The Chase is on when the green flag drops at Chicagoland Speedway for the GEICO 400. It was one year ago when Tony Stewart snuck in to the Chase, winless and not looking like he had much going for him. Who would have though “Smoke” would have turned on a burst of power winning the Chicago race and five of the ten races to come to win the 2011 championship, by virtue of those five wins over Carl Edwards, who failed to make the 2012 Chase, whom he had tied in points taking the decision down to the very end of the race at Homestead. Could such a feat be repeated in 2011?
It’s highly unlikely, though there is a driver with championship experience who needed some last minute heroics last week in
to prevail as Jeff Gordon had to race a superb race which surely looked out of
reach early on. Resorting to some drastic fixes on pit row while a distracted
Kyle Busch and some poor pit strategy found the brash #18 driver missing out to
the veteran four time champion, Gordon finished 2nd reeling in the
eventual winner, Denny Hamlin. 2012 has been a cruel year for Gordon who was
tremendously relieved surviving a season spiraling out of control, temporarily
rescued by his May 6th win at Talladega.
Until his appearance at Richmond,
the #24 team had its share of ups and downs hardly looking like the sports’
third most winning driver and four time
champ. The buzz is going around, could it be Gordon to attempt to repeat Tony
Stewart’s championship dash from last year?
Probably not. Such scripts seldom repeat themselves, and the #24 team must show far more consistency than they have all year long, but lots of fans will be following Jeff Gordon who only has Jimmy Johnson, his team mate, ahead of him with 5 championships among active drivers. In history, only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt lead Johnson with seven titles, and could Johnson move one step close to the King and the Intimidator?
The case for Johnson’s 6th championship is compelling. He has three wins this year trailing only Denny Hamlin with four wins. Since the Chase format was adopted Johnson leads all drivers with 11 wins and an average final standings position of 1.2. This is money time for the money driver who had 3 wins, 11 top 5’s, 13 top 10’s and one pole for 2012. He is especially strong on 1 ½ mile tracks of which he’ll have plenty to choose in the run for the Cup.
There’s another champ running for this year’s championship who must not escape notice and will gather much attention in the next ten races. Darien Grubb was last year’s championship crew chief, but this year is with the season’s most winning driver, Denny Hamlin who leads the pack with four wins. Hamlin has had a couple tough races: one the first race at
and then the second Pocono race, but his worst trouble has little to do with
the Chase, Road Courses, where an accident and blown engine provided short term
Hamlin’s line for the season is four wins, 11 top 5’s, 13 top 10’s, and two poles. He averages 7.2 year’s end finish since the advent of the chase with four chase race wins two in 2009 and two in 2010. He provided Jimmy Johnson perhaps his toughest rival settling for 2nd place in 2010.
Tony Stewart also starts the chase with three wins like Johnson, but a driver frequently noted for the late summer being his best time for performance, he needed a strong performance the last two races not to ooze out of the top 10 and only obtain wild card status. Tony Stewart will have to show the same kind of muscle and smarts he demonstrated last year and show the fans he has beaten his late season funk to have a shot at the 2012 crown.
Stewart had 10 top 5’s, 17 top 10’s, and 1 pole, but the races where he was nowhere to be found for one reason or another made 2012 a difficult season.
Brad Keselowski is the remaining driver with four wins. When this young driver in the #2 Miller Lite Dodge is on his mark, few drivers are more intense, but does he have the experience to be a champion getting the rap for complaining too much about other drivers’ behavior on the track to the distraction of his own.
His performance this year shows he belongs in the heart of the action with three wins, 10 top 5’s, a tremendous 15 top 5’s, but no poles.
Greg Biffle led the points before they were readjusted to reflect wins for the Chase field. He has been quietly consistent as Jack Roush’s top team this year. He shows a magnificent ten top 5’s and 15 top 10’s with 2 poles en route to his place in the Chase. He’s also a former Camping World Truck and a Nationwide Series champion. If a Ford’s in the 2012 Championship picture, it’s likely to be Greg Biffle.
Riding in 6th, Clint Bowyer, the winner of
race, is the only other multiple race winner with six top 5’s but a highly
respectable fifteen top 10’s but no poles. Bowyer lost no ground moving from
Richard Childress Racing where he made his name to now running for Michael
Waltrip Racing as their first chase participant. Bowyer still seems unproven as
a true Chase contender.
Few drivers will get more attention than the driver in 7th place, Dale Earnhardt Jr. whose win at
in June, capped his most successful season since joining up with the elite Rick
Hendricks team. Junior has been at or near the top of the standings through out
the season and not until Atlanta
did not finish on the lead lap. Junior had a strong 10 top 5’s and 17 top 10’s
supported with a pole.
Dale Earnhardt Junior won two Nationwide Championships, but he’ll have to show some guts he hasn’t yet shown to master the task of securing the Sprint Cup title.
Matt Kenseth is the driver whose championship brought about the Chase with only one win in his championship season and gobbling up the points by smart consistent racing. This is what he did again in 2012 with his 2nd Daytona 500 win with ten top 5’s and sixteen top 10’s plus one pole. Conjecture will be hard to deny whether his announced switch to Joe Gibbs Racing in the #20 next year could hamper his success this year.
Kevin Harvick’s appearance is the Chase is lackluster at best with no wins, no poles and only four top 5’s. His 11 top 10’s were good enough for him to maintain sufficient points to be in the top ten. Kevin Harvick will not be a factor in this year’s chase unless he completely reinvents himself between now and November.
The final top 10 driver is Tony Stewart who we already discussed. The pressure’s on but who can master any kind of racing like Tony Stewart?
