Predicting how the NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase will pan out has always been a shot in the dark with one in the cylinder and no night sights. This year things get even more muddled with a new elimination format among the (Sweet) 16 teams that make up the 2014 Chase grid.
Round 1 of the Chase — deemed the “Challenger Round” — begins on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. Dates at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway follow. After the those three, drivers with a win automatically advance to the second of three rounds while the bottom four drivers are eliminated and points reset. And the cycle continues. Races seven through nine chop the remaining eight participants down to a final four, with those drivers entering Homestead with a clean slate of points and a shot at the championship.
A little hokey? Contrived? Gimmicky? Eh, maybe. But so is instant replay, interleague play and wild card playoff teams. That said, let’s take a look at who will prosper and who will suffer in Race No. 1 in the Chase.
Not exactly the most awe-inspiring track on the circuit from an action standpoint, but Chicagoland Speedway is just outside of a major media market and the Bears are in San Francisco this Sunday, so there’s little else in town competing (aside from television sets tuning in to said game). Anyway, kielbasa cooks up just as good in a racetrack’s infield as it does in a parking lot filled with shattered glass on Lakeshore Drive.
Well let’s just be brief here: anything with a Hendrick engine or anything built by Penske and — this may come as a shock — the Roush Fenway Fords of Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards. (Yes, those latter two I feel could actually be sleeper picks for the weekend.)
Talk about peaking at just the right time — OK, talk about figuring out what’s been wrong with the cars for the last eight months at just the right time. Either by Edsel’s decree or the engineering equivalent of wrestling Excalibur from the stone, a test session at Michigan may have opened the eyes of those at Roush Fenway, revealing what their Penske counterparts have known all year. Suddenly, Biffle and Edwards are showing a spark on the intermediate tracks, of which Chicago is one.
Make no mistake, they are still a step or two behind their corporate cousins, but they are in a position now to legitimately challenge for wins at these types of tracks. I don’t believe they will actually win — yet. However, by the time the series hits Kansas in a month, I think RFR will be on par with Penske once again.
In the meantime, the usual Hendrick-supported suspects — the Nos. 5, 24, 48 and 88 — will be strong, as well as Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 4 entry of Kevin Harvick (a Hendrick quasi-team). Tony Stewart won a title three years ago using these HMS loaners, and Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers, has proven to have a little something cooked up in the lab that is every bit as potent as what Chad Knaus, Alan Gustafson and Steve Letarte have mustered.
The guys who slid in over the last two months are clearly most vulnerable here. I’m looking at you, AJ Allmendinger and Aric Almirola. The two feel-good stories of the summer are about to experience a big-time reality check. Chicagoland is a high-downforce track that places a premium on engineering and, God bless ’em, these two got into the Chase with wins on road courses (Allmendinger) and a plate track (Almirola). Sure, they could squeak through and delay their sentencing should some of the prominent contenders stumble early, but these underdogs are using rentals from teams that haven’t exactly been lighting the world on fire.
Describing Ryan Newman as a “pretender” may be a bit harsh, but don’t expect his Richard Childress Racing team to do anything remarkable this weekend. RCR has not been on par with the other Chevrolets power-wise as evidenced by Newman’s heated discussion with Jimmie Johnson at Michigan when he confessed, “If I had your engine, I wouldn’t have to drive like that!”
Newman’s Chicago record is nothing to sneeze at: he’s averaged a finish of 9.8 with top 10s in every race since 2007, save for one. A win is unlikely, but emerging unscathed is really his goal this Sunday. All the No. 31 team needs to do is not crash, blow up, speed on pit road or do any major self-inflicted damage. Easy enough, right?
A top 15 in Joliet will do nicely before the series rolls into Loudon, N.H., where Newman’s past performances — three wins, seven top 5s, 16 top 10s and seven poles — bodes well.
It’s no secret that Kyle Busch and his No. 18 team have fallen on hard times. Perpetual bickering with crew chief Dave Rogers, calling out TRD engines (as he has since 2010 before being forced to toe the company line) and general recklessness have seen him average a 31.1-place finish in the six races since a runner-up showing at Indianapolis.
Busch’s assertion that the performance issue lies “between the frame rails” won’t help at a horsepower honker like Chicago, though it should prove less of a problem at Dover and Loudon. I think this is one team that falls out early.
I fear Kurt Busch may also stumble. A new team and a crew chief with no Chase experience might prove dangerous if the car isn’t up to snuff. The elder Busch still has a tendency to try to carry the car when it isn’t quite capable — no doubt the result of driving Phoenix Racing and Furniture Row Racing rides the last two seasons. This one could get ugly for Busch if the car isn’t right early — but maybe being so close to his spiritual home of Wrigley Field might do him some good.
Wait, the Cubs are terrible. Nevermind.
Chicagoland Winner: Kevin Harvick
With the news that Harvick will inherit Tony Stewart’s 2011 championship-winning over-the-wall gang, it’s suddenly hard to bet against the car that has shown the most pure speed weekly since February. It’s no secret that the downfall of the No. 4 has been the pit crew — and Harvick has never been known to suffer through poor pit performance. If not for pit miscues, could this team have won six races by now? That’s a popular statement making the rounds these days, but who knows for sure.
The Chase gets off on the good foot for SHR, an organization that has certainly had its mettle tested in recent weeks, as Harvick, Childers and a title-worthy pit crew make a statement and punch their ticket to Round 2.
Follow Vito Pugliese on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.