At Talladega, Johnson appeared to be on the verge of suffering a big blow, with Martin running in the top 10 and Johnson hung out, barely in the top 20. A green-white-wreckers finish ensured a flip-flopping in the order, as Martin ended up on his roof while Johnson skating through for an eighth-place finish.
It looked like the 48 would be mailing it in from there on out, except for the first lap at Texas a week later, when Sam Hornish Jr. went Sam Hornish Jr., and clipped Johnson’s car, sending it head-on into the inside wall. A week later, though, Johnson won at Phoenix, with Martin following in fourth. At Homestead, Johnson came home fifth, while the 5 team struggled with a in 12th.
It would be Johnson’s fourth consecutive title, while Martin ended the season second in points for the fifth time in his career.
6. 2010 Sprint Cup – Hamlin’s Collapse
The 2010 season will be remembered for many things: Jimmie Johnson’s obscene fifth consecutive title (which would give credence to the notion that the Chase was simply not working) and for Denny Hamlin firing a Desani bottle at the side of his FedEx Camry.
It was a title for the taking for the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team; Chad Knaus had fiddled with success, swapping out his crew mid-race at Texas with that of his No. 24 shop mates — a race Hamlin won, his seventh victory of the year. So confident was the No. 11 team that then-crew chief Mike Ford declare,d “I think our race team is better than their race team ... and I'm not afraid to go toe to toe with them to do it.”
About two seconds after he said that, you could pretty much guess what would happen next.
At Phoenix, the 11 team all but had things sewed up. Hamlin had led 190 of 312 laps, and was well on his way to locking down his first title and the fourth for Joe Gibbs Racing. Then Ford got cold feet on fuel mileage and had Hamlin pit. When others — including Johnson — went the distance, Hamlin finished 12th to Johnson’s fifth. What followed at Homestead was a meltdown of mammoth proportions. Hamlin qualified 37th, and on lap 25 was throwing up chunks of sod on the backstretch. It actually was a pretty good save, and he managed to bring the car home 14th. Only problem: Johnson finished second and won the championship by 39 points.
Of note, had this been under the prior points system, Kevin Harvick would have been the season champion by a staggering 285 points.
7. 2008 Sprint Cup – Jimmie Ties Cale
Usually when you win nine races in a season like Carl Edwards in 2008, you’re pretty much guaranteed to come home with a championship. That is, of course, you’re up against Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team and their seven wins. In a season that was dominated by the obsession over Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning only one race in his first year with Hendrick Motorsports (while Jeff Gordon won zero) and eight wins by the new plot of the No. 18, it was Johnson and Edwards that emerged as the two Chase contenders.
Heading into Charlotte for the halfway point in the Chase, Johnson held a 72-point lead over Edwards. A week earlier, Edwards attempted a last lap pass on Johnson for the win that was last seen executed during my 10th season in career mode of NASCAR Thunder 2003 for PS2. Edwards barely cleared Johnson for the lead – then promptly walled it.
At Charlotte, it as though Edwards was in position to keep it close for the second half of the playoffs. That was until his ignition system went bonkers, leaving him 17 laps down in 33rd place, while Johnson came home sixth. Edwards would rally to win Atlanta, Texas and Homestead, but it was not enough to eclipse Johnson and the No. 48 team.
Edwards lost the Chase that year by 69 points. Under the prior system, he would have won by 16 points.
8. 2007 Nextel Cup – The Bomb … and Not in a Good Way
One word comes to mind when describing the 2007 Chase: Brutal. The field was expanded to 12, and it was the first year of NASCAR’s baby, the over-hyped and under-stylized Car of Tomorrow. Top-heavy turds with cow-catchers and Erector-Set wings replaced the shovel-nosed, cock-eyed machines that were sealed off at the nose, riding on collapsed front suspensions.
Jeff Gordon essentially dominated the year, posting a ridiculous 30 top 10 finishes, 21 top 5s, six wins and five second-place finishes. Unfortunately, he ran up against his teammate, Jimmie Johnson, who was coming off his first title (and was on quite the tear himself, winning 10 races). With Charlotte being the halfway point of the Chase, Gordon won in a green-white-checker finish after Ryan Newman wrecked with two laps to go. Gordon had a 68-point lead and was heading to Martinsville, where Gordon has seven career wins. Naturally, the inevitable happened.
Johnson won four races in a row.
Gordon tried to keep pace, meeting each win with a top-10 run, but that didn’t work for long. Heading into the final race of the season, Gordon’s title hopes were virtually DOA, trailing J.J. by 86 points. Gordon finished fourth while Johnson cruised around in eighth en route to his second of five straight titles.
Just how bad did these two decimate the field in the first appearance of the CoT? While Johnson beat his teammate by 77 points, third-place Clint Bowyer was 346 points behind in third. Ninth-place Carl Edwards? 501 points — and he won Dover two races into the Chase. Had it been the points system used the first 26 races for the final 10, Gordon would have waltzed to his fifth career championship (sixth if the same criteria was used in 2004). Under the points system used from 1975-2003, he would have beat Johnson by 354 points and Tony Stewart by 706 points.