Kasey Kahne in his first year at Hendrix enters with two wins, seven top 5’s, and thirteen top 10’s buttressed with two poles. Kahne showed much strength as one of the top points drivers in the latter stage of 2011 with a weak Red Bull team. Kahne’s season is hard to gauge given so much misfortune early in the season. Can he step up and dominate the field
Jeff Gordon is the final Wild Card. He’ll have to show much which has eluded him in 2012 to be a factor.
It’s hard not to see Jimmie Johnson as a contender for the top at
Who will join him? We like Denny Hamlin and Greg Biffle.
Other drivers will be attempting to have something to show for 2012. Joey Logano will surely be continuing to show why Roger Penske selected him to pilot the #22 car, a Ford next year, while Sam Hornish currently in the #22 filling in for the discharged A.J. Allmendinger will attempt to prove he should have gotten that ride wanting other owners to take note he’s ready to do for Sprint Cup what he did for IRL. Carl Edwards must get things worked out to return to Chase form for 2013 having a horrible below par winless 2012. Ryan Newman needs sponsorship to be secure in his ride for Stewart Haas.
2012 has been a horrible year for Richard Childress and Chip Ganassi’s drivers not having a win to show among both teams. They’ll both need to shake down their teamwork and prepare for 2013 accordingly.
Of course Danica Patrick is on the schedule for a few more races. Fans will be looking to see if she’s prepared for the big move to the big time next year.
Meanwhile, the trash heap at the bottom will continue to grow as teams simply do not want to put anything into doing more than grabbing a handsome share of the pot for showing up and doing a few laps. What happened in today’s Nationwide Race should serve to show just how out control freeloading non-race entries are cluttering up the field and making a mockery out of competition. Thirteen cars completed 30 laps or fewer only one documented as a supposed engine problem all taking home no less than $13,413 for not racing a competitive lap.
Wouldn’t it be misfortunate if a driver had an otherwise brilliant Chase except for one bad misfortune early in the race before the trash heap vacates and thus perhaps losing the margin of victory while figures like Joe Nemechek and Phil Parsons suck in their money at real competitors’ expense. NASCAR was close to becoming tier one sport until this nonsense helped show the huckster side of an otherwise highly competitive and brilliant enterprise.
STARING LINEUP: Chase participants thrown in caps.
|1||48||JIMMY JOHNSON||Chevrolet||Lowe's / Kobalt Tools||182.865||29.530|
|3||17||MATT KENSETH||Ford||Best Buy||182.334||29.616|
|4||88||DALE EARNHARDT, JR||Chevrolet||AMP Energy / 7-11 / National Guard||182.070||29.659|
|6||5||KASEY KAHNE||Chevrolet||Farmers Insurance||181.971||29.675|
|7||78||Regan Smith||Chevrolet||Furniture Row / Farm American||181.953||29.678|
|8||11||DENNY HAMLIN||Toyota||FedEx Ground||181.928||29.682|
|9||15||CLINT BOWYER||Toyota||5-hour Energy||181.855||29.694|
|10||20||Joey Logano||Toyota||Dollar General||181.629||29.731|
|11||27||Paul Menard||Chevrolet||Menards / Libman||181.616||29.733|
|13||2||BRAD KESELOWSKI||Dodge||Miller Lite||181.507||29.751|
|14||21||Trevor Bayne||Ford||Good Sam Club / Camping World||181.354||29.776|
|15||55||Mark Martin||Toyota||LG Partner of the Year / Aaron's||181.257||29.792|
|16||22||Sam Hornish Jr.||Dodge||Shell / Pennzoil||181.251||29.793|
|18||56||MARTIN TRUEX, JR.||Toyota||NAPA Auto Parts||180.989||29.836|
|20||39||Ryan Newman||Chevrolet||Gene Haas Foundation||180.729||29.879|
|22||16||GREG BIFFLE||Ford||Scotch Blue||180.523||29.913|
|23||47||Bobby Labonte||Toyota||Bubba Burgers||180.463||29.923|
|24||98||Michael McDowell||Ford||Phil Parsons Racing||180.276||29.954|
|25||95||Scott Speed||Ford||Jordan Truck Sales||180.210||29.965|
|26||83||Landon Cassill||Toyota||Burger King||180.120||29.980|
|29||14||TONY STEWART||Chevrolet||Office Depot / Mobil 1||179.892||30.018|
|30||51||Kurt Busch||Chevrolet||Phoenix Construction||179.671||30.055|
|31||30||David Stremme||Toyota||Inception Motorsports||179.575||30.071|
|33||87||Joe Nemechek||Toyota||AM / FM Energy Stoves||179.539||30.077|
|34||19||Mike Bliss||Toyota||Plinker Tactical||179.533||30.078|
|35||29||KEVIN HARVICK||Chevrolet||Budweiser Designate a Driver||179.456||30.091|
|36||33||Cole Whitt||Chevrolet||Little Joes Autos||179.438||30.094|
|38||93||Travis Kvapil||Toyota||Burger King / Dr Pepper||178.986||30.170|
|39||32||T.J. Bell+||Ford||U.S. Chrome||177.003||30.508|
|42||36||Dave Blaney+||Chevrolet||Tommy Baldwin Racing||176.033||30.676|
|43||26||Josh Wise*||Ford||MDS Transport||179.164||30.140|
|Did Not Qualify|
|44||23||Scott Riggs||Chevrolet||North Texas Pipe||178.271||30.291|
|45||91||Reed Sorenson||Chevrolet||Plinker Tactical||177.965||30.343|
|46||37||J.J. Yeley||Chevrolet||Max Q Workforce / Bradley University||177.942||30.347|