NASCAR Chase Report: Previewing Race No. 5 in Charlotte

Pretenders, contenders and potential winners as The Chase moves forward

The easy intro to last weekend’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway would be to say that Chase contenders Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson crapped out, rolled snake eyes or drew a bad deck of cards. Whatever cliché you dial up, it all amounted to how the new Chase elimination format could eliminate a prime-time player who had dominated all season long; however, I think not even NASCAR had dreamed it would happen at a relatively innocuous 1.5-miler, and take with it the face of the franchise and our last two champions. Everything good, bad and ugly came to fruition this past Sunday with Junior and Kes blowing right fronts and taking the wall with them, while Jimmie Johnson got hooked by Biffle in the back – not unlike his post-race interview horse collar last year at Martinsville. 

 

Following the Pains in the Plains, the series returns to the hub of the sport, Charlotte Motor Speedway for the only Saturday night main event on the Chase schedule. The friendly confines will allow everyone to rest their head in their own bed for a change, while Junior and Brad were blowing off steam celebrating Dale’s 40th birthday this week. After sudsing away their sorrows, it’s time to get down to business and on a grand scale; if JJ, Jr., and BK have any shot of rekindling their championship pursuits, Top 5s – and a win – may be required to get in over the course of the next two races.

 

Oh and that other race is Talladega. No pressure…

 

Contenders

Last week I picked Kyle Larson to win his first race, on the strength of a near-hit at Chicagoland Speedway, and Kevin Harvick and company inventing new ways to surrender wins that would make the Detroit Lions blush. What happened? Harvick had the fastest car all weekend as usual, but pitted for what was a not-a-flat-tire and s-canned a shot at winning. Larson was in position to win, but Logano got out front in clean air first, and the No. 42 just wasn’t able to close the gap on Joey Logano.

 

While the story of this year’s Chase has been the dominance of the Team Penske Fords, the other has been the alleged “struggles” of the 48 team. I didn’t buy it then, and I don’t buy it now. Johnson had a Top 10 car at Kansas, which means they in all likelihood had a Top 5 machine. They got bit by the Biff on a mid-race restart which put a serious dent in their quest to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt’s seven championships. My mind flashed back to 2009, when Johnson got clipped by Sam Hornish, Jr. on the second lap of the race at Texas sending it into the wall. The ultimate result? The No. 48 team rallied and won their fourth-straight title.

 

Yes, different points system and format for 2014, but there are six championships that tell me in Rambo: First Blood Part I-voice: NOTHING IS OVER!

 

If you’re a little freaked out that Junior just turned 40, how about that Jeff Gordon won his first career race at Charlotte in 1994 – 20 years ago? Gordon almost was put in a position to repeat that feat when fellow first-time Charlotte winner Jamie McMurray tagged him at Kansas last week. Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson soldiered on to a 14th place finish; not the best result obviously but far from a disaster. It was good enough to not force them into having to win – decent performances over the next two weeks should keep them in the fight over other teams that haven’t been up to par most of the year – or in the Chase thus far.

 

Some surprises last weekend emerged as well. Not having had much of an intermediate program to brag about this year, RCR put all three cars in the Top 10 with Ryan Newman finishing sixth, Austin Dillon in eighth and Paul Menard in ninth. It was a much needed performance for Newman who had not shown much in the way of speed on these tracks this year and was looking at having to Hail Mary it at Talladega next week where Earnhardt Childress Engines-powered Chevrolets have quite the storied history.

 

Perhaps the biggest surprise last week was Kyle Busch finally conquering Kansas. Sure he didn’t win, but placing third is about as close to a win as the No. 18 team is going to get there. The podium finish came on the heels of the news that crew chief Dave Rodgers would not be back with Busch in 2015; while some may have expected the driver and team to have their annual meltdown and finger-pointing exercise early on in the Chase – it hasn’t happened. The fact that it hasn’t happened yet leads me to believe that it won’t happen and these guys make it into the Eliminator Eight.

