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 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 (, 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

Piquet’s Groin Kick Made Headlines But Harvick Wins The Main Event in Overtime Fight

Kevin Harvick does a burnout at Richmond after he won the Toyota Owners 400. Harvick raced from seventh to first over a two-lap “overtime” period that ended the event.

In one man’s opinion, the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway was the perfect example of what short-track racing can be.

The scenario for great deal of drama was set up by a two-lap “overtime” period, which meant there would be a frantic, no-holds-barred chase for the checkered flag.

Sure enough, when the green flag fell there was beating and banging all over the place.

However, Kevin Harvick, who drives for Richard Childress Racing, shot through the mayhem without a scratch to win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race of the season.

Equipped with four fresh tires following the race’s last pit stop, created by Brian Vickers’ spin in the third turn, Harvick was able to charge from seventh place to first.

He led the last two laps of the race.“To be sitting there seventh on four tires and the only other guy on four tires sitting on the outside, I felt like if I could get by the row in front of me the guys on no tires were sitting ducks,” said Harvick, who has won 20 times in his career and is, to date, the only driver to win for Childress this season.

“It all worked out. We were fortunate to have it all line up.  I drove it in there, hoped for the best.

“Figured 4, 8, 12, whatever was on the outside tire‑wise would be plenty to lean on and by the time we got to the backstretch, everything had cleared out.”

As you might expect, tempers flared during the grinding, race-ending competition and in some cases, drivers vented their anger and frustration on the cool-down lap.

Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch – both of whom ran among the leaders all night – swapped paint while Busch got involved in another scrap with Tony Stewart.

Busch, who drives for Furniture Row Racing and is no stranger to on and off-track altercations, was upset with Kenseth, who moved him out of the way during the sprint to the finish.

The he had a door-whacking battle with an upset Stewart on pit road.

Juan Pablo Montoya scored a season-best fourth-place finish at Richmond and led the race for 67 laps.

“I don’t know why he was so angry,” Busch said of Stewart. “After all, it was a free-for-all at the end. Everybody’s slamming everybody.

“I’m getting hit from behind. I got shoved out of the way, too, by Matt.”

Busch finished ninth. Kenseth, who lead 140 laps only days after his Joe Gibbs Racing team was severely punished by NASCAR for an illegal engine part, wound up in seventh.

“If you ask me, Busch drove up there and knocked me into the marbles,” Kenseth said. “Just two laps left, everybody’s going to go for it – especially on a short track.

“We go for every hole we can get. That’s the best I could do.”

“I got hit every which way,” Busch said. “So did Kenseth, who moved us out of the way at the end. That’s why I was upset with him. We got a top 10 out of it but the biggest thing is our car didn’t have a scratch on it. Now it’s destroyed.”

Stewart was one of the drivers who remained on the track during the final caution period. He and four others were sitting ducks.

Busch nudged Stewart out of the way and sped ahead, leaving Stewart to drift from fifth to 18th place.

Busch and Stewart banged each other on pit road before Stewart drove away. He made no comment.

Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer, who led 113 laps as he and fellow Toyota driver Kenseth dominated over half the race, finished second.

“It really got wild there at the end – I was just lucky enough to be on the bottom,” Bowyer said. “They started making holes up there in front of me and the seas parted, and I just followed suit behind Harvick.

“It was a good run. Thanks to Toyota for coming on board to sponsor this race. Wish we could have won the Toyota race, but second’s not bad.”

Joey Logano’s third-place showing was a salve for his Penske Racing team, which will appeal penalties enforced by NASCAR on May 1

Juan Pablo Montoya finished fourth, the best run of the season for him and Chip Ganassi Racing.

“We had a great car. Same as last week, we had a great car,” said Montoya, who was leading the race before the final caution. “The pit crew redeemed themselves tonight. They did a great job all day, no mistakes. That is what we needed.”

And victory is just what Harvick and Childress needed. Harvick, who has now won three times at Richmond, will not be competing for RCR in 2014.

But when it comes to winning, being a so-called “lame duck” means nothing.

“I feel like our cars have performed well,” Harvick said. “I feel like we’re getting better with some things coming down the road.

