Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sprint Cup 2012: Race 27: The Chase is on

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 Richmond 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 Michigan 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 setbacks.

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 Richmond’s 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 Michigan 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 Homestead. 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
2 43 Aric Almirola Ford Farmland 182.636 29.567
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
5 99 Carl Edwards Ford Fastenal 182.045 29.663
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
12 1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet McDonald's 181.525 29.748
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
17 9 Marcos Ambrose Ford Stanley 181.050 29.826
18 56 MARTIN TRUEX, JR. Toyota NAPA Auto Parts 180.989 29.836
19 24 JEFF GORDON Chevrolet DuPont 180.874 29.855
20 39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet Gene Haas Foundation 180.729 29.879
21 18 Kyle Busch Toyota Wrigley 180.705 29.883
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
27 13 Casey Mears Ford GEICO 180.048 29.992
28 42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet Target 179.940 30.010
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
32 31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet Caterpillar 179.569 30.072
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
37 34 David Ragan Ford 179.265 30.123
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
40 38 David Gilliland+ Ford 1-800LoanMart 176.702 30.560
41 10 Danica Patrick+ Chevrolet 176.189 30.649
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
47 49 Jason Leffler Toyota Robinson-Blakeney  177.713 30.386

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