Considering that sort of margin, you can thank the Chase for helping to curb some real stinkers over the past eight years. If you’re a 24 or 99 fan, though, you’ll probably curse it for denying Gordon the chance at closing to within one title of Petty and Earnhardt, and Edwards from winning a title of his own.
Either way, you can blame Matt Kenseth.
by Vito Pugliese
Follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
Martin Truex Jr. (56) and Clint Bowyer (15). (ASP, Inc.)
The race shop was once a movie theatre. The team’s finances proved as stable as a house of cards. No surprise that one of NASCAR’s biggest dreamers was the owner.
Five years later, Michael Waltrip’s team is in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time. Michael Waltrip Racing brings an intriguing mix with drivers Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr., who both have shown the ability to string several strong races together this season.
Neither likely will be among the Chase favorites, though, because most people will be smitten with Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin or Dale Earnhardt Jr. All are worthy picks and make it easy to overlook Waltrip’s group.
While much will be made of Hendrick Motorsports putting all four cars in the Chase after Jeff Gordon’s determined drive at Richmond to secure the final wild card spot, just think what could have been for Waltrip’s team. Had Mark Martin run the entire schedule instead of a majority of races, he could have been in position to make the Chase and put all three MWR cars in it. Still, Waltrip’s team has more cars in the Chase than traditional powerhouses Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing and defending champions Stewart-Haas Racing.
That’s a credit to what Waltrip has built along with co-owner Rob Kauffman, who joined the organization in Oct. 2007 and saved it with his infusion of cash.
“They hired the right people,” Denny Hamlin says. “They hired the right drivers. That's how you become successful.
“(MWR) is going to be around for a long time. You look at the progression of the race team, they’re legit now. I mean, they are guys you're going to have to beat week in, week out.”
Bowyer, who joined the team this season, enters the Chase with two wins after his victory last weekend at Richmond. He’s finished in the top 10 in five of the last six races.
“With everything new, never would (I) have dreamed in a million years all this would have happened this quickly,” Bowyer said after his win last weekend.
Asked about the possibility of winning the title, Bowyer said: “Jimmie (Johnson) seems like he has a blast doing it. I promise you I could throw a better party than him. Might not survive it, but we would have a lot of fun.”
As for Truex, he seeks his first win since 2007, but has shown signs of contending for victories, especially during a stretch in the spring where he finished fifth at Martinsville, sixth at Texas and second at Kansas — all Chase tracks. He had finished no worse than 11th in seven races until placing 21st at Richmond. Still, he’s lead in four consecutive races entering the Chase, his longest streak of the season.
"I'm going to be honest with you, the way our cars are running and as fast as we've been the last six or seven weeks we're dangerous,” Truex says. “I know we're kind of an underdog and not a lot of people expect us to do much. It's a good position to be in. We just need to be smart, make good decisions and our Toyotas are strong enough to do this thing. (I’m) looking forward to going out and having some fun and hopefully we'll put together 10 good races and be in the hunt.
Regan Smith (ASP, Inc.)
GETTING BETTER It’s easy to miss because Regan Smith has not been in contention for a Chase spot, but a team that showed promise last year, winning the Southern 500, is displaying signs of improvement after struggling much of this season.
Since Todd Berrier was hired as crew chief before Indianapolis, Smith has had an average finish of 17.0. Not spectacular by any means, but in the seven races before the crew chief change was made, Smith’s average finish was 28.0.
“We weren’t happy with what was going on at the beginning part of the year,” Smith says. “Certainly none of us were happy with how we were running, myself included. This is a race team that up until the start of the season, and maybe the last five races of last year, was on the uphill swing.
“We seemed to get better each week and seemed to learn new stuff each week and we went through a period there of probably 15 races or so until we made some changes a (few) weeks ago. We were having the same problems week-in and week-out and weren’t learning and weren’t fixing and didn’t understand them. Todd Barrier came in and he’s done a great job.”
NUMBER CRUNCHING Tony Stewart has the best average finish of any driver at Chicagoland Speedway, which hosts the opening Chase race Sunday. Stewart’s average finish there is 8.7 with three wins and nine top-10 finishes in 11 starts. ... Of the 10 Chase tracks, the series has raced at eight of them this season. Greg Biffle has the best average finish among this year’s title contenders at those tracks at 6.4. ... Jimmie Johnson is the only driver to have made the Chase all nine years.
PIT STOPS Matt Kenseth will debut a new chassis this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. ... The chassis Kevin Harvick will use was first raced by Austin Dillon (24th at Michigan) and then run by Harvick at Pocono (14th). ... The chassis Dale Earnhardt Jr. will drive was run at both Pocono races this season where his best finish with it was eighth in June. ... Kasey Kahne’s chassis will be one he’s raced three times this season, including at Charlotte when he won the Coca-Cola 600. ... Greg Biffle will use the same chassis this weekend that he won with at Michigan last month.
Drivers and teams to watch as the circuit hits its mid-summer classic in Daytona
Matt Kenseth (ASP, Inc.)
Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway (please don’t call it the Pepsi 400 — Firecracker 400, however, will be accepted) marks the halfway point in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
The year’s third restrictor plate race was once run on the morning of the fourth to beat the oppressive North Florida heat and humidity. “On the track by 11:00, on the beach by 2:00,” was the mantra before lights and night racing. NASCAR’s signature speedway has endured wildfires and truck fires in recent years, as well as Turn Two disemboweling itself in the middle of an event, but all should be solid as we’re knee-deep in the Summer Stretch. And as the championship chase begins to take shape, the contenders have begun to separate themselves from the pretenders. Unless, of course, it’s 2011 and you’re Tony Stewart, stumbling into the Chase like the town lush, but suddenly start running like Tony Stewart once the title fight begins.
But I digress. Let’s review our current top 10 in points, how they got here, and who on the outside looking in has to get their stuff together if they have any hopes of contending for the Cup come September.
1. Matt Kenseth Wins: 1 (Daytona 500)
Let’s see, Daytona 500: Check. Points leader: Check. Bailing on team mid-season: WTF? Kenseth’s announcement that he is leaving the No. 17 Roush Fenway Ford at season’s end sent shockwaves through the fanbase. His likely destination appears to be Joe Gibbs Racing, although a proposed Andretti Autosport venture into NASCAR with Dodge assistance has been bandied about. It’s bad enough that Jack Roush’s former flagship No. 6 has been mothballed, but now the tried-and-true driver of the No. 17? Tragically coincidental — since it was the original driver of the No. 6, Mark Martin, who sold Roush on Kenseth, convincing him to field the No. 17 Cup ride for him in 2000. The last driver to win the Winston Cup in 2003 has been a model of consistency this year, much as he was that season. Kenseth’s low-key demeanor and approach will likely serve him well during what will prove to be a tumultuous few months in the Ford camp. With a win, eight top 5s and 12 top 10s to his credit this year, if Kenseth and the Wisconsin Mafia can keep the distractions at bay they very well could exit in style, giving Roush his third Cup Series championship. But distractions and fallout associated with being a “lame duck” lurk around every corner.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Wins: 1 (Michigan)
All together now: “JUUUUUNE-YEEERRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!” Finally, after 143 races and four years of futility, Dale Earnhardt Jr. broke into the winner’s circle at Michigan, the site of his last win in 2008. That victory did more for the psyche than the stat sheet, as Earnhardt is what Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket would deem, “Definitely born again hard.” With a win, seven top-5 and an even more impressive 13 top-10 finishes, the No. 88 team has done more in four months than it had in the last … well, forever. Credit Steve Letarte and Rick Hendrick, who essentially put Earnhardt with Jeff Gordon’s former team last season. The Prince of Kannapolis is doing his fans proud, so don’t be surprised to see a lot of old, red No. 8 gear being dusted off and thrust back into service in the coming months. Take heart Junior Nation — you’ve earned it, and your man is back near the top. Junior hasn’t been in a fierce title battle in so long, it’s hard to predict what type of showing he’ll make. But if a late-season slide doesn’t derail his momentum (and with Letarte calling the shots, it shouldn’t), Earnhardt is looking gbetter than he has in … well, forever.
3. Jimmie Johnson Wins: 2 (Darlington, Dover)
Oh yeah, don’t forget the “other driver” at Hendrick Motorsports. When he’s not cruising around with Mr. H on his windowsill, Jimmie Johnson is just being Jimmie Johnson; going about his business with painful precision and without much fanfare. Like a Glock pistol, he may be short on flash and flair, but he is dead-nuts reliable and never fails when the money is on the line. His nine top 5s and 13 top 10s are the most in both categories, and should serve as a harbinger of things to come in the fall. As in the past, the No. 48 team vets and fetters out the junk and finds what works during the summer months, then sets “phasers to kill” come September. For those who have tired of the “Five-Time” moniker, don’t worry. You may be calling him “Six-Time” by Thanksgiving.
4. Greg Biffle Wins: 1 (Texas)
Biffle started off the season strong, posting a trio of top-3 finishes in the first three races. He made a mockery of the last half of the April event at Texas Motor Speedway, and led the points from Las Vegas in early March until a 24th-place finish at Pocono, when he surrendered the top spot to his soon-to-be former teammate, Kenseth. A Roush veteran since his 1998 Truck Series debut, Biffle will prove to be the backbone of the team with Kenseth’s impending departure. While the No. 16 team started strong, it has stumbled in recent weeks, posting two sub-20th-place runs in the last four races. It was the No. 16 team that stopped Roush’s win skein in 2010, when the company got off track with misleading data simulation and sucky software on the engineering side. If there is a trend that must be watched with this bunch, it is that Biffle tends to go through crew chiefs quickly. Eight top 5s and 10 top 10s are a testament to his consistency, as well as the effect that current chief Matt Puccia has had for the driver who is in position to be the first in NASCAR history to win a championship in all three touring series.
