Pretenders, contenders and potential winners as The Chase moves forward
Last weekend’s race at Dover was billed as an event that was going to be completely crazy, mass hysteria, even — but that never materialized. If anything, it was rather tame and uneventful. Typically, Dover produces at least one track-blocker of a wreck or a festival of right-front tires blowing out. The only tire failure of significance was the one on Kevin Harvick’s Budweiser Chevrolet, courtesy of a lug nut jammed in the brake caliper. Those facing elimination didn’t exactly perform spectacularly, and those that were safe pretty much played it close to the vest and didn’t take any unnecessary risks.
Understandable — no use wiping out a car, disturbing momentum, or risk an injury getting involved in an avoidable accident. With concussion protocols of paramount importance for all competitors in every sport (save for the University of Michigan), and as evidenced by Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s concussion suffered at Talladega in 2012, preserving the driver is every bit as important as keeping the fenders on the car.
As we move to the first intermediate downforce track of the Chase at Kansas Speedway (and the first event in the Challenger round) expect things to get a bit more racy among the contenders, as we’ll get a true sense of how things are going to shape up in the coming weeks as the series heads to similar tracks at Charlotte, Texas and the final championship round at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
If there’s been a common thread to this year’s Chase it has been the following: Penske power, Jeff Gordon’s Hot Tub Time Machine and Kevin Harvick’s dominating performances undone by rotten racing luck.
Brad Keselowski very well could have won last weekend had there been a late-race restart, and Joey Logano has displayed the type of consistency that would have him the odds-on favorite in previous championship formats.
While Jimmie Johnson took to the airwaves bemoaning cars that are too easy to drive during the pre-race on ESPN Sunday, I firmly believe the 48 team has this new iteration of the Chase already planned out to a tee. They finished ninth at Kansas in the spring and won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in May. These just so happen to be the next two races, and I suspect you’ll see a similar showing there. Sure, Talladega is a crap shoot, but with the win and advance rules, you’ll see the real 48 team emerge the next two weeks.
Speaking of a team that needs to show its true colors, it’s high-time the No. 88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. makes haste and gets back to his top-5 ways. Finishes of 11th, 9th and 17th so far were enough to get him to the second round — but more such performances will get him bounced this time around. The driver is justifiably frustrated, but a fifth-place finish in Kansas in April would go a long way to righting whatever has gone wrong the past month.
Kyle Busch has done his best to dodge bullets three races into the Chase. That amazing rally by he and the No. 18 team at Loudon would be a moment that in championship battles past would be singled out as watershed. Unfortunately, Kansas has proven to be Kyle’s Kryptonite in year’s past — to the point that he almost expects some malady to befall. He has just a pair of top 10s in 14 races at Kansas – one of which was eight years and three generations of cars ago.
Let’s a take a look back at some of Kyle’s greatest hits at Kansas Speedway:
Here he is getting walled by David Reutimann in 2010.
Here’s Joey Logano shoving the engine back into the firewall last year.
And who could forget last fall’s championship-crushing crash?
Kyle Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers proved me wrong in the first round — I was sure they’d be sent packing based on the bickering this season, but we’ve seen – and heard – quite the turn-around the last few weeks. Sadly, I think the biscuit wheels fall off the gravy train this weekend, and reality comes crashing down (literally). Not wishing bad ju-ju on anyone, just reading the tea leaves of race’s past. If he does survive Kansas it could be a harbinger of things to come the next few races as the mental and emotional relief will likely result in making it to Round 3.
Kasey Kahne made it into the Challenger round by “a” point. He finished third here in April and led 22 laps, and finished a close second to Matt Kenseth here in 2013. Through perseverance, divine intervention and Paul Menard’s bumper, his No. 5 team won Atlanta four weeks ago and that speed should carry over to this high-banked, high-downforce, high-horsepower track. They desperately need to get off to a good start in this round to prevent having to make something happen at Talladega.
Speaking of Kenseth – who won here in April 2013 – I had picked him to win at Dover, where he finished an unassuming fifth (in typical Kenseth fashion). He was the top finishing Toyota, which has finally brought a little more steam … but will it be enough to hang with the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets?
Chew on this stat for a second: Kahne and Ryan Newman have combined for five top-5 finishes this year. Keselowski has that many wins. Detractors of this Chase format will point to this stat when illustrating the fault of this playoff structure, and rightfully so. However, if this stat holds true, it should mean both will be non-factors the next three races and not even in the conversation in four. Talladega is the wild card here, as well as Kahne’s history at Charlotte. Richard Childress Racing’s superspeedway success may be Newman’s saving grace if he has any shot at moving to the third round, but finishes of 15th, 18th and eighth are marginally better than those who got sent packing last week at Dover.
Finally, Carl Edwards slid through as predicted at Dover, and Kansas is as close to a hometown track as it gets for the Columbia, Mo., native. This will be the telltale track that spells optimism or omission for the No. 99 Roush Fenway team. Teammate Greg Biffle got bounced at Dover, and this team has been equally unimpressive thus far, finishing 20th, 17th and 11th. They were in the thick of things in Atlanta and Michigan leading up to the Chase, so whatever they found a month ago had better hold true this weekend. Otherwise, not even moves like this last ditch “NASCAR Thunder” effort on Jimmie Johnson in 2008 will have any effect.
Chase Hope Enders
We bid a fond farewell to three Cinderella stories to three drivers last week – and farewell to a car that has been a proverbial pumpkin all season long.
Despite his heroic rally in the closing laps at Loudon, Aric Almirola and The King’s court on the No. 43 weren’t able to field a competitive car on Sunday. Almirola cited the team’s inconsistency week to week, which given their roles as an assembler of purchased cars and engines from Roush Fenway Racing, is about as much as you could expect. That blown engine late in the going at Chicagoland was ultimately their undoing, and a cruel consequence at that.
AJ Allmendinger and the No. 47 team are in a similar situation with an equally middle-of-the-road former superpower in the sport. No surprise here, but the JTG Daugherty group has nothing to hang their head about. They went toe-to-toe with the best road racing driver in the business at Watkins Glen and won – and still have a legitimate shot to steal another one at Talladega in a few weeks. Even though they’re out of the playoffs, they still get to compete every weekend. There’s nothing more dangerous than a driver or a team with a chip on their shoulder and nothing left to lose.
Kurt Busch wasn’t able to put the team on his back doe at Dover. He took responsibility for not advancing, perhaps due to the mid-race contact at Loudon that resulted in a blown right front and parking the car in the Turn 4 wall. Not bad for a team that was hastily assembled at the last minute, a first-year crew chief, a driver who has been rebuilding his brand and reputation for the last three years all the while struggling with the turmoil related to Tony Stewart’s tragic incident. Give this bunch a fist bump. They might not have had the speed their No. 4 car counterparts had this year, but I’d venture to guess next year they’ll be on par with Harvick and Rodney Childers.
Biffle? There’s really not much to say that hasn’t already been said about this team. They simply haven’t done much of anything since their win at Michigan in June … of 2013.
Kansas Winner: Kyle Larson
Woah, ho, ho … what’s this? That’s right, going with my gut on this one. Kyle Larson was in position to win at Chicagoland and this place is shaped close enough to it that I think he and Chris Heroy pull one off finally and put the rest of the Sprint Cup establishment on notice for 2015. Honestly, I’d probably pick Harvick to win this one, but with the way that bunch repeatedly finds new and inventive ways to hand out those early Christmas presents, you just can’t trust them. Expect a Chernobyl-quality meltdown if it happens again, but these sorts of shenanigans is what is leading me to pick a rookie to win over a Championship contending team.
Follow Vito Pugliese on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.