Wait a second. Are you telling me there was a pass for the lead in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ visit to Chicagoland Speedway within the last 20 laps of the race? Not just one, or two, or three … but four passes?
Those types of numbers wouldn’t make anyone blink an eye at Talladega. But for one of NASCAR’s much-maligned 1.5-mile tracks, where even getting decent attendance for a playoff opener is considered a stretch, we’ll label the type of racing witnessed on Sunday progress. There were two drivers, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson, trading paint in the final 100 miles before Brad Keselowski stepped up and snookered them both. There was contact in the form of frantic late-race restarts and shuffling for position instead of running in place. Yes, four of the six cautions witnessed were debris-related, almost like “competition yellows,” but the Larson-Harvick battle would have happened regardless of those bunch-ups. Passing, seemingly on hibernation for most of the summer on intermediates, chose to make a token appearance.
It’s a small foundation from which Chicagoland can hopefully build a better future. Those four lead changes in the final 25 laps Sunday? That’s one less than the number seen over the last five years at that track during those final circuits. For Chicagoland’s sake, as well as this new “Chase,” let’s hope it’s not a one-hit wonder.
“Through the Gears” we go …
FIRST GEAR: Penske Power
The first round of NASCAR’s “new” Chase brought with it a more intense style of racing. Every position meant a little something extra within the postseason grid of 16 as drivers fought to remain above the 12-man cutline just three races away.
But what we didn’t see was a new cast of characters celebrating in victory lane. Instead, Penske Racing threw the first punch, as Brad Keselowski made it back-to-back victories while mounting his case as a title favorite. Now armed with five wins – no one else in Cup has more than three – Keselowski becomes the first to punch his ticket to the next stage in NASCAR’s new round-by-round playoff system.
“It means a lot,” he said when asked about the impact. “My boss would say don't read your own press clippings. I want to enjoy the moment but I still know there's nine weeks to go. We have a bit of a hall pass for the next two, which I'm very appreciative. But those other seven, nobody cares that we won Chicago, nobody cares that we won Richmond or the other three races. It keeps resetting. You have to reset yourself.”
But until that happens in two weeks, Keselowski’s No. 2 team has time to get aggressive, testing strategy at Loudon and Dover that could potentially play out in the season finale. Like at Richmond the week prior, he remains in position to make a strong statement, sniffing two titles in three seasons to kick this team out of “one-hit wonder” territory. It’s also part of a renaissance for Ford Racing, which has won seven of the last 12 races, with Keselowski taking four. Even powerful Hendrick Motorsports, the other organization in strong title contention, has four wins combined during that same span.
SECOND GEAR: Larson Looking Good
With an expanded Chase field — more than one-third of the grid you see each week — it’s become nearly impossible for an underdog to fight his or her way up front. However, this playoff push might prove an exception to the rule when it comes to non-participants visiting victory lane. Among those drivers left out are three-time champ Tony Stewart, former title runner-up Clint Bowyer and talented rookie Kyle Larson.
Larson, so close so many times this season, struck first, putting together his season’s finest performance at Chicagoland. Running down Harvick, the duo engaged in a spirited battle for the lead that ultimately appeared to go Larson’s way. If not for the way those final cautions fell, the first-year driver would have almost certainly won. Of course, third is still nothing to sneeze at, especially when one considers his late-race battle with Jeff Gordon.
“I think this kid is the real deal,” Gordon said of Larson. “He’s going to be a star for a long time. I really wanted to see him win because I like him and I know he’s going to win a lot of races.”
“I know Jeff thinks a lot about me and I think a lot about him, too,” said the rookie, sitting in the same presser next to Gordon. “It was fun racing him. I definitely wanted to beat him.“
Ultimately, the bid for Larson fell short, but at this point his “Rookie of the Year” crown is virtually assured over Austin Dillon. No Chase means no pressure for this Chip Ganassi group and they have a few solid tracks forthcoming (Kansas, Charlotte) where I can see this rookie getting the job done.
THIRD GEAR: No Mulligans Here
Perhaps the biggest lesson in “New Chase, Round 1” was how hard it’ll be to come back from a mistake. Like every year, Chicagoland reached out and bit one Chaser, this time in the form of Aric Almirola. Already an underdog, a blown engine while running inside the top 10 appears to make his title bid toast. Now 52 points outside the top 12, Almirola would need to out-point Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman and AJ Allmendinger by 23 positions — and perhaps more depending on bonus points — in just the next two weeks to move forward.
“Win,” he said when asked of how to rectify the problem. But that’s unlikely for the No. 43 car, just like it is for struggling Greg Biffle in the No. 16 and AJ Allmendinger in the road-course-victory-only No. 47 Chevrolet. They’re a tick below their rivals and that gap in speed was quickly revealed Sunday.
Can any of those drivers complete a Hail Mary? A lot depends on how many problems the other contenders have. Currently, the gap between fifth-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. to 13th-place Ryan Newman is just 13 points. That’s not enough to withstand an engine explosion, meaning some of the series’ top drivers (Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch) remain skating on very thin ice. All it takes is one bad break and, suddenly, they’re on the outside looking in.
Should make for a very interesting Talladega down the road, huh?
FOURTH GEAR: Couples Problems
Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., both of whom have endured disappointing seasons on the Cup circuit, took each other out on Sunday. Typically that’s not a big deal, but when the participating parties are in a personal relationship? Well, that changes things a bit.
Patrick blamed the wreck on her spotter, claiming he didn’t know Stenhouse was beside her before the duo made contact on the frontstretch. Both claim their relationship is fine as we move on to the next race. But it’s not the first time these two have come together — the most infamous incident occurring at the Charlotte race last May. The Chicagoland accident made for a little press, some splash NASCAR needs, but the underlying problem? Both will almost certainly be outside the top 20 at Loudon this weekend. Can’t pump up a story if neither of the chief participants is on the TV screen during the race.
It was a bit puzzling to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson a step behind in Chicagoland. Earnhardt, especially, was a bit of a surprise after a team meeting to delegate responsibility and pump the organization up for crew chief Steve Letarte’s swan song. An eleventh-place finish, with zero laps led after a 13th-place starting spot, just won’t cut it. … With Marcos Ambrose headed back to Australia in 2015, Richard Petty Motorsports has an opening for its No. 9 Ford. David Ragan is an early favorite for the seat, looking to “move up” from Front Row Motorsports and challenge for more than just restrictor plate victories. But the honest truth is there just aren’t many other choices out there. … In a rare occurrence, six drivers led 20 or more laps at Chicagoland on Sunday. It was a rare moment of parity in the series where a good portion of the top drivers took their turn up front.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.