Previewing NASCAR's 10 tracks in the Chase for the Championship
by Vito Pugliese
NASCAR’s version of the playoffs gets started this weekend in Chicago, just as Major League Baseball is winding down, the NFL regular season is heating up and fantasy football geeks are going berserk. I say that lovingly mind you, as I am pretty pumped about my acquisition of Robert Meachem at wide receiver for this weekend. Like any responsible owner, you need to game plan each race, and see what key player will perform there. That means pouring over stats, reviewing game tape and dissecting Athlon Sports' Fantasy Football page.
Hey I’m a company guy — but don’t worry, because I’ve put together a comprehensive guide for each race in the 10-week Chase for the Sprint Cup. I’ve listed a winner and drivers to watch. If you have a fantasy team or an all-consuming gambling addiction, please take the following into consideration before you cash out what’s left of the 401k or the kid’s college fund.
Chicagoland has had a stigma as being a cookie-cutter track, another 1.5-mile oval that resembles many others on schedule. Looking back at who ran well this season at tracks that have a similar layout — Kansas and Kentucky — there are a couple of names that stand out. Kurt Busch dominated Kansas in June, leading 152 laps before teammate Brad Keselowski grabbed the win on a fuel-mileage gamble. Denny Hamlin led for 34 laps and finished third, while Carl Edwards led for 29 circuits and came home fifth. Busch led 41 laps in Kentucky in July, while his brother, Kyle, checked out and wasn’t really seriously challenged for the win until the final restart, leading 125 laps on the day. Kansas winner Keselowski led for 79 laps and ended up seventh, while Edwards posted another fifth-place run.
Prediction: A guy named Busch wins. Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin are solid selections as well.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway
You know things have moved along in NASCAR when we’re talking about a championship playoff format and a one-mile oval as a short track. Short tracks are supposed to be under a mile, but nobody listens to me anyway. The definition of a short track now is, if you can still run competitive with a wrinkled fender — and New Hampshire, the track that Kyle Petty once suggested could be filled with water and made a bass lake — has in recent years produced some of the best racing and closest finishes. The Magic Mile got demoted from being the Chase kickoff for 2011, but second billing’s not bad either.
With the struggles that Stewart-Haas had getting into the Chase — well OK, Tony Stewart had getting into the Chase — Loudon will be welcome relief for this two-car team. Smoke should have won here last year for the third time before running out of fuel on the final lap, while teammate Ryan Newman won here in July for the third time in his career. Kurt Busch led for 66 laps that day before slipping to 10th, while Denny Hamlin has a win here and came home third. Kyle Busch’s Chase hopes have been dashed here in years past, so even though the 18 car is fast everywhere, I’m leery of looking in his direction in New Hampshire. Jeff Gordon has speed and the 24 team won here as the No. 5 team in 2009 with Mark Martin at the helm, and the Gordon Renaissance started this year at Phoenix, the other flat-mile track on the schedule.
Prediction: Tony Stewart remembers he’s Tony Stewart. Then Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin in that order.
Dover International Speedway
The white cliffs … er, banks … of Dover pose a different kind of challenge to drivers. It’s basically a big Bristol, with the straights feeling like they’re banked more than the corners. “Concrete” Carl Edwards is hard to handle at Dover, as is his Roush Fenway teammate Matt Kenseth. Edwards led 119 laps earlier this year while Kenseth, who is looking for sponsorship in 2012, took the win. Kyle Busch posted a top 5, but the real “five” you need to watch for is ol’ “Five Time”. Jimmie Johnson decimated the field in May, leading 207 laps, before sliding to ninth by day’s end, and has six of his 54-career wins here. Not a toughie to figure this one out.
Prediction: Jimmie Johnson wins but Carl Edwards makes him earn it. Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick follow.
Clint, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore! Actually, I don’t think you’re at RCR anymore, but that doesn’t mean your teammate, Kevin Harvick, is in any better position to win in Kansas. While Kurt Busch ran away with things here in July, Brad Keselowski conquered on fuel (not consisting of corn), and was the fastest car on the track late in the going at Michigan — a similar layout — in August. Dale Earnhardt Jr. rallied from disaster after spinning to a second-place run that day, highlighting another pitfall for this track. Things can get spread out in the wide-open spaces of the Great Plains, and there aren’t usually many cautions to slow the action. If you get into trouble here, you’re most likely done — but you if can stay the first car one-lap down, you might be able to salvage your day — or sneak one out on gas mileage.
Prediction: Keselowski wins but this time on speed. Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch round out the top 5.
Charlotte Motor Speedway
The Queen City and capitol of the NASCAR city-state marks the midpoint of the Chase, and is usually the barometer to determine who’s in and who’s out as the playoffs hit their “second season.” No longer Lowe’s Motor Speedway, it is also no longer the 48’s house, and others have been able to prosper on what was once Jimmie Johnson’s personal playground like that episode of South Park when Cartman buys an amusement park.
