Stock Watch for Drivers in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Chase
One week into the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup, who's up, who's down and who's holding their ground for now?
There was plenty of drama surrounding the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway that signaled the beginning of the 10-race Chase that will determine this year's Sprint Cup champion. Much of it obviously wasn't that great for NASCAR, but the race itself—once it was finally completed nearly 10 hours after its scheduled start because of two lengthy rain delays—was thankfully devoid of the controversy that preceded it.
The Chase field, expanded to 13 drivers with the last-minute addition of four-time champ Jeff Gordon, fought its way through a myriad of adversity. Some drivers and their teams obviously fared better in the end than others.
Let's take a closer look at whose stock rose the most, and why, heading into the second race of the Chase at New Hampshire.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt Jr. entered the Chase opener with high hopes, based on his previous two finishes at Chicagoland Speedway (a third and an eighth). He also had one win at the 1.5-mile track, although that came way back in 2005 and hardly carried much relevance heading into this race.
So no one really expected him to win for the first time this season, but another top-10 finish or close to it did not seem out of the question. That would have kept him solidly in the Chase mix until the inevitable disaster struck.
Alas, Earnhardt's team could not avert calamity for even one week. Through no fault of the driver, the engine in his No. 88 Chevrolet went up in smoke after 224 laps -- taking any slim chances he had of winning his first Cup championship up along with it.
Love him or despise him -- or even if you land somewhere in between -- there is no denying the outstanding job Kurt Busch has done this season while driving for Furniture Row Racing, a single-car team operating off NASCAR's beaten path in Denver, Colo.
What has been most impressive is Busch's seemingly newfound ability to handle adversity much better. In the past, a miscue on pit road by a team member or lack of speed in the car on a particular day might cause Busch to blow his top inside the car. While it could be argued that he frequently drove better angry, the way he has handled himself this season inside and outside the car, for the most part, has been nothing short of commendable and has contributed to a sort of calm confidence that appears to carry over to the rest of the team.
Busch offered evidence of this yet again at Chicagoland, where his own mistake on a costly pit-road speeding penalty put him down a lap early in the race. He patiently waited for a timely caution and kept working his way back through the field, eventually gaining the lap back and finishing fourth. That left him just 23 points off the Chase lead being set by Matt Kenseth.
Who knows? If Busch can rise up and win a race or two in the Chase, he still might shock the racing world.
Kudos to Harvick and Richard Childress Racing for the way they've handled this entire season, considering he announced before it started that he would be leaving RCR at season's end for a new ride at Stewart-Haas Racing.
Now that Harvick's No. 29 Chevrolet is RCR's lone entry in the Chase, the company continues to throw every possible resource behind the lame-duck team. Remember that Harvick has been in this car since the day he replaced the late Dale Earnhardt following Earnhardt's passing in the tragic last-lap accident in the 2001 Daytona 500, yet he's never been able to win a championship in it.
At Chicagoland, Harvick overcame an ill-handling race car and a pit-road fender bender to finish third. He's only 15 points off the Chase lead and seems to be building momentum at precisely the right time, and for all the right reasons under unusual circumstances.
Not much went right for The Biff at Chicagoland.
First he was penalized and got sent to the rear of the field for driving over an air hose on pit road. Later he became convinced inside the car that his engine was blowing up.
Perhaps he should be pleased that despite all this, he managed to finish the race at all. Yet his 16th-place finish did little to change the pre-race opinion that this is a race team headed in the wrong direction at the worst possible time of the season.
His saving hope is that he has a combined five career wins at New Hampshire, Dover and Kansas—the next three tracks on the Chase schedule. He needs to make a stand at one or more of them immediately to overcome a 31-point deficit in the Chase standings.
Newman seems to be enjoying his late addition to the Chase field, awarded by NASCAR in the wake of the SpinGate controversy set into motion by Clint Bowyer in the regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway.
He was the exception to the rule at Chicagoland as far as Chasers went, running a relatively trouble-free race en route to a respectable 10th-place finish that keeps him in the mix for at least another week or two. And here's the thing that remains encouraging for Newman's No. 39 Chevrolet team: they've recently shown consistent speed, no matter what kind of track they're running on.
After nearly getting screwed out of the Chase (and definitely getting hosed out of a probable race win at RIR), on top of already losing his job at Stewart-Haas Racing, Newman also is driving with a monster-sized chip on his shoulder. This time of year, that's good.
Suddenly, Four Time is looking to become the next Five Time.
Like Newman before him, Gordon seems to be invigorated by his late addition to the Chase, courtesy of SpinGate and NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France. Gordon overcame an untimely green-flag pit stop caused by a flat tire to finish sixth at Chicagoland, and that was after he earlier seemed positioned to contend for the win after leading 22 laps.
Now that he's in the Chase, don't count the four-time Cup champion out. He knows better than anyone that these second chances don't come around often, and at age 42 this might be his last best opportunity to win another championship.
He heads to New Hampshire only 24 points behind Chase leader Kenseth and is way overdue to win his first race of the season.
Suddenly what seemed to be a breakthrough season with championship possibilities for Logano has been altered drastically, and not for the better.
The Geico 400 race weekend started well enough for the 23-year-old driver. He won the pole and led the first 32 laps. But his No. 20 Ford never was the same after returning to the track following a five-hour, 10-minute rain delay, and shortly after the race reached its halfway point Logano began complaining over the team radio of engine problems. He was forced to retire to the garage for good after 175 laps, relegating him to a Chase-killing finish of 37th and leaving him a whopping 52 points off the lead after only one week.
It still has been a good season overall for Logano, who needed one. But his chances of becoming a dark-horse contender for the title in this Chase appear to already have faded to black.
It's close to time for Kahne to show his Chase hand.
Throughout much of this season, he has alternated between looking like a championship contender and a championship pretender disguised as an also-ran. He was somewhere in between during the Chase opener, when he was one of several drivers to incur damage on pit road during an incident that also damaged the cars of Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
It took several subsequent pit stops and many repairs to his No. 5 Chevrolet, but to his team's credit and the driver's own resolve, they managed to pull a fairly respectable 12th-place finish out of the mess. He's 31 points off the lead—same as Greg Biffle—and sure could use the six bonus points for wins he left on the table by failing to finish the regular season inside the top 10.
He's not completely out of it yet because he's shown at times the ability to run away from the field. But it's time he takes a stand.
Careful, fellow Chasers. Five Time is only 11 points out of first and only three out of second after a Chase opener that included significant problems not of Johnson's doing.
During one pit stop at Chicagoland, a NASCAR official held up the No. 48 Chevy because he mistakenly thought there was a loose lug nut on the right-rear tire. On another, the car jack broke—causing another slow stop.
In typical Johnson championship-mode fashion, he rallied each time. That produced a fifth-place finish in the end, keeping him right on the heels of Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch in the Chase standings—as well as ahead of all the rest.
Forget the unprecedented four-race slump at the end of the regular season. That's ancient history. The determined Johnson is looking more and more like he'll be in this title mix until the end.
Is there a less popular guy in NASCAR right now than Bowyer?
It isn't just that he caused the SpinGate controversy at Richmond that threw the sport into turmoil on the eve of the Chase. It was the half-hearted attempt to apologize afterward—despite repeatedly claiming that he had done nothing wrong.
Question: if he didn't do anything wrong, then why did he keep apologizing to the Associated Press and others?
Despite all the negative fallout from not simply admitting wrongdoing and moving on, Bowyer kept focused on the job at hand and drove to a solid ninth-place finish at Chicagoland. That left him only 28 points off the Chase lead—same as Ryan Newman. But the karma surrounding them isn't the same and Bowyer still has yet to win a race this year.
Something about Bowyer's season smells all wrong, and it's only likely to get worse from here.
Edwards' Chase opener was much like his season: solid, but not spectacular.
His No.99 Ford wasn't really fast enough to seriously contend for the win, but he and his team were solid enough to avoid the trouble on pit road and elsewhere that so many other Chasers had to battle. The end result was a solid-but-not-spectacular 11th-place finish that keeps him in the hunt for the championship.
So while Edwards didn't really build on the momentum he created by his win at Richmond following a controversial final restart, he didn't do anything to hurt himself, either.
He's 23 points off the lead and still has a Chase chance. But he still needs for crew chief Jimmy Fennig and Roush Fenway Racing's team of engineers to find more consistent speed in his race car.
Turnabout is fair play, even amongst teammates.
Kyle Busch learned that the hard way when his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth, then running behind him in second, powered past Busch on a restart with 22 laps remaining at Chicagoland. Earlier Busch had taken advantage of new NASCAR restart rules, instituted right before the race, to pull the same move on then-leader Jimmie Johnson.
Busch, who had again seized the lead during pit stops on Lap 172 of the 267-lap event and subsequently built up a sizable advantage, could not catch Kenseth over the final 22 laps and had to settle for second on a day when he obviously had a car strong enough to win.
On a day and then night when so many other cars experienced engine problems, including another JGR teammate in Denny Hamlin, the fact that the engines of Busch and Kenseth held up until the end to produce a one-two finish bodes well for the rest of the Chase for both of them.
Are they filling Kenseth's water bottles at Joe Gibbs Racing from some mysterious Fountain of Youth, or what?
Kenseth, the top Chase seed coming in, soared to his Sprint Cup series-high sixth win of the season at Chicagoland. Remarkably, at age 41 and in his 14th full-time Cup season, the six wins also represent a career high. And his previous career high of five wins was established more than a decade ago in 2002.
The fact is that Kenseth shows no signs of slowing in this Chase. He's in it to win it—and as long as he avoids any catastrophic engine failures or some other disaster not of his own doing, it looks like he'll contend 'til the end.
Kenseth's best attribute as a driver is his ability to avoid the kinds of costly mistakes that frequently sidetrack others. Plus he keeps a level head when something out of his control goes wrong. Those qualities will continue to serve him well going forward in this Chase, especially if he can stay out in front of the rest of the field.