5. Denny Hamlin Wins: 2 (Phoenix, Kansas)
What a difference a year makes. This time last season, Denny Hamlin was, to be honest, a mess. With three top 5s and six top 10s, coupled win a number of cryptic comments made during interviews that at best sounded whiney, Hamlin was still suffering the side-effects from his team’s 2010 implosion. Now with a new attitude and re-found mental toughness (and 2011 championship-winning crew chief Darian Grubb making decisive calls), Hamlin has a pair of wins, and eight top-5 finishes. Those runs account for nearly all of his top 10s, and it must be noted that he has two DNFs in his last three races — courtesy of a fiery exit in Michigan and the front bumper of teammate Joey Logano at Sonoma. If Hamlin can keep from getting wrecked or exploding — and a TRD IED does not find its way between the fenders of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota — he will likely find himself in contention to win the title, as he was in 2010. This time, however, he will be better prepared mentally and strategically to contend.
6. Kevin Harvick Wins: 0
The driver of the No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet hasn’t had a lot to brag about this year — but he hasn’t had much to really complain about, either. Usually the first one to ride his crew if they make the smallest of errors, Harvick has achieved his position not so much with poise and audacity, but on reliability and finishing races. A smattering of eight top 10s and three top 5s is decent, but not exactly championship caliber. If Harvick were to have a catastrophic failure in the coming weeks — which would lose him say, 40 points — the impact would be significant, and could potentially drop him out of the top 10 in points. He’s gotten by on a number of eighth- to 14th-place runs, but if he’s to solidify his place in the Chase, the No. 29 operation as a whole needs to step it up on the track, in the pits and in the garage while prepping the car for Sunday.
Clint Bowyer (ASP, Inc.)
7. Clint Bowyer Wins: 1 (Sonoma)
Not only do you see him every 15 minutes in a 5-Hour Energy or NASCAR.com commercial, you now see him up front, leading and winning races. Bowyer’s move to Michael Waltrip Racing was seen by many as a risky move, albeit one he was essentially forced into after he lost his ride in the No. 33 at RCR (despite winning a Nationwide title in 2008 and qualifying for the Chase three times in six seasons). With former RCR crew chief and competition director Scott Miller making the move to MWR as well, the performance of all involved has risen substantially. With six top 5s and nine top 10s, the occasional win, or at least contention for the win, is no longer an oddity. This, coupled with some veteran leadership from Mark Martin in a part-time arrangement in the No. 55, along with teammate Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 56 group, finds MWR becoming this generation’s — dare I say it? — RCR.
8. Martin Truex Jr. Wins: 0
Martin Truex Jr. is enjoying his best season in Cup competition since his 2007 rookie campaign when he won a race, made the Chase and ended the year 11th in points. Currently sitting in eighth position on the strength of four top-5 and eight top-10 finishes, Truex has been a key cog in the MWR Renaissance of 2012. However, there may be storm clouds on the horizon. Truex’s finishes have begun to waver, his eighth-place run at Kentucky ending a string of three races without a top 10. Now is not the time to mix inconsistency into the equation, particularly with the crapshoot that is a restrictor plate race at Daytona on the docket. While Truex is only 10 points out of fifth in the standings, he’s also less than 20 points from 10th. If he keeps the steady-as-she-goes performance trend and avoids any back-to-back disasters or mechanical maladies, he looks to be a safe bet to make the Chase field for the first time in five years.
9. Tony Stewart Wins: 2 (Las Vegas, Fontana)
Towards the bottom of the top 10, we find a pair of drivers on the tail end of making the Chase, but who are arguably the most potent in the field. Tony Stewart has seven top-5 finishes and eight top 10s, but it is how he came to those numbers that are the most telling: two wins, back-to-back second-place runs and three third-place showings. Add in some mechanical woes by way of EFI foul ups, and you have created the crusty Tony of old the last couple of months. Quite possibly the only person in the country who was not cheering the Earnhardt victory in Michigan, Smoke has found that delicate balance of diplomacy and irritability that has guided him to three championships. Streaky performances be damned, he’s in prime position to add a fourth to the mix — half of which would be as an owner/driver, something not seen since The King’s heydays of the 1970s.
10. Brad Keselowski Wins: 3 (Bristol, Talladega, Kentucky)
The one driver barely clinging to top-10 status is also the lynchpin in the Chase scenario. Keselowski has won three races at three diametrically different tracks: Bristol, Talladega and Kentucky. Plate track, short track, intermediate — it doesn’t seem to matter where the Miller Lite Dodge goes, it can be a force to be reckoned with. It would appear that the strategy being employed by the No. 2 team is to focus on wins ahead of all else. Three of his top 5s are victories while the other two barely made it as fifth-place performances. His top 10s are then comprised of a pair of ninth-place finishes, with the rest being mid-teens or worse-than-30th finishes. The only DNF they suffered was post-Tweet at the Daytona 500 in February, and it was about this time last year that Keselowski made the transition from promising driver to leader and motivator following a broken ankle during a testing crash. It remains a mystery why Penske is leaving Dodge to join forces with Ford, what with the modest win totals of the two-car team over the last few seasons. However, it remains committed to its current manufacturer and stands to make some noise for the Mopar faithful if its flagship No. 2 team can avoid any calamities in the coming weeks. Of course, even a tumble out of the top 10 finds Keselowski in the catbird seat, with three-times the wins as anyone from 11th to 20th in the standings.
