1. Brad Keselowski What has kept Keselowski and his team near the top of the Horsepower Rankings all season is the ability to win on most any style of track. To come out connecting in the Chase is big.
2. Jimmie Johnson Certainly, an argument could be made for Johnson to be No. 1. However, he got beat in a race he seemed to have in hand. Don’t worry about this bunch, though — they’ll get theirs in the coming weeks.
3. Denny Hamlin Mistakes like Hamlin’s team made (not getting the car full of fuel) are what turn top-5 runs into 16th-place finishes. It also costs teams championships.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. After a month of pre-Chase, live-fire testing, Earnhardt’s No. 88 team appears back to its fourth- to 10th-place ways. Is that good enough to win a title?
5. Clint Bowyer Follows up Richmond win with a 10th-place showing somewhere relatively near Chicago. Considering the last two months’ worth of performances, Bowyer and the boys may be getting overlooked.
6. Kasey Kahne Loudon’s July winner returns with the Chase lead in his sights. Like Bowyer, he may not be getting the credit he deserves for his pre-Chase surge.
7. Tony Stewart Look who appears to be rounding into form at just the right time. After a miserable month, Stewart clicks off a fourth at Richmond and a sixth to begin the Chase. Shouldn’t we all see this coming?
See it here while it still exists. (ASP, Inc.)
8. Jeff Gordon A boatload of momentum sinks with Gordon’s stuck throttle at Chicagoland. After a valiant run into the Chase, it’s a shame to see the hard work go for naught.
9. Martin Truex Jr. Credit this team for making a 20-something car into a top-10 ride by race’s end on Sunday. The “ultimate underdog” is still alive.
10. Matt Kenseth A broken shock? Really? Isn’t that something that would happen to Gordon this year? Kenseth and the guys go from top 5 to 18th ... but I’d bet we haven’t heard the last of them.
11. Kevin Harvick Harvick is averaging a 10.5-place finish since the return of Gil Martin as crew chief.
12. Greg Biffle Since his Michigan win in August, Biffle has looked extraordinarily mediocre.
13. Ryan Newman Could bust up the Chasers’ party in Loudon and steal a win this weekend.
14. Kyle Busch Wondering if his attention will suddenly shift to the Nationwide Series team he owns.
15. Sam Hornish Jr. Hornish has three consecutive 11th-place finishes. I wonder if Joey Logano has ever done that.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Paul Menard
If Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team are the Muhammad Ali of NASCAR — the heavyweight that wins with both sheer power and poise — Brad Keselowski and his No. 2 Penske Racing bunch are the sport’s Sugar Ray Leonard. Not necessarily graced with the resources enjoyed by Johnson, Keselowski wins with smarts and guile — and a sweeping uppercut that comes, seemingly, from nowhere.
Therefore, it was fitting that Keselowski referred to his win in Sunday’s GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in boxer’s terms.
“It feels like Round 1 of a heavyweight title bout, just it’s a 10-round bout,” he said of the first Chase race in NASCAR’s 10-week playoff. “Week 1 is done and we won the round but we didn’t by any means knock them out. We’ve got a lot of racing left to go. We’re feeling good about today but know that we have a lot of work to do.”
They’ll be no checking of scorecards for this round, though. Johnson started second and was in control of the race, leading a commanding 172 of the first 228 laps. However, Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe managed to maneuver their Dodge to the front, using a quick pit stop — and just a little gamesmanship — to take control of the point.
Trailing Johnson by a second as the final round of pit stops began, Keselowski exited the pits just in front of his rival and made a hasty entrance onto the racing surface. Johnson claimed Keselowski “blended” back onto the track too soon (NASCAR rules state a driver must keep all four wheels below the white line before the backstretch). Keselowski’s car cut in front of Johnson’s, briefly stalling his momentum.
The move drew the ire of Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, who asked NASCAR to review the move.
The sanctioning body’s response? “No harm, no foul.”
And with that, Keselowski used clean air to hold Johnson at bay for the final 26 laps to record his fourth win of the season and claim the top spot in the Chase.
“He did cut up early,” Johnson said. “It did impede my progress, I had to check up and wasn’t sure where things were going. But it didn’t affect the outcome I don’t believe.
“The way he made quick work in (lap) traffic and stretched it out on me, I’m not sure I would have held him off. At the time it messed me up, but I don’t think it played an outcome in the race.”
Keselowski, in turn, feigned ignorance as to why Johnson felt wronged:
“There is no enforced line like you see in other sports, and that’s not a bad thing. That’s just one more thing to monitor during the race. But it’s certainly — I don’t want to say a gentlemen’s agreement — it’s a policy of merging down the backstretch, off of Turn 2, I think it said specifically in the driver’s meeting. And I feel like that’s what we did.”
Chase participants made up nine of the top-15 finishers. The only one that suffered a crippling blow was Jeff?Gordon, who’s throttle stuck in lap 189. The damage resulted in a 35th-place showing. He now sits 12th in the Chase standings, 47 points out of first.
