NASCAR: The Chase Will Only Get Crazier After Chicagoland

Emotions grow to extreme levels with the pressure of the Chase looming.

Emotions grow to extreme levels with the pressure of the Chase looming.

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
    Hamlin masterfully got the jump on the final Chicagoland restart. They will be crucial.

    Hamlin masterfully got the jump on the final Chicagoland restart. They will be crucial.

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.

In regular season everybody's a friend. After the knockout scenario starts....not so much.

In regular season everybody’s a friend. After the knockout scenario starts….not so much.

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

Will The Real Jimmie Johnson Please Show Up – Fantasy Insight Chicagoland

Jimmie Johnson

Who is this imposter that has been wearing the Jimmie Johnson mask the last four weeks? The real Jimmie Johnson had NEVER finished 25th or worse in four races ever! Let that sink in a bit…in his illustrious career that has lasted 13 years and 425 races Jimmie Johnson has never finished 25th or worse four races in a row. Johnson has only finished three races 25th or worse three times. There is no doubt with his Chase position locked in that Johnson went on maternity leave and let The Stig or some other NASCAR wannabe race in his place. Will the real Johnson please show up?

Usually when I am handicapping a race I look for a driver who is rounding into form. Consistency Factor is a huge part of the usual handicapping routine. But if you stick too firmly to a set of rules in race handicapping you will sometimes miss a good pick. In the past Johnson has had times when he was less than strong in the races heading up to the Chase and then turned it on once the races counted fully again. This week there is no doubt that “Five Time” will begin his attempt to become “Six Time” starting this week at Chicagoland Speedway.

Good luck with your fantasy racing picks this week and don’t forget to send in your pick for “Whiteboard Fantasy Racing” this week for Chicagoland Speedway.      

Send in your pick to win this week’s Cup race to dennis@racetalkradio.com for a chance to win a copy of the National Speedway Directory from SpeedwaysOnline.com.

National Speedway Directory

Hot off the press the 2013 edition of the National Speedway Directory is now available. For over 3 decades the NSD has given race fans and teams information about every track in North America. Order your copy today at http://speedwaysonline.com

Weather Report

Variable cloudiness with a chance for a thunderstorm; high temp around 70F

If you have a question about Fantasy Racing send it to dennis@racetalkradio.com and get it answered next week.

NASCAR by the Numbers

Using a proprietary race analysis technique we take the fans inside the numbers every week. DMIC’s rating system has been in use since 2002 and has proven to pick the contenders from the pretenders!

Consistency is King (Last Five Races)

Kasey Kahne

 

Driver

Last 5

J Logano

93

JP Montoya

92

Ku Busch

90

R Newman

89

P Menard

89

M Kenseth

89

M Truex

88

G Biffle

88

Ky Busch

88

C Edwards

87

 

Horses for Courses (Track Rating)

Driver

Course

K Kahne

92

Brian Vickers

91

J Johnson

91

R Newman

90

C Bowyer

90

M Martin

89

M Truex

87

K Harvick

87

C Edwards

86

R Stenhouse Jr

86

           

Type Casting (Track Type Factor)

Driver

Type

J Johnson

95

K Kahne

95

M Truex

94

M Kenseth

94

D Earnhardt Jr

91

B Keselowski

90

K Harvick

90

Ky Busch

88

J McMurray

88

R Stenhouse Jr

88

 

Power Rating (240 Minimum to Qualify as Contender)

Matt Kenseth

 

Driver

Power

K Kahne

270

M Truex

270

M Kenseth

266

K Harvick

264

J Logano

262

R Newman

262

Ky Busch

261

C Bowyer

261

J Johnson

261

R Stenhouse Jr

258

J Gordon

257

JP Montoya

257

B Keselowski

257

C Edwards

256

J McMurray

255

D Earnhardt Jr

255

Brian Vickers

254

M Martin

252

P Menard

252

Ku Busch

252

G Biffle

250

A Almirola

246

D Hamlin

246

M Ambrose

244

J Burton

241

AJ Allmendinger

239

D Ragan

235

D Patrick

231

D Reutimann

225

C Mears

223

T Kvapil

222

D Gilliland

220

D Stremme

215

D Blaney

214

 

DMIC’s Fantasy Picks presented by Speedwaysonline.com

Each week we will take you beyond the numbers to handicap the field from top to bottom to help your Fantasy Racing team succeed. You are also invited to join Lori Munro and I on “White Board Fantasy Racing” every Monday night on “Doin’ Donuts” at 8pm ET on RaceTalkRadio.com. Win fun prizes by picking just the race winners in our unique format. Send your picks to info@racetalkradio.com to enter.

Top Pick (Last Week Finished 25th)

Jimmie Johnson- Throw out the last five races and expect the Champ to rise again!

(9 to 2 Odds)

Best Long Shot (Odds of 20-1 or More) (Last Week Finished 24th)

Ryan Newman- Has lots to prove to the NASCAR world

(25 to 1 Odds)

Top Dogs (Group A in Yahoo) (Last Week Finished 40th)  

Matt Kenseth- Should come out swinging in the playoffs

(6 to 1 Odds)

Second Class (Group B in Yahoo) (Last Week 19th)       

Martin Truex Jr- Could bounce back strong from all the controversy with a win

(15 to 1 Odds)

Middle Packer (Group C in Yahoo) (Last Week Finished 10th)          

Ricky Stenhouse Jr- A very good track for Stenhouse to pull off an upset

(100 to 1 Odds)

Crazy 8s for Chicagoland

Each week Lori Munro and Dennis Michelsen battle in the most unique racing game around! We pick one driver each from each 8 driver group using the current points’ standings. Our picks can help you round out your fantasy racing lineup!

Lori won 4-1 in week 26 and Lori leads the game 15-11 for the year

Group 1: Lori picks Jimmie Johnson and Dennis picks Matt Kenseth

Group 2: Dennis picks Kasey Kahne and Lori picks Kurt Busch

Group 3: Lori picks Paul Menard and Dennis picks Ricky Stenhouse Jr

Group 4: Dennis picks Denny Hamlin and Lori picks Mark Martin

Group 5: Lori picks Brian Vickers and Dennis picks AJ Allmendinger

Do you have what it takes to handicap the races? Join Lori and Dennis every week and play in the Whiteboard Fantasy Racing Series! Send your pick for the Cup race to info@racetalkradio.com to enter. Weekly prize given away! 

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