“It doesn’t feel like it’s any different for me than any other year has been, other than you know at the end of the year everybody knows what’s going on.

“In the end, we all have big egos and we want to be competitive and we want to win races and do the things that it takes to go out there and fulfill that feel that you like, whether it’s in victory lane or anywhere else.”





Controversial Phoenix Smacks Of What Many Think Missing From Today’s NASCAR

In a wild and controversial Phoenix race, Kevin Harvick emerged victorious for the first time this season. He also won for the first time in the last 44 races.

A couple of conclusions after the Advocare 500 at Phoenix:

Any hope of a dramatic, exciting conclusion to the 2012 NASCAR Chase For The Sprint Cup has been effectively eradicated – barring unforeseen circumstances, which, incidentally, happened at Phoenix.

We saw a taste of what NASCAR used to be; an example of the wild and wooly days of which many of us have never seen, yet about which we have heard so much.

And to be perfectly honest, it was the type of bare-knuckled racing many have missed. They add that its absence has made NASCAR far less appealing than it could be – and once was.

Before we go any further it should be noted that Kevin Harvick won the race after a controversial green-white-checkered restart.

It was Harvick’s first win of the season and his first in 44 races, dating back to Richmond in September of 2011.

It was his 19th career Sprint Cup victory and his third at Phoenix. He gave Richard Childress Racing its 101st win in Cup competition and its first since 2011, at Talladega, 38 races ago.

Indeed, it was an excellent achievement for Harvick, who led only the last 15 laps of the race.

But that he won will not be what is likely to be most remembered about this Phoenix race.

In a stunning series of developments Jimmie Johnson, who came into the race a mere seven points ahead of Brad Keselowski in the title fight, not only lost his lead but, apparently, has also lost any hope for a sixth career championship.

On lap 234 of 319, Johnson smacked the wall in the fourth turn after his Chevrolet’s right front tire suffered a melted tire bead from excessive heat.

A Jeff Gordon-Clint Bowyer incident on the track sparked tempers and more among members of both teams. A brief pit scuffle ensued but was quickly ended.

The incident was disastrous for Johnson. He spent 38 laps in the garage for repairs and when he returned to the race, the best he could accomplish was a 32nd-place finish.

Meanwhile, Keselowski, who led 10 laps but consistently ran among the top10, finished sixth, which could have been better had he not been involved in a controversial last-lap melee.

Still, the result is that Keselowski is all but assured of the championship. He is 20 points ahead of Johnson going into the final race of the season at Homestead.

Keselowski and Johnson are the only two drivers eligible for the title. All Keselowski needs to do is finish 15th at Homestead and he will earn his first championship, the first for team owner Roger Penske and the first since 1975 for Dodge – which, ironically, will depart NASCAR at season’s end.

However, Keselowski is not guaranteed anything. He benefitted from a 27-point swing at Phoenix and the same thing, or worse, could work against him at Homestead.

But it’s highly unlikely.

“I heard he (Johnson) blew a right-front tire and I was thinking what conspiracy theorists are going to come up with on this one and then you realize that the same thing could happen to you,” Keselowski said. “And so you try not to let that get into you too much and try to just focus on what you got and make sure you don’t have the same problem.

“Obviously there are no guarantees. We could go to Homestead and have the same problem and Jimmie, you know, takes the point lead back over.

“No guarantees but very proud to have that points lead heading into next week.”

A multicar crackup on lap 312 was caused when Jeff Gordon chose to extract his revenge on Clint Bowyer.

Gordon was limping around the track with a tire going down and was black-flagged by NASCAR, which wanted him to pit.

But, instead, Gordon waited on Bowyer, with whom he had made earlier contact that resulted in Gordon’s flat tire.

Gordon spun Bowyer out and in the process collected Joey Logano and Aric Almirola. This brought out the eighth, and final, caution period.

After Gordon got out of his car crewmen from his Hendrick Motorsports team and others from Bowyer’s Michael Waltrip Racing got into a sizable scuffle in the pits.

Then Bowyer ran from his car to Gordon’s hauler in an effort to spur a confrontation, which did not happen.

