Ranking the 10 Worst Chase-Opening Race Performances

Paul Carreau@@PaulCarreauAnalyst ISeptember 18, 2013

Ranking the 10 Worst Chase-Opening Race Performances

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    The first race of the Sprint Cup Series Chase for the Championship is an exciting time for 12 drivers (13 this year). The points are reset, and the contenders  all believe they can win the series title.

    To earn the big trophy at the end of the year a lot of things must go right for a driver and their team throughout the entirety of the postseason. Solid finishes are critical, and minimizing mistakes are key to their ultimate success or failure.

    While it is impossible to win the championship after the first race, one can do plenty of damage to their chances with a poor performance in the opener. 

    Since the start of the Chase Era in 2004, we have seen plenty of scenarios where a driver negatively impacts their championship hopes after just one race.

    Whether because of an accident, a blown engine or just an ill-handling race car, very few things can frustrate and dishearten a championship-contending team more than struggling in the first race of Chase.

    In the slides ahead, we will countdown the 10 worst performances by Chase-qualified drivers in the series' first race of the playoffs.

10. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: 2013

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    After two abysmal seasons in 2009 and 2010, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is making his third consecutive Chase appearance in 2013. He had a strong start to the Chase a season ago, before a concussion sidelined him for two weeks. That was enough to eliminate him from championship contention after Earnhardt finally had the look of a serious contender.

    His efforts to win his first series title got off to a rocky start. 

    Earnhardt spent the first half of the 2013 GEICO 400 inside the top 10. Then, on a series of pit stops the night began to go downhill. He made contact with the No. 7 car of Dave Blaney, which caused damage to the front of his car.

    His crew worked to repair the damage, but because of multiple trips down pit road, Earnhardt had to start near the back of the field.

    As he attempted to work his way back towards the front, catastrophe struck.

    As Earnhardt was entering Turn 1 with 40 laps remaining, his engine let go in a huge cloud of smoke. 

    As the smoke poured from the tailpipes of the No. 88 Chevrolet, Earnhardt spun his car into the infield grass, where it lifelessly came to rest.

    Earnhardt finished the race in 35th place and after one race of the Chase finds himself already 53 points out of the lead.

9. Jeff Gordon: 2012

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    The 2012 GEICO 400 from Chicagoland Speedway had been going very well for four-time series champion Jeff Gordon. Through the first 187 laps of the 267-lap event, he was running inside the top five.

    Then, as Gordon was navigating through Turn 1, the throttle on his car stuck, and he went sailing into the outside wall. Gordon made hard contact and quickly brought his car into the garage.

    His team attempted to fix the car to get Gordon back on to the track to pick up as many points as possible, but it was all for naught as they were unable to make the necessary repairs.

    Gordon finished the day in 35th place, 17 positions worse than the next-closest Chase competitor. It was a frustrating end to a day that had so much promise.

    Gordon rallied in the following three weeks before five consecutive mediocre finishes eliminated him from any championship contention. He did win the 2012 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, vaulting him back up to his eventual 10th-place standings finish.

8. Joey Logano: 2013

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    The 2013 GEICO 400 marked the first time Joey Logano competed in a Sprint Cup Series Chase race as a championship contender. He made the most of his first opportunity by capturing the pole for the race.

    As the event got underway during the daylight, Logano proved to be the class of the field. He led the first 31 laps of the race before NASCAR displayed the competition caution to allow teams the opportunity to check their tire wear.

    After a lengthy rain delay forced the rest of the race to be contested under the lights, Logano continued to have a strong run. Though he failed to lead any more laps, he maintained a position inside the top 10 for the duration of the race's first half.

    Then, just past the halfway point of the race, Logano radioed in to his crew that his motor had just lost a cylinder. He planned to ride around for as long as the engine would hold out.

    Finally, on Lap 177 his engine completely let go. Smoke billowed from the rear end of the No. 22 car as his day had just come to an end.

    Logano finished the race in 37th place, and following Matt Kenseth's win, he is already 52 points out of the lead, sitting 12th in the standings.

7. Kyle Busch: 2006

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    Over the course of his young career, the Chase has not been kind to Kyle Busch.

    Prior to the 2013 season, he has made five appearances in the postseason. Only one time has he finished a season better than eighth in the standings.

    2006 was one of those sub-par seasons. Making his Chase debut, Busch was one of the early favorites to win in New Hampshire as he had won the race held on that speedway just two months earlier.

    As the race reached its two-thirds mark, the field had just taken the green-flag following a caution period. As the cars made their way through Turns 3 and 4, the No. 07 car driven by Clint Bowyer got extremely loose.

    His car slid up the race track and directly into the car driven by Busch. 

    Busch looped it once on the speedway before smacking the outside wall with both the front and back ends of the car. He instantly drove his wounded machine into the garage area.

    His team was able to make repairs but by the time he returned to the track he was multiple laps down. He finished the day in 38th place, and his first playoff appearance resulted in a 10th-place finish in the standings.

6. Matt Kenseth: 2008

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    The 2008 Sylvania 300 ended 70 laps early for Matt Kenseth after his involvement in a hard crash at Lap 230.