Popular pre-Chase favorite Denny Hamlin, who entered the event with the top spot, ran out of fuel on the final lap, dropping from a solid top-5 finish to 16th.
“This was just us making a big mistake with our fuel again,” said Hamlin. “It’s tough, but we’re strong enough and fast enough this Chase that we can make up 15 points easily.”
As the most recent drive to be anointed as the No. 1 contender, Keselowski knows it’s too early to get comfortable.
“Any time you win, it’s a bit of a mission accomplished for that particular weekend, but the Chase isn’t about one particular weekend, it’s about 10, and there’s a long row to hoe.”
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's GEICO 400
Defending Chicago race-winner Tony Stewart. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2012 regular season may have been put in the books last weekend in dramatic fashion at Richmond International Raceway, and the Chase for the Sprint Cup may get underway at Chicagoland Speedway, but for NASCAR fantasy players the season simply rolls on to the sweeping 1.5-mile track in Joliet, Ill.
While most fantasy leagues will continue without any change in format, the mindset of the 12 drivers battling for the title and the 31 “other” drivers in the field will certainly change.
Although most are reluctant to admit it – you often hear them say, “We’ll keep doing the same thing we have all year,” – there is no doubt that those in the Chase will be gunning for wins and maximum points each and every weekend.
While the Chase drivers will steal the majority of the spotlight the next 10 races, there are a number of those on the outside looking in that can shake up the finishing order week-to-week. Some are looking for redemption for missing this year’s Chase, others are working on setups and plans for the 2013 season, while still others will be out there proving their worth to potential rides and sponsorship dollars.
In essence, the next 10 weeks will be a mixed-bag of agendas with high-intensity racing. It will be tough to top last year’s epic battle to the final laps, but if any Chase class could do it, I bet this one can.
However, before we get too wrapped up Chase talk, it’s time to look at this weekend’s race at Chicagoland Speedway.
After 10 years of hosting NASCAR Sprint Cup races, the 2011 trip to Chicagoland Speedway marked the first time it opened the Chase. Defending series champion Tony Stewart turned his season around then and there by saving enough fuel to score his first of five Chase wins.
Much like last season, Stewart enters the Chase struggling to keep pace with the competition. Since his third win of the season came in July at Daytona, the former champion has just two top 5s and three top 10s – not exactly the type of momentum you want heading into the Chase.
However, if last year proved anything, it’s that Stewart has the opportunity to come out swinging in Chicago. The defending champ leads all drivers in victories at the 1.5-mile tri-oval (three) and at 8.7, has the best average finish among active drivers.
If he and crew chief Steve Addington are able to put the struggles of the summer months behind them, bring a solid setup to the track and play the strategy correctly, it will be hard to bet against Stewart.
That said, once the Chase gets underway it is also nearly impossible to bet against the five-time series champion, Jimmie Johnson. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet leads the series in Chase wins (20) and has an average finish of 9.0 in the playoffs. With the third-best average finish (10.0) at Chicagoland Speedway — and bringing the car that dominated at both Dover and Indianapolis — Johnson should also be among the favorites this weekend.
With all four Hendrick Motorsports cars in the Chase, perhaps the driver you want to watch out for this weekend is veteran Jeff Gordon. The four-time champion earned the final wild card spot in dramatic fashion on Saturday in Richmond by out-racing Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch when it mattered most.
The 2012 season has been one of up and downs for the No. 24 team, but throughout the struggles and poor luck, crew chief Alan Gustafson and the team have provided fast racecars. Gordon enters the first race of the Chase with his sights set on a fifth title, and with a win and a 10th-place average finish at Chicagoland, he will be tough to beat.
Five Favorites: Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon
Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick. (ASP, Inc.)
Even though Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer enters the Chase fresh off a victory in Richmond, he remains an undervalued pick this weekend in Chicago. While many look at Johnson, Stewart and Denny Hamlin as favorites for the title, Bowyer and his MWR teammate, Martin Truex Jr., could sneak in and truly mix it up in the championship battle – starting immediately
Bowyer’s No. 15 team has been consistently solid through the summer and early fall, scoring the Richmond win along with three top-5 and six top-10 finishes since the July race in Daytona. Also, don’t forget that Bowyer certainly knows how to open the Chase in dramatic fashion, having won the opening race at Loudon in 2010. With the fourth-best average finish (10.2) among active drivers at Chicagoland, Bowyer could easily thrust himself into title contention this weekend and, at the very least, score solid fantasy points for your team.
For Truex, the 2012 season has been one of renewed confidence and opportunity. Although he is still battling a winless drought that dates to June 2007, he and the No. 56 team led by crew chief Chad Johnston have consistently contended each week.
With only one top 10 finish at Chicagoland Speedway (2008), Truex will have to buck the trend of years past and continue to do the things that got them into the Chase.