All of this was caught on television. It will be part of every highlight reel on ESPN – or anywhere else, for that matter.

“All I was doing is riding around biding my time,” Bowyer said. “I mean, I barely touched him and then I feel him get into turn three and try to turn me and he missed.

“The next thing I know I’m told on the radio that he’s waiting on me.  It’s pretty embarrassing for a four-time champion – and whom I consider one of the best this sport’s ever seen – to act like that is just completely ridiculous.”

The incident forced Bowyer into 28th place and from third to fourth in points, 52 behind. He is eliminated from championship contention.

“I literally barely rubbed him and then all the sudden I feel him trying to retaliate,” Bowyer said. “He missed or something and hit the wall and made himself look like a fool.”

Will Bowyer retaliate at Homestead?

 “We just have to wait and see,” he said.

Said Gordon: “Things have gotten escalated over the year and I have just had it. Clint has run into me numerous times, wrecked me and he got into me on the back straightaway, pretty much ruined our day.

“I have had it, was fed up with it and got him back.”

The fireworks were not over.

The incident set up a green-white-checkered restart and Harvick, the leader at the time, easily held his ground.

As the white flag flew, Danica Patrick and Jeff Burton made contact. Patrick was able to limp onward but it was assumed there was fluid on the track.

NASCAR, which said later it couldn’t detect anything on the track and that Patrick was well out of the way, did not call for a caution.

On the last lap several cars spun. Among them were those of Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Paul Menard and Mark Martin. Keselowski was hit but manage to plow through to the finish.

That there was retaliation on the track; that there was a rumble in the pits and that one driver sped to angrily confront another are things that are not prevalent in NASCAR – despite the fact some claim stock car racing is not far removed from professional racing (an incredibly ludicrous opinion).

But they do happen.

That there was a last-lap multicar accident that, in the opinion of many, myself included, that could have been avoided if NASCAR had thrown the yellow flag, is also rare.

But track paybacks, fights, confrontations and second-guessing NASCAR have always been a part of the sport.

In the final analysis what happened at Phoenix smacks of what many say is missing in NASCAR – which is hard, confrontational, and emotional racing that leads to controversy.

Keselowski colorfully said that what is retaliation today is ridiculous.

He’s entitled to his opinion but, with all due respect, he hasn’t been around long enough to know what retaliation was, and how often it happened, in NASCAR.

Opinions will vary, but the type of racing at Phoenix was dramatic, exciting and memorable.

I think fans would love to see more.

And would NASCAR, which will stand by its decisions and likely issue no penalties whatsoever.

Frankly, after Phoenix, I think NASCAR has to be delighted – silently, of course.

Johnson, Keselowski Will Likely Slug It Out Until It’s All Over

Jimmie Johnson won for the fifth time this year, and second in a row in the Chase, at Texas to widen his lead over Brad Keselowski in a very close fight for the championship.

Perhaps this is a near-perfect championship fight for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title:

Have at least two drivers slug it out as if they were boxers in a heavyweight title bout. They feverishly trade punches and get a bit bloodied. But when the fight is over both are still standing and one wins by the slightest of margins.

After the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway it seems, for now, that is exactly what we have.

Points leader Jimmie Johnson won the race when he passed Brad Keselowski, who was a mere two points in arrears when the race started, on the last lap to secure his second straight win in the Chase For The Sprint Cup.

As a result Johnson is now seven points in front of Keselowski as he seeks to win his sixth championship in the last seven years. There are only two races remaining in the Chase – in other words, there are two more rounds left in this heavyweight fight.

And either man could win.

At Texas, Johnson did virtually everything he needed to do to secure a title. He not only won the race, he led the most laps (168) to gather valuable bonus points which, in turn, allowed him to pad his margin over Keselowski.

In a fight for a championship, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Keselowski’s runnerup finish may have cost him points to Johnson, but he is very likely slug it out to the end.

Still, the issue was in doubt until the very end of the race.

Keselowski, who drives for Penske Racing, was in control of the race by lap 313 of 334. When the race’s eighth caution period began on lap 322, caused by debris on the track following Kasey Kahne’s meeting with the wall, Johnson led just one lap after the restart on lap 327.

