NASCAR: 5 Lessons We Learned from Chase Opener at Chicago
The 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup got underway this past Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.
The kickoff to NASCAR's marquee event included all the elements that make up a good Chase: excitement (plenty of dicing for position), drama (the way Brad Keselowski pulled out in front of Jimmie Johnson on the racetrack after his final pit stop), pathos (Jeff Gordon crashed head-on into the wall when the throttle on his race car stuck, resulting in a terrible start for Gordon and his new mustache) and a nearly full house and great TV numbers.
Let's reflect back upon five of the biggest outcomes of Sunday's race and how they potentially could impact the remaining nine races of the Chase.
1. Brad Keselowski Could Be the Surprise of the Chase
With his win at Chicagoland Speedway, Keselowski laid down the gauntlet that he intends to be a significant force in the Chase.
What's more, he is competing in the playoffs without two of his fiercest competitors, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, who both failed to qualify.
Keselowski has a lot of motivation in the Chase, including being the only Penske Racing driver in the Chase, this is the last year for the organization to drive Dodges and it's also Dodge's last season in Sprint Cup racing—although rumors abound that one of Detroit's "Big Three" will be back in Cup in 2014.
Don't be surprised if Keselowski pulls off another win this Sunday at New Hampshire. But, let's not forget that Greg Biffle won the first two races of the 2008 Chase, only to fall short of the championship.
There's a lot of racing still left, but Keselowski figures to be right in the middle of it. And if he fails to win it all, it's safe to say that whoever becomes champ will have to get past Keselowski to earn the title.
2. Despite Bad Starts, the Chase Is Not over Yet for Jeff Gordon or Matt Kenseth
Despite a bad start in Sunday's opening race of the playoffs, Jeff Gordon's Chase is not over.
Neither is Matt Kenseth's, for that matter.
Even though Gordon crashed head-on into the wall at Chicagoland Speedway when the throttle linkage on his car stuck about two-thirds of the way through the race, and he left Chicago a distant 47 points behind points leader Brad Keselowski, the beauty of the new points system implemented last year is that Gordon is not out of contention this early, contrary to what some media outlets have speculated about.
Sure, Gordon has a lot of work to do to get back into contention, but he's nowhere out of it before the Chase practically started.
All Gordon has to do is bounce back with a win—and he historically does well at New Hampshire, the next race on the schedule this Sunday—and he could be right back in the middle of the hunt.
It's the same thing with Matt Kenseth, who left Chicago in 11th place, but a more reasonable 26 points behind Keselowski. This year's Daytona 500 winner still has high hopes, and a good chance, to leave Roush Fenway Racing with his second Sprint Cup championship at season's end.
3. Even Though He Isn't in the Chase, Kyle Busch Could Still Have a Big Impact
Kyle Busch is bound and determined to have an impact upon the Chase.
Busch looked a bit rusty Sunday, but with his fourth-place finish, he showed that he intends on being competitive in the Chase, even though he failed to make the 12-driver playoff field.
Given the up-and-down season Busch has had thus far in 2012, he really could make some serious impact on how the Chase plays out if he gets hot.
Remember, Tony Stewart won the championship in 2005, only to fail to make the Chase the next season. Still, he had a significant impact by winning three of the 10 Chase races, and Busch has the potential to do the same.
4. The 2012 Champ Will Come from or Have to Go Through Stewart and Johnson
Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson are ready to fight it out in the remaining nine races.
With the way they raced Sunday at Chicago, don't be surprised if the championship comes down to a battle between the two. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Johnson becomes this year's Carl Edwards, so to speak, and goes head-to-head with Stewart throughout the 10-race Chase.
Stewart has incentive to win his second straight Cup title and fourth overall, while Johnson wants to bounce back after last season's "off year" and earn his sixth Sprint Cup championship.
If he does that, he'll be just one title away from tying Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for most Cup championships won in a career (seven each).
5. Kasey Kahne Could Go from Darkhorse to Contender
The knock against Kasey Kahne throughout his career has been if he had great equipment and a great organization behind him, great things would potentially result.
Now that he's with the premier organization in the sport, Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne has all the tools and ingredients to make a significant impact in just the third Chase of his career.
With the way he finished at Chicago, Kahne could potentially become one of the biggest surprises in the Chase; although if he does, will it really be a surprise given who he's racing for now?
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