    The field had just gone back to green-flag racing when the No. 45 car of Chad McCumbee got loose exiting Turn 4.

    As he tried to regain control of his car, he slid up the race track right into Kenseth's No. 17 Ford.

    The contact sent Kenseth violently into the outside wall. As McCumbee continued to slide up the track, other cars became embroiled in the melee. David Gilliland got spun around, and his car slammed straight into the side of Kenseth's already damaged machine.

    The No. 5 of Casey Mears and Brian Vickers' No. 83 car both sustained heavy damage due to the the accident. 

    The crash ended Kenseth's day and was also the beginning of the end for his championship hopes that season. He was never able to regain the points he had lost in New Hampshire as he ended the season 11th in the championship standings.

5. Kasey Kahne: 2009

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    The 2009 season marked the second time in Kasey Kahne's career that he had qualified for the Chase.

    Expectations were high for the young driver as he entered the playoffs having won twice already in the regular season and having started the postseason as the fourth seed.

    Kahne's hopes of winning in New Hampshire, and possibly winning the title, literally went up in smoke very early in the day.

    On Lap 66, Kahne's engine let go, and that put an early end to his race.

    After starting the race in the 11th spot, Kahne had worked his way up inside the top 10 and was holding his own consistently running between sixth and ninth place.

    Kahne radioed in to his crew that he could feel something amiss in the engine during the previous lap. So, when it did let go it was not much of a surprise.

    He would end that day with a 38th-place finish, and following a handful of other poor performances in that year's Chase, Kahne ended the season 10th in the standings.

4. Jimmie Johnson: 2006

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    Jimmie Johnson started the 2006 Sylvania 300 from the seventh spot.

    As the race got underway, Johnson soon developed engine issues that his team attempted to repair.

    The team continuously worked on the car under caution. This caused Johnson to have to restart the race in the middle of the pack, where the action typically takes place.

    The field had just gotten back to green-flag racing on Lap 90 when Greg Biffle made a quick move to the outside of the track to avoid another car. His maneuver caused the No. 14 of Sterling Marlin to turn to the right in an attempt to avoid a collision, but Johnson was already on Marlin's outside.

    The contact between the No. 14 and No. 48 sent Johnson hard into the outside wall.

    There was severe damage to the right side of Johnson's Chevrolet, and this forced his team to spend many laps behind the wall making repairs.

    Johnson ended that race in 39th place, but he was able to rebound as the Chase went on, and he ended that season with the first of his five consecutive championships.

3. Kyle Busch: 2008

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    After starting on the pole for the 2008 Chase-opening race, things quickly went downhill for Kyle Busch.

    Right from the drop of the green flag his car was ill-handling. He lost position after position before having to make an unscheduled pit stop.

    The team tried to fix Busch's No. 18 but never got it to where he could run competitive lap times. Then, on Lap 84, only about one-fourth of the way through the event, Busch finally lost control of the car.

    Already running in the 43rd position, Busch spun out all by himself on the track. The spin created a lot of smoke making vision for the drivers behind him nearly impossible.

    As the cars tried to maneuver through the thick cloud of smoke, Jamie McMurray and David Ragan made contact sending McMurray's car spinning and ultimately crashing into Busch's already wounded vehicle.

    Busch's crew was able to make repairs and get him back out onto the track, but the result was a loss of 12 laps and a disappointing 34th-place finish.

    Busch ended the 2008 season 10th in points.

2. Tony Stewart and Jeremy Mayfield: 2004

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    The 2004 season marked the first time in Sprint Cup Series history that the Chase format would be used to determine its champion. A blatant retaliation attempt by one driver on another put an early end to two contender's chances of winning the race. It also severely hurt their championship hopes.

    After an earlier on-track incident where Robby Gordon got spun out by Greg Biffle, Gordon retaliated and intentionally wrecked Biffle's No. 16 car.

    As Gordon intentionally spun Biffle out, the No. 16 car collected Jeremy Mayfield, who was running right beside him on the track. Tony Stewart drove to the bottom of the track in an effort to avoid the mayhem but ultimately plowed into the side of Biffle's spinning car.

    For his part, NASCAR parked Gordon for two laps for rough driving, but that was little consolation to the two drivers whose day he had ruined.

    Mayfield ended the day in 35th place while Stewart settled for a 39th-place finish. They ended the year in 10th and sixth-place respectively in the standings.

1. Kurt Busch: 2005

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    Going into the 2005 Chase, Kurt Busch was the defending series champion. His title defense could not have gotten off to a worse start.

    Just three laps into the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, an accident took place involving Busch and Scott Riggs.

    The No. 10 car of Riggs got loose as a pack of cars sailed off into Turn 1. As he tried to save his car, he drifted up the track and made contact with Busch's No. 97 car. 

    The contact sent Busch spinning around and into the outside wall. The damage was severe, and forced him to take his car into the garage for repairs.

    Busch went on to finish 35th in the race, 67 laps down. He would end that season 10th in the championship standings, last among Chase contenders.