Aside from all the Chase contenders, one driver you will want to watch this weekend is Stewart-Haas Racing’s Ryan Newman. Not a part of the championship battle, Newman is one of those driving to court sponsors for next season. With one win, two top 5s and six top 10s at Chicagoland Speedway, he could mix things up and prove to be an undervalued fantasy start.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Joey Logano
It’s not usually a good thing when a driver thanks you in Victory Lane for wrecking him, but that is exactly what Bowyer did to Juan Pablo Montoya Saturday night in Richmond.
Struggling through his worst year since his sophomore season in 2008, Montoya has only two top-10 finishes thus far in 2012. After team owner Chip Ganassi made drastic internal changes within his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing shop during the offseason, the thought was the company would return to the winning ways it experienced in 2010. To the contrary, both Montoya and Jamie McMurray have essentially been also-rans throughout the year. Of late, Montoya has been a target of criticism among many drivers, as he has been involved in multiple incidents the last few weeks.
Yet with the season winding down, Montoya heads to Chicagoland Speedway on the outside of the Chase looking in, and attempting to salvage something of his dismal season. With the eighth-best average finish (14.6) in Chicago, the Colombia native may have a rare top-10 showing – if he can stay out of trouble, of course.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton, Marcos Ambrose, Aric Almirola, Danica Patrick
Best Average finish at Chicagoland (Wins):
1. Tony Stewart – 8.7 (3)
2. Jeff Gordon – 10.0 (1)
3. Jimmie Johnson – 10.0 (0)
4. Clint Bowyer – 10.2 (0)
5. Kevin Harvick – 10.4 (2)
6. Matt Kenseth – 12.3 (0)
7. Mark Martin – 12.5 (1)
8. Juan Pablo Montoya – 14.6 (0)
9. Kyle Busch – 14.7 (1)
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 14.8 (1)
Tony Stewart in Victory Lane in Chicago. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
Just days ago, Tony Stewart called himself an underdog in the Chase for the Championship. Two weeks prior, he wondered aloud whether his No. 14 team even deserved a spot in NASCAR’s playoffs. On Monday, Stewart proved he’s no underdog — and he surely belongs in the company of title contenders — as the two-time Cup champion kicked off the Sprint Cup Series’ Chase by saving enough fuel to outlast the field in the GEICO 400 from Chicagoland Speedway.
Stewart, who co-owns the Chevrolet-backed Stewart-Haas Racing organization, entered the Chase in a four-way tie for last in the 12-driver field. However, his No. 14 team had shown encouraging signs of competitiveness since a head-scratching 28th-place run at Bristol on August 27, with a third at Atlanta and a seventh in last weekend’s regular season finale in Richmond.
“I’m not sure one weekend can do that,” Stewart said in reference to a change of outlook. “But I feel better about it, obviously. We’ve had three good weekends in a row. Today doesn’t change my mind, but the last three weeks definitely make me feel better about it.
“We’ve still got nine hard weeks to go. And we have some tracks that have been a struggle this year, so we’ve got a long way to go but this gets us off to the right start.”
Stewart’s No. 14 crew did not get off to a good start at Chicago. Although he said the car felt good in practice, they only qualified 26th. A methodical march through the field found him at the front after a restart with 62 laps remaining. But a long green-flag run over the event’s final 50 laps had every crew chief on pit road calculating fuel mileage to the last drop.
Stewart, Martin Truex Jr. and Matt Kenseth swapped the lead numerous times over the final run, but when Truex pitted for fuel, Stewart only had to feather the throttle and hold a pretty wheel — even with Kevin Harvick in hot pursuit.
A number of Chase contenders — including Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch — ran out of gas on the last lap, while others — Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch — had just enough to bring it home.
As such, Harvick, Earnhardt, Edwards and Keselowski rounded out the top 5.
“I felt like we had saved a fair amount of gas under caution in the first 15, 18 laps, and (I) never really had to push my car very hard and just kind of maintained the pace that I was running,” Harvick said. “And as we got a couple of gaps we were able to shut it off five or six times. And when Gil said ‘Go,’ I guessed it about right, (because I) ran out off pit road there after we took the checkered flag. Good calculation by the guys and good solid day.”
Like Stewart, it was Harvick’s third consecutive top 10. He capped off the regular season with a win in last weekend’s Richmond race and entered the Chase tied for the No. 1 seed with Kyle Busch.
Harvick maintained the position with his second-place finish, and sits seven points in front of Stewart in the standings.
Denny Hamlin took the biggest points hit in the Chase. After squeaking in as a wild card entry, Hamlin’s day quickly deteriorated when he was forced to pit on lap 86 with a vibration, falling two laps off the pace. After earning one lap back, a shredded left front tire dropped last season’s Chase runner-up three laps off the pace. He finished 31st and finds himself 41 points out of the Chase lead — almost one full race worth of points.
The other Chasers finishes included Kurt Busch (sixth), Newman (eighth), Johnson (10th), Kenseth (21st), Kyle Busch (22nd) and Jeff Gordon (24th).
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.