On the Outside Looking In
To think that Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch would be reduced to relative obscurity in October is nearly unfathomable, especially considering Edwards’ 2011 consistency, Gordon’s seemingly resurrected career with crew chief Alan Gustafson and Busch’s ability to hammer out wins in quick succession. However, all three have missed the Chase before, and they’re nearing the point of no return without some wins. Nine races remain before the Chase for the Championship begins in Chicago, and of the three, only Busch has a 2012 win. Edwards’ and Gordon’s teams have had both bad luck and bad calls that have kept them out of Victory Lane, while the engines supplied to the No. 18 from TRD have been straight up TuRDs, with three straight engine failures conspiring to drop Busch to 12th in points.
Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman all reside within the top 20, and each have one win. Among them, only Kahne has displayed any sort of consistent speed to threaten breaking into the top 10. Even if that happened, it would likely require Keselowski and Stewart to fall out. With The Big Keselowski having three wins and Smoke two, that would also require Logano and Newman to crank out a couple of more wins apiece if they were to qualify — not out of the realm of possibility, but certainly not expected.
Paul Menard, in 13th, will need to repeat last year’s Brickyard 400 triumph to have a shot at taking one of the two open wildcard spots, as he has yet to claim a win this year. Jamie McMurray and Jeff Burton are over 100 points out of 10th and have struggled to find the top 10, much less score wins. Marcos Ambrose isn’t in much better shape, though a trip to Watkins Glen may get him back in the wildcard conversation.
Prior to NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship, Tony Stewart stated that his inclusion in the playoffs may simply be wasting a spot in lieu of another, more worthy contender. Three victories later, the two-time Cup champion finds himself in the thick of the title hunt after a win in the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
“I felt like there were some things that were missing,” Stewart said of his No. 14 team’s regular season performance. “I think our Chase run here — obviously Dover (25th) was not what we were looking for — but every race since then, we have been a contender. The result hasn’t always shown at some of these races. But we’ve been pretty solid in this Chase.
“I don’t know what changed. The guy beside me (crew chief Darian Grubb) is the guy to ask that. He’s the guy that’s orchestrating it, organizing the people to do the job. It doesn’t matter what it is that’s changed — the good thing is that it has and it changed at the right time when we need it. That’s all you can ask for.”
Stewart, winless in the 26-race regular season, snuck into the Chase seeded ninth, but swept the first two races at Chicagoland and Dover. His victory in Martinsville was the 42nd of his Cup career, placing him 16th on NASCAR’s all-time wins list, two ahead of Mark Martin and two shy of Bill Elliott in 15th.
Stewart had to beat Jimmie Johnson to get to Victory Lane — an uneasy task considering Johnson is a six-time Martinsville race-winner who had led the previous 60 laps.
Stewart lined up to Johnson’s outside on the front row on a restart with three laps remaining and was able to make the line work, nosing ahead of Johnson coming off Turn 2 and clearing him in Turns 3 and 4.
“When I was inside of Tony, I went down in the corner (Turn 1) and thought that eight tires would be a lot better than four,”?Johnson said of the final restart. “I changed my mind. With where he is in the points, what’s going on, the fact we raced throughout the day today (and) he never touched me, I had a hard time doing that (getting physical).”
Johnson finished one car length back in second. Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top 5.
The most notable finish of the afternoon — aside from Stewart’s win — was points leader Carl Edwards’ ninth-place showing.
On two occasions Edwards fell off the lead lap, the victim of an ill-handling car. However, he was able to make up both laps thanks to well-timed cautions that allowed him to get back on the lead lap over the event’s final 100 circuits. The result was Edwards maintaining the Chase lead by eight over Stewart.
Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski, who entered the event 14 and 18 points behind Edwards, had late-race spins while running in the top 10 that damaged their playoff hopes. Keselowski now sits 27 points back in fourth, while Kenseth’s title bid took a damaging hit, as he is now 36 markers off Edwards’ pace.
Harvick’s fourth-place run allowed him to gain five points on Edwards, vaulting him from fifth to third in the standings.
But Stewart, who started the afternoon 19 points shy of Edwards’ points lead, was the undisputed benefactor of what was a chaotic race. He dodged and weaved his way through 18 caution periods, and applied verbal pressure — as well as the physical heat the point standings now profess — to the ultra-consistent Edwards:
“Carl Edwards better be real worried,” Stewart said with a sly grin in Victory Lane. “That’s all I’ve got to say. He’s not going to sleep for the next three weeks.”
Tony Stewart passes Clint Bowyer in the Sylvania 300. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
Most had written off Tony Stewart as a legitimate 2011 championship contender — including himself, if you believed his words in the midst of a 27th-, ninth- and 28th-place string just six weeks ago. After all, his No. 14 team was winless through NASCAR’s 26-race regular season, averaging a pedestrian 14.2-place finish with only three top 5s.
Then the Chase for the Championship hit and, inexplicably, Stewart and his team have come alive. Stewart won his second straight race — the second of the Chase — in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday, and in the process, assumed the points lead.
Stewart passed Clint Bowyer as Bowyer’s fuel cell ran dry with two laps remaining, reversing last season’s New Hampshire Chase outcome that saw Bowyer capitalize on Stewart’s empty gas tank.
“It’s amazing that it’s happened like that,” Stewart said. “But Clint was one of the first guys that called last year and, as happy as he was that he won the race, he knew how disappointing it was for us.
“You don’t want to win them that way (on fuel mileage) and you don’t want to see guys lose them that way. This is a sport that guys have a high level of respect for what happens and how it happens. To have a win get away from you that way, it’s disappointing for anybody.
“We may not have been the best car at the end — Clint was just a tick better than us. I definitely did not know he was in a situation to worry about fuel. So the good thing is Darian told us we were two, three laps to the good. I got to run hard all the way to the end.”
To be fair, Stewart’s car was good enough to win the race, and having the mileage to get there was just icing on the cake. He finished second at New Hampshire in July to his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Ryan Newman, in a fuel mileage duel, and won last week at Chicagoland under the same circumstances.
However, the one car that may have been better than his was Jeff Gordon’s No. 24. Gordon led a race-high 78 laps, but ran out of gas coming to pit road under green-flag pit stops with 70 laps remaining. It took the team valuable seconds to get the machine refired, and even then, they did not get the car full of fuel.
That forced Gordon into conservation mode. He backed off down the stretch to avoid running out of gas and settled for a fourth-place finish. Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle were second and third.
“It’s a bit of a surprise we ran out under green,” Gordon said. “We were expecting to get a couple more laps.
“We’re making great horsepower, but we’re not getting good fuel mileage. But Tony is figuring out a way to do it, so give those guys credit — those guys have the same engines we have and we have to do a better job at it. I have to do a better job at it.”
Defending five-time champion Jimmie Johnson got into a fender war with Kyle Busch with 21 laps remaining. Although neither wrecked, something in Johnson’s steering system was bent, and he finished 18th.
“Today we just didn’t have the speed,” Johnson, who is 29 points behind Stewart, said. “And track position was so important and we didn’t have some pit calls go our way.”
Johnson’s main competition last season, Denny Hamlin, had his second straight frustrating race. His No. 11 Toyota ran out of gas with three laps to go, despite the fact his crew chief, Mike Ford, assured him they could make it the distance. He finished 29th and, after a 31st-place showing last week, is 66 points out of the Chase lead and all but eliminated.
As for the points leader, though, his faith is renewed. “These guys have never quit,” Stewart said. “These guys have never given up and we got a shot at this thing.”
NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship gets rolling this weekend in New Hampshire … no, wait … Chicago. Yeah, that’s right, Chicagoland Speedway. Answer me this: Could the sanctioning body have awarded the date to a track more devoid of character? I get that it’s a facility struggling in attendance and ratings numbers. A marquee date may help (or at least can’t hurt), but at what point does NASCAR think in the macro and not the micro? The sport benefits from an exciting Chase start, especially after last week’s action-packed Saturday night in Richmond, and this is the ultimate momentum killer.
Anyway, this column is supposed to be more of a Chase preview as my boy Vito Pugliese is taking track preview duties, so before it totally gets away from me, I’ll hit the brakes Starsky and Hutch style and refocus.
Any Chase preview column begins and ends with Jimmie Johnson. It doesn’t matter where he’s seeded or who else is currently loaded for bear. When you’re the five-time defending champion you get the nod. So, does Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have the magic in them for a sixth crown after an atypical one-win regular season?
I tend to agree with the contingent that says until the 48 team gives me a reason to pick against them, I won’t. I use to have the same conversation with our MLB editor here at Athlon. My beloved Atlanta Braves were in the midst of a 14-year division title streak, yet for two or three years, the thinking was to try and foresee the downfall by picking them to miss the playoffs in our preseason annuals.
Didn’t happen. Not until 2006. And by then we’d gotten tired of getting burned and actually hopped back on the bandwagon when they finally petered out. Same line of thinking with Johnson.
That’s not to say there aren’t some worthy candidates to knock off Johnson. In fact, this field looks as dangerous as any I can remember — but I seem to say that every year. Let’s start at the top:
Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. Ironic, isn’t it? You can just feel the love here. Actually, the Harvick/Busch tie at the top helps Kevin’s cause. Harvick admits to thriving on controversy, stirring the pot, fanning the flames. And he seems to take particular delight in needling Busch. From a performance standpoint, Harvick has the experience, the team, the machinery and the demeanor to be a champion. So what’s missing? Good question, but best I can tell it’s just a break here or there. The 29 team maneuvered through its roller coaster of a summer and seems to have come out stronger on the other side, as its last two finishes can attest.
But Johnson stands in his way, and Harvick has yet to prove he can beat J.J. heads-up. But he’s close.
Kevin Harvick (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
As for Busch, I’ll believe a “New Kyle Busch” exists just as soon as his older brother proves he’s really in Johnson’s head. Kyle is an on-track skirmish away from going thermonuclear still — although “thermonuclear” may be overstating it a tad. You can’t deny the progress he’s made in the “Quit Being a Jackass” department, but that attitude seemed to be what gave him an edge.
