The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship got off to a wacky start at Chicagoland Speedway, where Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin came back from an early spin on lap 2, and subsequently going a lap down, to end up winning the race on a final restart with five laps to go. If the regular season was lacking in intensity, the first Race of the Chase was filled with unique storylines. Now heading to New Hampshire with nine races remaining, five crucial takeaways will continue to impact the action both on and off the track.
1) Restarts will be the key to victory (or defeat) in the Chase
Under the current aero package, track position means everything. As a result, drivers will seek out every advantage during the double file restarts after a caution flag has flown. At Chicagoland, with only six race cautions, three restarts stood out as the most dramatic moments of MyAFibRisk.com 400:
- On a mid-race restart, Jimmie Johnson got shoved from behind by Joey Logano and ended up in no-man’s land on the non-banked apron, stuck in a three-wide situation with the leader Kevin Harvick. As Johnson slid up the race track, contact with Harvick ended up cutting his tire, resulting in Harvick’s #4 Chevy SS hitting the wall and finishing 42nd. As a result, the 2014 Sprint Cup Champion finds himself in a must-win situation in the next two upcoming races in order to advance to the Contender round
- On the lap 145 restart, Jeff Gordon took the lead from Kyle Busch under a controversial restart. Both Gordon and Busch played mind games with each other on the restart, with Busch slowing down approaching the restart zone, while Gordon appeared to speed up. NASCAR reviewed, found no violation, and provided no further explanation, leaving a lot of wiggle room that will continue over the remaining nine races
- The final restart with five laps to go shuffled up much of the field, with both Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon starting on the front row but choosing to not come in for fresh rubber. Gordon appeared to spin the tires and bobble on the restart, dropping anchor all the way back to 14th, while Kurt Busch ended up finishing 3rd and was disappointed with NASCAR’s decision to throw the final caution for debris. Conversely, Denny Hamlin was able to execute his “spin and win” victory on the final restart by getting out front early
Make no mistake, the restart rules will continue to have a big influence on the Championship, particularly given the ambiguous interpretation by the NASCAR officials. And if you desire chaos, look out if NASCAR chooses to “black flag” a Chase driver for jumping a restart. After the race, Jeff Gordon expressed his frustration that “the whole thing is just a mess because the (restart) box is just too small.”
2) Regardless of the on-track action, mainstream media will glamorize the feuds
When Johnson approached Harvick in the motorcoach lot after the race to share his take regarding the on-track contact, Harvick was having none of it, almost immediately striking Johnson in the chest and the two had to be separated. Only one race into the Chase, and the mainstream media is already toting this “punch” as a lights-out brawl. Fox News described the encounter as a violent attack (http://tinyurl.com/p2bvyap), while neglecting the proper spelling of Johnson’s first name. The vise-grip pressure of the Chase will continue to tighten moving forward, and all the contenders will be circling the fishbowl as the media watches intently. We saw similar behavior last year with Harvick, who blamed Matt Kenseth for wrecking him at Bristol and vowed that Kenseth would not win the Championship after taking him out. Don’t be surprised to see NBC use the highlight clips from the Harvick/Johnson feud as key promos for the upcoming Chase rounds.
3) Despite the premium for race victories, point consistency will remain critical for advancement
Only one race into the Chase, and Ryan Newman is running his points playbook to perfection that ensured his advancement last year to the Championship final at Homestead. The outcry from NASCAR Nation if the sport ends up with a winless Champion would be deafening, likely sending NASCAR back to the drawing board to redesign the Chase playoff system. Yet Newman, who managed to run most of the Chicagoland race in stealth mode (an average running position of 10th while leading no laps), took advantage of the final restart to finish 4th and is now solidly positioned 8th in the points for probable advancement to the next round.
4) The Chase Challengers will take no prisoners
With everything at stake in each Chase race, the drivers will have no friends and memories are short. Last year, Harvick won his first Championship, and acknowledged that one of his closest mentors in that title hunt was the six-time Champion, Jimmie Johnson. The two have a long friendship going back to their California roots, with their NASCAR racing careers intersecting early on in Charlotte as house guests of Ron Hornaday, the four-time Truck series Champion.
After the race, Johnson, rather than taking to Twitter, chose to seek out Harvick for a private discussion regarding what happened on the track, beyond the reach of media microphones. Given Harvick had earlier sat on pit road for 51 laps while his car was being repaired, he clearly had the opportunity to calm down and review the replay of the racing incident. Instead, Harvick gave Johnson no “benefit of the doubt”, showing no willingness to hear out the six-time Champion.
5) NBC’s Perfect Grid payday of $16 million is likely safe for another year
Harvick, who statistically was the best driver this season with the most laps led and odds-on Vegas favorite to make the Championship final, may end up being eliminated in the first round. No telling how many Chase fantasy grids likely had Harvick at least moving past the first round, given some of the weaker teams. Already 22 points behind the 12th place driver cut-off, Harvick is now on the brink of elimination unless he wins one of the next two races.
The potential shock of a leading driver being upset echoes the adage that anything can and will happen in racing. With the reigning 2014 Champion on the ropes, the only certainty is that we will surely encounter more driver surprises under NASCAR’s unique playoff system. I, for one, know that I did not anticipate that in filling out my fantasy grid.
By Ron Bottano. Follow on Twitter: @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged