Pretenders, contenders and potential winners as NASCAR's Chase hits PIR
For the last few years, NASCAR fans have bemoaned the 1.5-mile “cookie-cutter” tri-oval tracks for dominating the Chase for the Sprint Cup’s 10-race docket. “It favors the No. 48 team,” they say. “The tracks looks the same, things are boring, NASCAR needs a road course (it does), add another short track, revive North Wilkesboro, race at Eldora, blah, blah, blah …”
Which races have provided the best action in the 2014 Chase?
Chicagoland Speedway. Charlotte Motor Speedway. Texas Motor Speedway. All of the “cookie cutter” ilk.
Granted, the last two have been due to the post-race antics on pit road and in the garage. With scenes straight out of the WWE Attitude Era, the only thing missing has been Stone Cold’s monster truck driving over cars on pit road or Alan Gustafson landing The People’s Elbow on Paul Wolfe. While Talladega and Martinsville are often identified as the two tracks that would have the most impact in determining the 2014 Sprint Cup champion under the new elimination format, it’s been Kansas and Texas that ultimately will dictate who goes into Homestead for a shot at the title.
Speaking of Texas and shootings, after this weekend’s events they might want to find different trophies besides a lever action .30-.30 and a pair of Colt SAA .45s. Maybe nunchucks and a steel chair? With Jeff Gordon (and half of Hendrick Motorsports) taking on Brad Keselowski and his engine tuner, it ignited a firestorm of tweets, memes, and angry clenched-fist responses from the Nos. 24 and 2 townsfolk alike. Whatever your take on the matter, it’s a moot point as the series moves onto Phoenix for the final cutoff before next week’s final four matchup at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Gentleman, to your corners …
I remember back in 1990 prior to the Pyroil 500k at Phoenix, ESPN did a promo for the race with Dale Earnhardt and Mark Martin in an old west saloon, pounding beers and pointing guns at each other. While the first shots were fired back in Charlotte between Keselowski, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, hostilities came to a crescendo in Fort Worth last Sunday. Will any of that spill over into this weekend’s penultimate race?
While I doubt you will see anything as deliberate as Gordon’s ambush on Clint Bowyer in 2012 (that nearly collected Keselowski in the process), I think you’ll see a little something from somebody with one race to go. NASCAR did set a precedent at Richmond in 2013 that it would take unilateral action if it deemed the outcome was being manipulated, but since there have been two rumbles in three weeks with no driver penalty, “Boys Have at It” appears to be alive and well — and accepted as fair play.
Who will be the ones to watch this weekend? To be honest, everyone still alive in the Chase. And a few that no longer are.
In February at Phoenix, Kevin Harvick had the field covered from the time they unloaded. He won every practice session, sat on the pole and by Happy Hour, the field had pretty much conceded the win to his No. 4 team. Harvick’s record at PIR is impressive to say the least: five wins, the most in the Cup Series (ever). He’s won three of the last five events here; the other finishes being second and 13th. He’s eighth in points right now, just six away from Gordon in the fourth and final cut off spot.
Speaking of Gordon, if we were using season-long cumulative points, he’d be headed for his fifth championship right now. Well, actually it’d be his sixth, since he would have won it in 2007, as well. No matter, since this is a new era and year one of elimination points racing, but this track should provide some solace. It was at Phoenix in 2011 that heralded his return to relevance after flying under the radar for a few seasons. Alan Gustafson has a win here with both Gordon and Martin, and with Rick Hendrick covering his fine from last weekend, has nothing to fret over. The No. 24 team finished fifth here in the spring, and if they can lead a lap early and manage that same sort of performance, it should be enough to get him onto Homestead, in spite of last week’s late race flat tire.
Joey Logano has been lights out since the Chase started. Currently tied for the lead, he would still be second behind Gordon if a season-long points standing was the order of the day. Logano and the Todd Gordon-led Team Penske No. 22 narrowly avoided disaster when it suffered a flat tire and spin with 29 laps to go last week. With the flurry of late restarts they rallied back to 12th – a championship-salvaging caliber performance if there ever was one. Since the Chase began, Logano has finished outside of the top 5 just twice – last Sunday and an 11th at Talladega. They finished fourth here in February, and if they don’t advance to Homestead it would be a very Peyton Manning-esque tank job — and a crying shame, as they have played this one to perfection. Logano won at Loudon, the second race of the Chase, which is also a one-mile flat track.