Busch’s equipment is the other concern. Despite all the wins over the last three years or so, Joe Gibbs Racing always manages to trip themselves up in the Chase somehow or another. That said, Busch seems to be much kinder to his equipment (under the hood equipment, that is) than his teammate, Denny Hamlin. This is a big Chase for Kyle from a career-standpoint perspective, so not fading is important. If he finishes in the top three I’ll be convinced he’s ready to take on the mantle of Sprint Cup Champion in 2012.
One driver who has no convincing to do is Jeff Gordon. A rejuvenated Gordon, with ace-in-the-hole crew chief Alan Gustafson, has the desire, hunger — and at long last, the pure speed — to give Johnson all he wants. The four-time champ is finally throwing W’s on the board again, and winning a race or two in the next 10 is imperative. If anyone is to slay the Goliath that is the 48 team, this is it.
Carl Edwards was the latest, and thus far, only multi-time preseason pick to give Johnson a run for his money. It’s been a strange season for Edwards, though, as he has enjoyed only one trip to Victory Lane thus far. Granted, it’s safe to say that the team was doing some R&D (and contract) work through the summer and has rounded into form. He’ll factor, although to what extent is not yet clear.
Skipping down the standings a bit, Brad Keselowski looks dangerous. Yeah, it’s easy to jump on a guy’s bandwagon when he’s hot and in his second full-time campaign on the Cup circuit, predicting a title run may be putting the cart before the horse. But Keselowski is a different bird. He seems to thrive on high-pressure situations, completely at ease while in the eye of the hurricane. Where Denny Hamlin fumbled one away last year, Keselowski can be counted on to keep both hands on the ball. If — and that’s admittedly a big “if” — he can keep pace through the first six races, he’s a guy the big boys don’t want to see near the top heading down the stretch.
What’s there to say about Matt Kenseth? He threw up a flurry of victories this year (for Kenseth, a flurry is two) and deceptively cruised through the first 26 races, showcasing a consistency that’s become his trademark. He’ll need another flurry to bag this title, which may be asking a lot, as his style is not conducive to a 10-race hot streak. That said, he and crew chief Jimmy Fennig will have their moments. Just not enough of them.
Kurt Busch’s No. 22 team is an enigma. World-beaters one week, out to lunch the next. Has the success of his teammate (Keselowski) hindered Busch’s performance? That may seem like an asinine question, but I’m convinced the more a guy shouts one thing from the rooftops, the less likely it’s true. In this case, Busch claims to be in Johnson’s head (riiiiippppp…), implying his team is the mentally superior of the two. I don’t buy it, and I don’t buy that Kurt and his crew are serious title threats.
There’s quite a dip down to the four remaining Chasers. Ryan Newman has put together a nice season thus far with 13 top 10s. But is the sixth Hendrick team — OK, we’ll call them the fifth Hendrick team with Mark Martin all but gone — capable of winning this whole dog ’n’ pony show? And what of his Stewart-Haas teammate and car owner, Tony Stewart? What a long strange trip it’s been for his No. 14 team. Quite frankly, something’s amiss there to the point that there is no magical switch for Smoke to throw and make it all right. Maybe Danica Patrick’s input next season will help …
Then there’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin. Look, Junior made for a nice story earlier this season when he posted a slew of top-12 showings, but while other teams have improved, Junior’s has stagnated. Some of the Chase tracks favor The Son, but like Stewart, there’s no magic switch to be thrown.
That leaves Hamlin, the latest in a long line of drivers who got out-drank by Johnson last season and is suffering a year-long hangover. Hamlin could actually surprise, although if he gets in an early hole, it’ll be R&D Season for the 11 team. A win isn’t out of the question, but a championship is.
So in the end, I believe it’s a two-horse race between Johnson and Gordon, with Harvick, Edwards and Keselowski not too far behind. And like I said earlier: Until someone proves they can take down the most dominant team of the decade, I have to side with the 48 team.
Agree with Matt’s rankings? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Matt on Twitter@MattTaliaferro
From the Spotter's Stand
In last year’s Windy City run, David Reutimann won his first Cup race without an asterisk while old man Jeff Gordon made the 600th Cup start of his career.
Reutimann seemed apologetic after stumbling into a rain-shortened 227-lap win at the Coca-Cola 600 in 2009. But no one could question the Tums 00 Toyota after a gut-wrenching race to beat Carl Edwards and Gordon to the line in a green-white-checker finish.
