Monday, July 28, 2008

The Chase for the Chase for the Chase

Why Even a Dull Race Still Means Exciting Competition

After the tire-some conclusion of the ill-fated Brickyard 400, a look at the post race driver standings showed more exciting results than what transpired on the racetrack, drivers from #7 in the points standings to #14 are separated by only 154 points. With five races leading to the decisive battle at Richmond that will determine which twelve drivers will compete in the Chase for the Cup for the season’s last ten races, the competition for who will make the chase is intense. Though the competition appears to be set between these drivers, a hot streak and a few quirky developments could keep Brian Vickers (132 points out of 12th place) and Ryan Newman (144 points out of 12th place) in the running. A DNF or two by a contender in this mini-chase could turn the whole picture upside down.

Here’s the chase within the chase for the chase. (You got that?)
#7 Greg Biffle, 2460 points
#8 Denny Hamlin, 2453 points, 7 behind leader
#9 Kasey Kahne, 2442 points, 19 behind leader, 7 behind next driver
#10 Tony Stewart, 2399 points, 61 behind leader, 42 behind next driver
#11 Matt Kenseth, 2366 points, 94 behind leader, 33 behind next driver
#12 Clint Boyer, 2362 points, 98 behind leader, 4 behind next driver
#13 Kevin Harvick, 2362 points, 100 behind leader, 2 behind next driver
2 points out of chase
#14 David Ragan, 2306 points, 154 behind leader, 54 behind next driver
56 points out of chase
#15 Brian Vickers, 2230 points, 230 behind leader, 76 behind next driver
132 points out of chase
#16 Ryan Newman, 2218 points, 242 behind leader, 12 behind next driver
144 points out of chase

This field consists of a largely experienced and proven drivers who are known winners with only David Ragan and Brian Vickers true novices in this most elite level of competition. Ragan is the least experienced but also has Roush/Fenway’s enormous resources to benefit his efforts. Brian Vickers representing the sophomore Red Bull operation is the more experienced driver who has been very competitive in recent races. Ryan Newman is a lame duck at Penske Racing. Team chemistry seems weak and the Penske operation in general looks destined for a post-season shakeup as Ryan Newman’s win in the Daytona 500 and Kurt Busch’s rain-shortened victory New Hampshire victory add color to a totally dismal season for Team Penske in 2008. Kevin Harvick continues to mature as a driver but between being caught up in middle-of-the-field accidents and other poor finishes, he has not been able to show the kind of above the pack consistency needed of a chase contender. Harvick’s Childress team-mate has been riddled with ups and downs, promising one week, down and out the next. Matt Kennseth, generally one of the series most consistent drivers, has run several disastrous races where accidents or equipment failures have punished him despite becoming increasingly more solid a top ten or top five finisher as the season progressed. Tony Stewart has a reputation of being a strong second half driver but time is running out for a powerful season. As tough as the competition is and the slight separation between positions, continued so-so results or a bad race could push Tony out of the chase. Given his lame-duck status with Joe Gibbs Racing and plans to launch Stewart-Haas Racing next year, Tony will continue to draw much media attention which seems to energize his fury and empower him in a race car. Kasey Kahne got off to a poor start but after a stunning victory racing to get into the All-Star Race and then winning the event energized the erstwhile series ladies’ man repeating the Charlotte magic a week later at the Coca-Cola 600 along with a victory at the first Pocono race and a second place at Michigan made Kahne look like a surging winner. Since then, the results have been more inconsistent. From now until Richmond, it will be a matter of which Kasey Kahne will show up at the race track.

Denny Hamlin and Greg Biffle have been consistent performers and with Joe Gibbs and Roush/Fenway support, only major catastrophe could throw either driver out of the chase, still though some of the tracks remaining before Richmond reward consistent, conservative racing, the field passes through Bristol under the mountain stars on August 23rd. Short track violence and hot tempers change fortune to failure in a heartbeat where many season’s dreams of triumph transformed into dust with one driver’s false move.

It’s on to Pocono and another round of whining about the track’s awkward configuration, lack of driver perks, and poor sight lines for race fans. Bruton Smith apparently has tendered offers refused by the family run outfit who want to pass on the ma and pa business into the next generation. At very least, it would make sense to shorten the Pocono races to 400 miles or perhaps 500k. Regardless, Pocono races are long and tedious for drivers, their crews, and fans alike. Pocono is a valuable track on the circuit as it does test slightly different driver strategies and tremendous study on proper setup by the pit crews. Michigan and California are virtual clones. California was built by the Penske operation following the Michigan template as the design for the LA-LA track near Hollywood. Watkins Glen provides the second road race where road racing specialists compete with ringers who aren’t in the week-to-week field for dominance where it’s more involved than driving fast and turning left. All this racing concludes at Richmond, one of the circuit’s most exciting tracks with the bumping and banging of short track racing along the front stretch and in the curves with a long, fast rear straightaway. Racing is hotly competitive where almost anything can happen at the only ¾ mile track on the travel itinerary.

Study the list above and make your picks. Gentlemen, start your engines! The chase for the chase for the chase is heating up.

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