Keselowski, running as fast as he had throughout the race – and with only two fresh tires – retook the lead and was in front of Johnson and third-place Kyle Busch.

But with just three laps to go, Mark Martin crashed after a brush with Carl Edwards, which brought out another caution period and set up a green-white-checkered finish.

On the restart Johnson took the advantage. Using an outside line, he whisked past Keselowski, who seemed to slip a bit and may have decided it was best to let up rather than be involved in an incident.

Johnson, who said the restarts with Keselowski were “very physical,” admitted that he gestured a warning notice to his rival prior to the final dash. “There is no sense in taking us both out in the process,” he said. “If he was taking me out, you can count on the fact that I would have been on the gas and trying to take him with me.

“You know, it just doesn’t need to come down to that.  Brad, also, after the race, came into victory lane and shook my hand.

“The cool thing about it is we walked right up to that line, got right to the edge, and then it stopped. He showed a very classy move coming to victory lane and shaking my hand afterwards, too.”

Keselowski admitted that on the last restart that, for him, discretion was the better part of valor.

“Yeah, I felt like we were just going to wreck,” he said. “I wasn’t looking to be the guy that wrecked him poorly.

“I didn’t really enjoy the last time that happened with Kyle (Busch) over here, and I don’t think he did either.  He might not believe that, but that’s just not the way you want to run a race, and not the way I want to win a championship.

“That was pretty much the only choice I had, was to put ourselves in a bad position like I did before. I felt lucky to survive that one.”

Johnson’s victory was his fifth of the year for Hendrick Motorsports, which ties him with Keselowski and Denny Hamlin for the most this season.

He has now won two consecutive poles and races in the Chase, first at Martinsville, where he moved past Keselowski in the standings, and now at Texas.

Clint Bowyer finished sixth at Texas and remains in third place in the standings, but he is 36 points in arrears.

He is not officially out of championship contention – only Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., 11th and 12th, respectively, are.

But in reality, it’s down to Johnson and Keselowski, as it has been for the past few weeks.

And both drivers know it.

“It’s my dream to run for a Sprint Cup championship,” Keselowski said. “Certainly I would have liked to have won today, but I feel like we’re fighting the good fight and doing some great things as a team that I’m really, really proud of.

“Obviously, it’s not going to come easy.  We’re going to have to win one of the last two races.

“But anything worth doing in life shouldn’t come easy and I appreciate the efforts of the people that I’m around to make it happen.”

Despite his achievements in the Chase, Johnson continues to say he can’t afford to let up. He, like Keselowski, knows that anything can happen and thus is not willing to say a title is in the bag.

Which, incidentally, is certainly the case.

Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief, agrees. He knows Keselowski and team will keep up the good fight.

“Oh, yeah they’ve done a good job,” he said. “You have to realize that’s Penske Racing.  It’s not like it’s a slouch team. Those guys have been building good cars for a long time.

“I think Paul (Wolfe) is a great crew chief and Brad is a really good driver. So I think they’ll be there through the end.”

“We have a small amount of control, but we’re definitely in control.” Johnson added. “We don’t have to catch up or make up any points. But seven points is nothing to feel comfortable about and to relax on.

“We’re still going to go into Phoenix and act as if we’re behind and go in there to try to sit on the pole and win the race again.”

And so the slugfest continues – and is likely to do so until the final bell.









NASCAR, NHRA, IndyCar, F1:Most Competitive Ever

In NASCAR, NHRA, IndyCar and Formula One it has never been more competitive than it is now despite a Global economic downturn. It seems that true racing competitors fight harder now than they ever have in history.

Fights Like A Girl? Don’t Laugh

Watching the silly, if not dangerous, altercation between Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick at Darlington and then comparing it to Tom Higgen’s article on Motorsport Unplugged about his 5 favorite fights in NASCAR made the issue seem silly. On the other hand, they’ve never seen the Rahal women fight.

Who Fights Next? Eminem?

The NASCAR rivalries have reached a point where NASCAR has to be crowing and hoping that the excitement translates to more television ratings. The sport is truly heating up and so is the competition heading into Dover this weekend.

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