Jimmie Johnson led the opening 92 laps of the night. But uncharacteristic miscues led to a 25th-place finish. Expect the 48’s mistakes to be corrected, however, as the 1.5-mile tri-oval of Chicagoland Speedway will (inexplicably) host the first Chase race in 2011.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Negotiating a smooth entry into Chicago’s sweeping turns sets the car up for a good exit, which is where the passing is going to take place. Chicago is all about handling on the track’s surprisingly weathered surface. Racing at night normally increases grip on a cool track surface, but Chicago’s bumpy ride doesn’t guarantee that. It’s close to Kansas, but thanks to a back straight with a really gradual, almost unnoticeable curve, it’s unique in its own way. I don’t really think that curved back straight makes any difference at all in terms of setting the car up.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: Jeff Gordon, with a win and seven top 10s in 10 Chi-Town starts. Pretty Solid Pick: Richmond winner Kevin Harvick, who won the first two races here. Good Sleeper Pick: Do not overlook Brian Vickers’ stats at Chicago. Runs on Seven Cylinders: You’d think this would be a Greg Biffle-type track, but it’s not. Insider Tip: We’re in the Chase now, so teams like the 48, 18, 24 and 99 will come to play.
Classic Moments at Chicagoland
Before Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon swapped pit crews at Texas last year, the most notable team swap in NASCAR came at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. in 2005.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. enters the USG Sheetrock 400 mired at 16th in the point standings while his teammate, Michael Waltrip — and former crew — ranks 17th. Although Matt Kenseth thoroughly dominates the race, Earnhardt’s crew chief, Steve Hmiel, makes a gutsy two-tire call during the final caution period, giving the No. 8 Budweiser Chevy valuable track position. Junior holds off Kenseth in clean air over the final 13 laps to earn his only win of the campaign.
Following the race, Jeff Gordon gives Mike Bliss a black eye at the airport after the two tangled to bring out the final caution that set the table for Hmiel’s pit call.
The 2011 Chase for the Championship field. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
The final 300 miles of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ regular season were some of the most intense of 2011. Chase bubble boys Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin were involved in a lap 8 wreck; Chase longshot Marcos Ambrose spun three times; and Chase locks Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson continued a feud that has slowly festered over the last two seasons.
In the end though, the top 12 drivers going into the Wonderful Pistachios 400 at Richmond International Raceway were the same 12 that came out, as Earnhardt, Hamlin and Tony Stewart held on to secure bids to NASCAR’s 10-race playoff.
Oh, and by the way, Kevin Harvick held off Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon to capture his fourth win of the season. It may be difficult to look past the Chase scenarios, implications and results, but the race itself was a thriller — chock full of short-track aggression topped off with a dramatic conclusion.
Gordon was hunting for his second consecutive victory, leading on lap 384 when a spin by Paul Menard brought out the evening’s 15th caution. When the field hit pit road, it was Harvick’s Richard Childress Racing crew that won the race off. He lined up for the restart in the front row alongside Gordon, and when the green flag waved, pulled away. Edwards was able to get by Gordon, though, and quickly narrowed the gap Harvick had built.
Whether Edwards would have capped a night of physicality off with a bump ’n’ run is unknown. Edwards’ No. 99 Ford was never able to get to Harvick’s bumper, and the Bakersfield, Ca., native held on for his second career Richmond win.
“The guys on pit road had just a great last pit stop and were able to get us the track position,” Harvick said. “I struggled on the restarts getting going with the races that we had, so to be in control of that last restart I felt like it was pretty important to get going.
“Our car was really good all night on the restarts, and that last run there we were actually too tight and Carl was actually a little bit better. And then with about three or four laps to go, I just locked it on the bottom and hoped for the best there, so it all worked out.”
Gordon finished third, while David Ragan and Kurt Busch rounded out the top 5.
Busch had to recover from a pair of incidents with Johnson en route to his solid finish. The first accident came on lap 186, when Busch locked up his front brakes going into Turn 1 while battling the five-time defending champion for position. Johnson spun and restarted 24th while Busch continued unimpeded.
Jimmie Johnson after his second run-in with Kurt Busch. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Sixty laps later, Johnson got his revenge, diving into Turn 1 under Busch and spinning the No. 22 around. Johnson hit the wall in the process, requiring a lengthy stay in the garage, but once again, Busch marched on.
“I know we’re in his head,” Busch said later. “If we’re going to race this way, he’s got to know that there’s 10 other guys in this Chase, not just the 22 (car).
“He’s got to learn to race. He’s been able to beat guys in the last five years just by out-driving them with what he has for equipment.”
Johnson replied with a shrug, saying, “OK ... I got run over going into (Turn) 1, so if you’re going to spin me out, I’m going to spin you out.
“I’m sure I’ll go find him and talk to him and he’ll run his mouth. And we’ll go from there.”
Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Earnhardt, had a tough, but ultimately successful, evening. Earnhardt qualified for his first Chase since 2008 by recovering from the lap 8 accident that crushed the nose of his Chevrolet. He then used up what was left of the front end by spinning Ambrose and Travis Kvapil in separate incidents, displaying an aggression not typically seen in the 36-year-old. He finished 16th.
Earnhardt joins Johnson, Busch, Gordon, Edwards, Harvick, Hamlin and Stewart, along with Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman in the Chase.
“I’m proud to be in the Chase,” Earnhardt said. “I feel like I’m a good enough driver to be in the Chase, (and) my team is good enough to be there.
“I can look back over the season and just easily think of several instances where we cost ourselves 10 or 15 points and made this situation difficult this weekend. Had we been more conscious and smarter at certain times we wouldn’t have had to even worry about it this weekend.”