The other two JGR teams of Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth are trucking right along too. Denny Hamlin’s “we suck at this” declaration at Dover belies the No. 11 team’s fifth place in points position, while Matt Kenseth continues to show up, punch the clock, and do what it takes to survive. It was Kenseth’s one-win 2003 title run that helped prompt the adoption of the Chase format to begin with – might he invalidate it altogether with a no-win 2014 win-by-attrition (Rambo) strategy? YOU JUST DON’T TURN IT OFF!

Last week I had also suggested that if Carl Edwards and Roush Fenway had any hopes of surviving the rest of the season, they would need to recapture the speed they suddenly found towards the end of summer. The result? A fifth place finish, matching their fifth-place finish in Atlanta last month. Leaning in Edwards’ favor as well, the No. 99 finished fifth at Charlotte in the Coca-Cola 600 in May.

 

Pretenders

While Charlotte is home to just about everyone save for The Wood Brothers and Furniture Row Racing, not everyone can be a winner here. Like John Cusack said in Grosse Point Blank, “You can never go home again Oatman…but you can shop there.” Have we reached Dennis Miller levels of obscurity with the movie quotes yet? Fine – here is who will suck this weekend.

 

Kasey Kahne - Squeaks by into the Contender round by a scant two points – promptly follows it up with a 22nd place performance at Kansas. Hooray.

 

Joey Logano – What am I stupid? Stupid like a fox; obviously Joey has been nails all year long and only seems to be getting stronger having won a race in both Chase rounds so far. Like his teammate at Loudon who spun out trying to be awesome, Logano has some wiggle-room here to take a chance, make a gamble, or if need be, not beat his teammate since he has already won and guaranteed himself a seeding in the next round of eight.

 

Ryan Newman – Can Newman and the RCR trio pull it off again this weekend? This I am not so sure about; keep in mind their Top 10 efforts at Kansas was based largely on the 1, 2, 24, 48, and 88 having trouble during the race. Bad luck can strike in an instant at Charlotte – witness Carl Edwards ignition mysteriously failing for no reason in 2008, which ended up costing him the title that year.

 

Chase Hope Enders:

Since we eliminated the first four drivers at Dover and last weekend’s carnage at Kansas, I don’t foresee any glaring game-enders at Charlotte. It is a 500-mile race which always raises the issue of engine failures or a fuel-mileage miscalculation, but those who remain and not in the group above are focused on one thing – survival. Next weekend’s race at Talladega is the wildcard of wildcards and will be the ultimate arbiter of who advances into the Elimination round.

 

Expect solid performances from Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Keselowski, Kenseth, Hamlin, Johnson, Gordon, and Harvick; just by varying degrees within the Top 15. Even though I bag on Kahne and the No. 5 team every week, they very well could pull a rabbit out of the hat and mirror their Atlanta miracle with a win here and slide into the next round unscathed. His record here is enviable if anything – 21 starts, four wins, 12 Top 10s, and in the last five races here he has a win and a pair of runner up finishes. His problem this weekend isn’t speed – it’s simply bad luck and lack of momentum.

 

Charlotte Winner: Kyle Larson

I’ve been shooting my big mouth off the last month saying that Kyle Larson will win a race before the year is over. While I did pick him last weekend, I also have contended that since he is likely the next Jeff Gordon, his first win will be right here where Gordon who his first race – which was right about the same time Larson was filling up his Huggies. Chris Heroy and the Chip Ganassi Racing Team have suddenly once again become threats to win every weekend much as they were in 2009-2010. Jamie McMurray should also be considered a contender for the win here, as he too captured his first victory at Charlotte in only his second start, subbing for an injured Sterling Marlin (“broke neck”) in 2002.

 

While this would make for quite the story should he win, I would also hedge any bets to win on that No. 48 team. They won the 600 here in May, legitimately need to win as they find themselves last place in points. The last time they’ve been this low was after they started the 2012 season off with negative points following fines from the Daytona 500. Regardless of their current position in the standings; don’t believe the disinformation campaign – they are still in my final four for Homestead, until they are officially eliminated from contention. 

 

Follow Vito Pugliese on Twitter: @VitoPugliese

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

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