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 heads north to Loudon, N.H., where Brad Keselowski is downplaying his role as favorite, championship darkhorse Aric Almirola is trying to dig out of a hole and Hendrick Motorsports looks to capitalize on lessons learned from a New Hampshire test session.
Despite win and recent success, Keselowski remains pensive about the Chase
Brad Keselowski nailed down his spot in the second round of NASCAR’s new Chase format with last Sunday’s win at Chicagoland Speedway. It was a big win and strong statement, and leaves the next two races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway as non-impactful testing events for his race team.
They won’t be laden with car experiments, however.
“The only thing we would experiment is with something that has the potential to break,” Keselowski said. “Other than that, I don’t see anything, no crazy ideas because you want to stay in a rhythm and work with the pieces you know and not get lost.”
That rhythm is important for Keselowski. Friday at New Hampshire he reiterated what he said last week – that the second round of races in the Chase will prove to be the biggest hurdle for teams hoping to make it all the way to Homestead. He views Kansas – with the new pavement and often unsteady tires – and Talladega as major wildcard races. Those events are two of three that will select the eight drivers for NASCAR’s semi-final round of races.
“I think that should be called the heartbreak round because it’s gonna break someone’s heart in the sense that a really good team will probably not make it through that bracket because of the random factor of Talladega and Kansas,”
But there is good news for Keselowski: each of the first six tracks in the Chase – including all three in his “heartbreak round” – have seen his No. 2 go home a winner within the last two years.
Keselowski’s “cop out” explanation for Stewart case wrong-minded
Also on Friday, Keselowski was asked about this week’s development in the Tony Stewart case – namely that the Ontario County, N.Y., district attorney has chosen to forward it to a grand jury. That grand jury will decide if Stewart should face charges for his role in the incident that killed fellow sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. on Aug. 9.
Keselowski disagreed with the D.A.’s choice to forward the case, and hinted that he felt it was a sleazy decision.
“It kind of feels a little bit like a cop-out that they sent it to the grand jury,” Keselowski said. “But I think everybody is wishing Tony the best and supporting him, and that’s probably the most important thing.”
I’m not sure I could disagree more.
Some background: In New York, state law requires a grand jury – 23 people selected at random from the general public – to establish via an indictment if felony charges can be tried in court against an individual. The district attorney has two decisions when a case arrives at his/her desk: to request a grand jury examines evidence against state law, or to shelve the case because evidence doesn’t bear out wrongdoing. The former has happened in the Stewart case.
From my vantage point, nearly everyone in Ontario County seems to be operating in a fashion that will leave the fewest number of unanswered questions. In a story like this – both with the tragic, unnecessary death of Ward and the national stature of Stewart – leaving no stone unturned is most appropriate. It seems that all involved are being deliberate with their duties and making sure that any accusations of unfairness against either party can only be left unfounded.
Keselowski obviously believes Stewart didn’t break a single New York state law during the incident, which is both Keselowski’s right and what may be the final decision. But this isn’t a situation as cut-and-dry as a speeding ticket.
This case involves the death of another human. It’s also a case that, at this point, is carrying enough evidence that both a sheriff and a district attorney both believe may be enough to warrant some level of charge(s) against Stewart.
Such a result would be unfortunate for Stewart. But it would be the result of a very fair and due process – or the very thing that Keselowski advocated for in the days immediately following the crash.
"The dust has to settle before anyone can have really a full opinion on it," Keselowski said on August 12. "Right now I don't even think everybody has all the facts. We have to get to that level first."
We should do that just that – let the dust settle and the grand jury decide.
NHMS will leave several drivers in the Chase danger zone
Who’s in, and who’s out?
Just over 700 miles remain in the next two races before four drivers will see their Chase candles extinguished.
We know, obviously, that Keselowski won’t be one of them. But beyond that? Only one driver – Aric Almirola – sits on the really hot seat. After blowing an engine while racing inside the top 5 at Chicago, Almirola is 52 points out of first and 23 points out of 12th. He’ll have to make up ground this weekend on 12th to have any semblance of advancing after Dover.
Should he go the other way, the mathematical cutoff after New Hampshire will be 47 points behind 12th.
Wondering what happens when four drivers get booted from the Chase after next week’s event at Dover? Each of the four will be unceremoniously stripped of the yellow Chase numbers and stickers adorning their cars and then categorized in the regular Sprint Cup point standings based on their season-to-date point total.
Up for grabs among non-Chasers? Fifth-place money in the standings after Homestead.
Expectations gone, Hendrick Motorsports hopes for New Hampshire improvement
All four teams at Hendrick Motorsports opted to test at New Hampshire ahead of the July Sprint Cup race at the circuit, and the timing was admittedly curious because getting ready for a strong Chase race performance would be the primary objective. The problem with that goal is that progression in setups never ends at the Cup level and even a span of just over eight weeks between race dates could render lessons learned during a test useless.
The test’s timing, however, now has the chance to seem prodigious.
Hendrick endured a pretty horrible day at NHMS in July as only car started in the top 10 (Kasey Kahne, 10th) and only one finished there (Dale Earnhardt Jr., 10th). Jimmie Johnson crashed and Jeff Gordon, who fell as deep as 35th before rallying to lead 19 laps, finished 26th after running out of fuel during a green-white-checker finish.
With that mess in the past, Hendrick should have been able to sort all that went wrong for Johnson, Earnhardt and Kahne compared to what went right for Gordon – before the fuel issue, of course.
Corey Lajoie gets first Sprint Cup start
Corey Lajoie signed a driver development deal with Richard Petty Motorsports just after the Coca-Cola 600 – in 2013. The plan was to get Lajoie to full-time status in the Nationwide Series this year should sponsorship be found, and things looked promising after he won three of five ARCA starts last season.
The sponsor – and the ride – never materialized.
Instead, Lajoie has made just three national series starts – one in the Nationwide Series and two in the Camping World Truck Series. Otherwise, he’s been a free agent and that led to an opportunity to race this weekend in Randy Humphrey’s No. 77. It marks Lajoie’s first Cup start.
Lajoie – son of the two-time Nationwide Series champion Randy – made his first laps in a Cup car during Friday practice at NHMS and was 39th fastest at 132.245 mph.
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Photo by Action Sports, Inc.