Speaking of tank jobs, Hamlin has become synonymous with them in the Chase since things fell apart at Phoenix for him back in 2010. To be fair, it wasn’t really Hamlin’s fault; a late race fuel strategy by then crew chief Mike Ford didn’t pay off, and it seems Hamlin has been trying to exorcise those demons ever since. Hamlin and the 11 bunch have gone about things dramatically different than Logano and the No. 22 team. Instead of top 5-ing the competition into the ground, they’ve done just enough to squeak by, and avoid the trouble that has plagued the Chase favorites in the Eliminator round. Eighth- and 10th-place runs at Martinsville and Texas has been enough to have them tied for the points lead heading into this weekend. His last two finishes here have been 28th and 19th. That won’t get the job done Sunday, but his previous runs of third, second and a win (2012) would do nicely.
Going to throw a nod to Dale Earnhardt Jr. here as well. The No. 88 was the only car capable of hanging with Harvick here in February and swept both Pocono races and won at Martinsville two weeks ago – flat tracks all three. Can Junior close out the year in style? He last won here during his six-win season of 2004.
The only reason Kenseth is in this grouping is because he’s fifth in points and only four get to go to Homestead. Somehow, he remains winless in 2014, yet has 20 top-10 finishes. His record at Phoenix lately has been “meh” at best with zero top 5s since 2007 (in a Gen-5 Roush Ford) and only one Top-10 finish in the last seven races. If there’s any irony to Brian France’s comments Tuesday that he has no problem if the eventual champion has no wins this year, it is that Kenseth’s 2003 championship campaign that helped serve as the catalyst to the Chase format to begin with. He’ll need to make something happen this weekend or hope for the worst for those in front of him – and behind him in points.
Chief among those contenders to Kenseth is his former Roush Fenway – and future JGR teammate – Carl Edwards. Proving that the only lame duck in this camp is the one sporting AFLAC on his uniform, Edwards is still in position to go out on top, having lost the 2011 title on a tie breaker. The No. 99 experienced the same struggles they have on the majority of downforce tracks this year, and were as low as 24th at point during the AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Late-race pit strategy (keep throwing tires at it) and the frantic restarts saw them eek out a ninth-place run heading into one of Edwards best tracks. In 20 starts at PIR he has three poles – important since leading a lap still gets you one bonus point, and he’s just one point out of fourth at the moment. He has wins in 2010 and 2013, and was eighth here in the spring. Don’t expect any pit road foul-ups or bone head calls from crew chief Jimmy Fennig on the pit box – but a top-5 finish is still easier said than done.
If there’s one guy who should have been throwing leather at the end of the race Sunday it was Ryan Newman. He suffered a cut tire at the hands of Marcos Ambrose while having worked his way up as high as fifth late in the going, and ended up with a 15th-place finish. Then again, Ambrose laid out Casey Mears with a right hook at Richmond in May, so even with his formidable forehead, he probably played that one right.
Newman is a master at flat tracks, and stole a win at PIR in 2010 during a green-white-checker finish. In fact, Newman’s last four wins – Indy, Martinsville, Loudon and Phoenix – have all come on flat tracks. That has to count for something, and RCR has notched five wins here; four with Kevin Harvick, and one with Dale Earnhardt in that 1990 title showdown. You’d be hard pressed to find many who had Newman going this deep in the Chase. He led six laps here in February and finished seventh; he’s third in points with no wins, and only one top 5 until the Chase started. Not one to back down from a fight and known for being virtually impossible to pass, it’s a coin toss as to whether they’ll have the pure speed to hold off the competition Sunday.
Chase Hope Enders
Going to go out on a limb here and saying that Keselowski doesn’t make it into the next round. Not because his team isn’t fast or talented enough – I simply have a hard time believing that somebody will have an incident near him this weekend. Phoenix is fast, but guys seem to treat it like a short track lately. That frontstretch is awfully narrow with that inside pit wall, and if there is an accident can become a track blocker quickly. Oh yeah, after the events of the last few weeks he has a target on his back, as well.
Phoenix International Raceway Winner: Kevin Harvick
He took over for “The Intimidator” in The No. 3, but after last weekend at Texas, you can call the No. 4 driver “The Instigator.” Lighting the fuse by assisting Keselowski towards the angry mob at Texas, it was a bit of a chess move, acting as an antagonist to a driver that was already on probation, one point ahead of him in the standings, and has the one car that can match the No. 4 in pure speed virtually every weekend.
Don’t expect these guys to ride and wait for things to play out; they had the baddest horse in the field a few months ago here, and their driver simply dominates. The best place to avoid trouble here is out front, and if the pit crew can avoid any foul ups, Harvick won’t have to push anyone after the race; as in, under the bus as he has been known to do this year.
Follow @VitoPugliese on Twitter
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.