Each week, Geoffrey Miller's "Five Things to Watch" will help you catch up on the biggest stories on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' upcoming race weekend. This week, the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup kicks off — complete with a hokey shiny new format. Also, Matt Kenseth looks for a Chi-town repeat, Jimmie Johnson begins his quest for a seventh title in earnest and some movement in the Tony Stewart-Kevin Ward Jr. investigation highlight the storylines heading into the MyAFibStory.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
No going back from NASCAR’s new Pandora’s Box
This was the case 10 seasons ago when NASCAR implemented the first edition of what we now call the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and it’s true again Sunday. With the start of the first-ever elimination-style championship system occurring with Sunday’s green flag at Chicagoland Speedway, NASCAR has taken a path it can’t walk back.
A sport that existed and grew for more than 50 years with a championship determination based on how well a driver raced both in February and October has now transitioned to an entirely unlikely but still plausible scenario of winning nine of the final 10 races not being enough to win the sport’s crowning jewel.
It’s not without precedent across the sports world, of course. We’ve watched as undefeated teams have gone down in just one contest several times in recent years — think Wichita State in the 2014 NCAA Basketball Tournament or the New England Patriots in the 2008 Super Bowl — but that unreal possibility of a driver winning every race except the last one, and thus losing the championship, has never existed in motorsports.
More ironic about it all may be that the one problem that the Chase and its numerous iterations since set out to solve still isn’t fixed: NASCAR can still have a champion who hasn’t won a race all year. The new Chase will let winners advance, sure, but the semifinal round of races allows the chance that one driver can make it to Homestead without a win.
But beyond these what-if intricacies, NASCAR has also completely ruined any chance that the sport’s champion can ever be considered in context with title winners of its past. Comparing Johnson’s six titles with those of Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty was already a reach, but now, with a one-race, winner-take-all finale such comparisons are completely delusional.
NASCAR has started a new era. Only time will tell how it goes.
Kenseth looking to start Chase buoyed by Chicago repeat
Matt Kenseth won seven times in 2013 and finished runner-up in the point standings to Jimmie Johnson during his first full season with Joe Gibbs Racing. It was a commanding performance, and one that left him as a strong pick to take the title this year.
That’s still a possibility for Kenseth, but in a manner few expected because he’s yet to score a win in 2014. Does his No. 20 have actually still have a chance for the title?
“I feel like we’ve been getting closer,” Kenseth says. “We’ve been running in the top 5 a lot. The finishes don’t show it because we’ve been caught up in so many accidents.”
One of those accidents was self-inflicted last week at Richmond when Kenseth lost control and struck the Turn 1 wall. But Kenseth could very well make up for it in a big way this weekend by repeating his 2013 win at Chicago.
Kenseth has top-10 finishes at every race contested on 1.5-mile tracks this season and finishes of fourth or better in the last three. At Atlanta two weeks ago, Kenseth narrowly lost to Kasey Kahne on a late restart. He also posted the fifth fastest speed in opening practice in Joliet on Friday.
That has to bode well for Sunday.
Jimmie Johnson has to remain Chase favorite
Winning five straight championships — and later a sixth, of course — has to count for something. For Jimmie Johnson on the eve of the Chase starting anew, it counts as making him a prohibitive championship favorite even after a decidedly un-Jimmie regular season.
Johnson wrapped the 26-race prequel to this championship fight as the fifth-best driver in terms of scoring points, 112 behind teammate Jeff Gordon. When the Chicagoland Speedway race starts, it will have been 103 days since the No. 48 was in victory lane. Still, we can’t count him out.
Johnson endured a disastrous summer stretch with a five-race span that included four finishes 28th, 39th, 42nd and 42nd. Three of those races ended in a crash.
But the ship seemed to list more favorably just before the Chase as Johnson reeled off four straight top-10 finishes. It was a return to consistency that became Johnson’s hallmark during his record-setting championship run.
Johnson has two wins already this season at tracks to come in the Chase and top-10 finishes at three others. And you’ve got to think Texas (Johnson suffered damage from an early incident in the spring race and finished 25th) and New Hampshire (he blew consecutive tires before a crash knocked him out of the event) will go much better on the second go-round.
No, 2014 hasn’t allowed Johnson to treat the Sprint Cup Series as his personal playground. But we’ve all seen this story before, and we’ve seen how it has often ended with Johnson taking pictures with trophies in Homestead. Can you really argue that it won’t happen again?
Resolution to Stewart case coming soon
Just over a month since Kevin Ward Jr. was killed in the crash with Tony Stewart at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York, the county sheriff has completed the incident’s investigation. Now, Stewart’s future hangs in the balance of the Ontario County, N.Y., district attorney’s office.
The county D.A. will determine if charges are to be filed in the case — a process expected to be complete late next week, according to a statement.
“The entire thorough investigation, including a forensic video enhancement recently received from the New York State Police Laboratory in Albany, has been submitted to the Office of the Ontario County District Attorney for review,” said a statement released Thursday by the sheriff’s office.
It was unclear if the enhanced video was the one widely shown in the days following the incident, or if the sheriff’s office was referring to a second video it had confirmed receipt of in the initial days after the investigation.
The next seven days are going to be a tedious time for Stewart, his business holdings and NASCAR. Criminal charges in the case would be disastrous to each of those entities — Stewart for obvious reasons, potential fallout for his companies and NASCAR, for its unequivocal backing of Stewart in the process by letting him race and brazenly approving him for a championship waiver should he have won in the final two regular season races of his return.
Stewart didn’t win of course and won’t be racing for the title — saving NASCAR from the embarrassment of one its “nations” not being able to participate in any of this week’s Chase-promoting hoopla. But the damage may become more than embarrassing next week once we know the decision of the district attorney.
Will you take the “The Field” for the Chase?
Sixteen drivers are eligible for this new format of NASCAR’s Chase. But if you’re in Las Vegas, only 14 drivers are routinely available for placing futures bets on who will actually win the Sprint Cup title.
Not on most lists? The Double A’s: AJ Allmendinger and Aric Almirola. They instead have been lumped in the ubiquitous category of “Field.”
As of Friday morning, only Bovada was providing direct odds for all of the Chase entrants. Others, like Sportsbook.ag, were listing the 14 drivers individually and the Allmendinger/Almirola combination in “Field” at +25,000 — meaning a $10 bet would pay $2,500.
Comparatively, Jeff Gordon is Sportsbook’s favorite at +350.
“I understand it, it’s part of it. I relish being an underdog team,” Allmendinger says. “Tad and Jodi (Geschickter, partial owners of JTG-Daugherty Racing) started this team in a barn in ’94 so they’ve always been an underdog.”
Allmendinger is bringing a stronger horse to battle than you might expect, however. Richard Childress Racing, the JTG-D alliance partner, built Allmendinger a new car for Sunday’s race. In a sense, Allmendinger becomes the second RCR car in the Chase, joining Ryan Newman.
We’ll see how that pans out.
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Photos by Action Sports, Inc.