Downforce is king at 1.5-mile tracks, and Fords have that aplenty with their cool-running FR9 engines allowing the front ends to be sealed up while still hauling the mail. Matt Kenseth set sail for 103 laps in the Coca-Cola 600, while Carl Edwards was next in line leading 61 laps. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Chevy had the checkered flag in sight but his car coughed through Turn 3, running out of fuel as he surrendered his first win in three years to Kevin Harvick, to the heartbreak and unfathomable sorrow of Junior Nation. Jeff Gordon won in Atlanta, which is kind of like Charlotte, holding off Johnson. This could be a Hendrick Motorsports affair in Charlotte once again, just like the old days when it was their house.
Prediction: Carl Edwards reigns supreme, and does not tear the front end off the car doing victory donuts. Jeff Gordon is in the conversation, as is Jimmie Johnson. Junior doesn’t win here, but starts to build some momentum. Kyle Busch is dangerous anywhere.
With the advent of two-car tandems, just about anybody could win at Talladega. Don’t think so? Ask Brad Keselowski, who won his first race here in 2009 with James Finch’s part-time team. This one is a crapshoot — you could literally pick anyone in the top 15 with 10 laps to go and have a shot at getting it right. What it sets the stage for, however, is a very big win that will be very popular for a lot of people, which means a lot of stuff is going to get thrown onto the track afterwards.
Prediction: By the grace of God, Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins and the infield resembles Woodstock ’99. His Hendrick teammate, Jimmie Johnson, follows, with the Stewart-Haas sister cars of Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman.
Hey, didn’t that Dale Earnhardt Jr. guy nearly win here in April? Luckily for him, the track doesn’t change much over the season, so he could definitely continue to score some points on the paperclip half-mile that is a legitimate short track. Junior lost this one then in the closing laps to Kevin Harvick, who won the last short track race at Richmond, as well. Jeff Gordon has been nails here over his career with seven wins, while teammate Jimmie Johnson has six.
Prediction: Kevin Harvick wins a Chase race and keeps his hopes alive. Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin to follow in succession.
Texas Motor Speedway
Texas looks a lot like Charlotte and Atlanta because it is a lot like Charlotte and Atlanta — being shaped like Charlotte and nearly as fast as Atlanta. The Tuesday race at AMS a few weeks back is probably a better indicator of how things will pan out, since the first Texas race this year was too long ago to give a good indicator of how teams have adjusted and massaged their cars over the course of the year.
Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson will be the ones to beat, but Smoke usually shows well here. Horsepower is king and the Ford duo of Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards don’t want for anything in the engine room. Penske Racing’s Mopar tandem may be the sleepers.
Prediction: Kurt Busch wins and looks completely out of place wearing a cowboy hat and firing Colt Single Action Army pistols into the air. Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski follow in kind.
Phoenix International Raceway
A repave and reconfiguration means that this is a totally different track than before. When any existing NASCAR track is repaved, it’s usually for the worse, as racing suffers, taking another 10 years for the groove to get worn in. No matter, as long as they remove walls at obtuse angles and put up some bigger billboards or start the race at 7:00 p.m. so the drivers aren’t blinded, that should be the focus.
Kurt Busch has been on the track and part of a tire test, and says it is really slick. I think this is a wild card track that will see a number of cautions and key contenders eliminated from the hunt. Busch has an upper hand with his on-track experience which should help him, but it is brother Kyle who will emerge the better Busch brother.
However, that doesn’t mean either win; it was Carl Edwards who had things in hand at the first race here — and he will exact revenge on the track that denied him. Well, Kyle Busch denied him after he wrecked him, but I don’t think he’ll flip him on his lid. They don’t go fast enough here.
Prediction: Carl Edwards wins, Kyle Busch holds off Jeff Gordon in a reversal from the spring. Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson plow into each other. Johnson calmly recites a different version of what happens and Kurt Busch rips something up and takes a swing at me.
Ford Championship Weekend and the Ford 400! You know what that means, Right? A Chevrolet wins the title, of course.
Since teaming up with Alan Gustafson this season, Jeff Gordon has been born again and is no longer the softer side of the 24-48 shop at Hendrick Motorsports. Perhaps the best known secret weapon in NASCAR is Gordon’s crew chief, and the team that resurrected another veteran driver who hadn’t visited Victory Lane in a while in 2009 with Mark Martin. The No. 24 team has won at short, flat tracks like Phoenix; fast, high-banked ovals such as Atlanta; and whatever the hell Pocono is. There is going to be another “five-time” in Sprint Cup competition following the final race of the season, and that will be Gordon.
Currently the author of 85 wins, his fifth title will tie him with Jimmie Johnson, while ranking him closer to Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and David Pearson as the best the sport has ever known.
First, there is a race to be run to make it all official. I don’t think it will be a last-lap nail bitter as it was in the first year of the Chase, but it will change the final standings considering the lack of variance in the point standings, and narrow 10-week window of the championship format.
Prediction: Denny Hamlin wins and thinks someone is sending him through some cruel time warp. Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson line up next.