If this wasn’t one of the most tumultuous weeks in NASCAR Sprint Cup (NSC) competition, I don’t know what is. First, the wild action and Clint Bowyer’s late-race spin, leaving Carl Edwards in Victory Lane after his “patented” backflip, then the allegations that Bowyer and Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) teammate Brian Vickers colluded in an action that left third MWR teammate Martin Truex Jr in the Chase, with Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon looking from the outside-in (if only by one point). Next, was the announcement by NASCAR officials, levying a hefty fine on MWR, taking Truex Jr out of Chase contention, and putting Ryan Newman in. Then, a pair of late-week announcements by NASCAR officials, adding Jeff Gordon as the thirteenth Chase contender due to reviews of audio and video footage from the race, with the accompanying probations of Front Row Racing and Penske Racing for suspicions that they, too, had acted in efforts to affect the outcome of the race. And that wasn’t all.
Then just yesterday, NASCAR brought all drivers together for a special drivers’ meeting at the Chicagoland Speedway (@ChicagolndSpdwy), site of this week’s first Chase race, where they announced some rules changes for the definitions of “acceptable racing.” As noted by NASCAR Chief of Competition Robin Pemberton: “Today’s technical bulletin addresses the subject of team(s) artificially altering the outcome of a race and the level of reaction that this will receive from NASCAR. We reinforced this issue to the teams…and conveyed what is considered unacceptable in our officiating of the event” (NASCAR Press Release). Most notably in these changes, were:
- Restrictions of only spotters on the spotters’ stand (one per team)
- Only two analog radios, scanners, and Fan Visions permitted on the spotters’ stand (apparently some teams were using digital radios that were not scan-able by NASCAR officials)
- A Video camera to be installed on spotters’ stand
This basically sets the stage for a Chase (and by extension all future NSC competition), that will have increased awareness and potential punishment of any wrongful acts undertaken by NSC competitors. That said, NASCAR President Mike Helton was very explicit in adding that “Any competitor who takes action with the intent to artificially alter the finishing positions of the event or encourages, persuades or induces others to artificially alter the finishing position of the event shall be subject to a penalty from NASCAR. Examples of actions deemed acceptable include contact while racing for position; performance issues; drafting; pitting; tire management; fuel management; yielding to a faster car; alternative pit strategy; long-fuel (mileage) strategy; and laying over (allowing others to pass). (NASCAR.com)
BOTTOM LINE: Race at 100%, play by the rules, and only take risk where NASCAR allows.
NOW, back to our regularly-scheduled analysis…
This week’s first race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup takes us to the aforementioned Chicagoland Speedway, a 1.5-mile tri-oval set just outside Chicago near Joliet, Illinois (I can’t help but think of the opening scene from The Blues Brothers). And this week, it’s more than 106 miles to Chicagoland’s Victory Lane. The Geico 400 will be a 267-lap free-for-all on the speedway’s 18-degree banked turns for 400.5 miles. This is the 27th race in the 2013 NSC season, and also the first of the ten Chase races leading up to Homestead’s final race in November.
TV coverage began early this morning with NASCAR Raceday on FoxSports 1 at 9am EDT, continues at 1pm EDT with NASCAR Countdown on ESPN, and the race itself at 2pm EDT on ESPN. engines The Green Flag waves at approximately 2:16pm following the National Anthem performed by this year’s winner of “The Voice” Danielle Bradbery, a pre-race flyover by the Hooligan Flight team, and the Command to Start Engines given by cast members from the NBC show “Chicago Fire.” There are no drivers who currently have to start from the rear of the field.
Mother Nature may get a vote on how the Chase starts today, with an 80% chance of precipitation, so we may be in for a long day. Hate to say it, but we could have a big day of channel surfing, where many fans will be able to keep up with their favorite NFL teams’ game during any rain delays. Right now, looking at the radar, I’m guessing we’ll have a couple-hour rain delay for the start, but then we should be able to get the entire race in. I’ve already got a second TV set up in the family room, to help with keeping my situational awareness on the progress of both.
This week, considering it’s the first race of the Chase, I’m going to change my format a bit. I’ll run down the drivers in the Chase, their standing thus far this year, plus their Chicagoland performance. My picks for the week will be at the end. Look for choices in parentheses as Top Picks (TP), In The Hunt (ITH), and Stalkers (S). Those on the Radar Scope as outside contenders will be annotated as (RDR).
Well, for my selections last week, I had another rough go…P8, P13, P14, P19, P21, P25. Think that would have been a bit better had Bowyer not spun (considering both he and Dale Jr were running in the Top 10), but you get what you get. As evidenced with the events of this past week.
So here we go…the 2013 NSC Chase field:
- Matt Kenseth (#20 Dollar General Toyota)- Matt starts the Chase in the #1 seed with his five wins, six top-five, and thirteen top-ten finishes (108.6 Driver Rating-DR). He’s fourth in driver rating at Chicagoland (101.5), with zero wins, two top-five, and four top-ten finishes, averaging 12.8th finishes over 12 races. He’s also fifth in laps run in the Top 15 (1473).
- Jimmie Johnson (#48) Lowe’s Chevy)- Jimmie is fighting for his sixth NSC Cup championship, and he’s had only finishes of P40, P36, P28, and P40 over his last four races (good thing he was already locked into the Chase). This season, JJ’s got four wins, nine top-five, and fifteen top-ten finishes (104.3 Driver Rating). At Chicagoland, he’s first in driver rating (116.2), fastest laps run, and laps run in the Top 15 (1856); he also runs seventh in Quality Passes (QP, Green Flag passes against a top-15 driver) with 226, averaging finishes of 9.3 over eleven races.
- Kyle Busch (#18 Doublemint Toyota)- KyBu’s next on the list of Chase drivers with four wins, eleven top-five, and fifteen top-tens over the first 26 races (102.2 Driver rating). For this track, he’s got one win, three top-five, and three top-tens (13.4 avg over 8 races). Kyle’s fifth in DR (99.4), fourth in laps run in the Top 15 (1,533), seventh in Green Flag passes (455), and fifth in QP (246).
- Kevin Harvick (#29 Budweiser Chevy)- Kevin starts this year’s quest with two wins, six top-five, and thirteen top-tens (93.1 average DR). He’s got two wins, six top-five, and seven top ten finishes here, averaging 10.5 in 12 races. He runs sixth in DR (95.8) as well as laps run in the top-15 (1462), but only ninth in QP (207) and thirteenth in Green Flag passes (439).
- Carl Edwards (#99 Fastenal Ford)- “Cousin Carl” has two wins, eight top-five, and thirteen top-tens this season (94.6 avg DR), with only three top-five and three top-tens to show for his performance at Chicagoland (averaging 16.6 over eight races). He’s P9 in DR w/90.9, seventh with laps run in the top-15 (1393), but third in QP with 263.
- Joey Logano (#22 Shell-Pennzoil Toyota)- Joey was as surprised as any last week, but his performance over the entire first part of the season warrants his inclusion in the Chase. For 2013, he’s got a win, eight top-five, and fourteen top-ten finishes, with an average DR of 89.6. Success hasn’t exactly been his hallmark at Chicagoland, considering in only four races he’s run he’s only managed a top-ten, and holds a P21 in DR of 78.8.
- Greg Biffle (#16 Post-It Ford)- The Bif has been in the top-ten for the majority of the season, with a win, three top-five, and ten top-tens to his credit (DR of 82.5). He’s another of the drivers who still has yet to win at Chicagoland, but he does have one top-five and the associated one top-ten finish (18.2 avg finish in 10 races). He sits thirteenth in DR (87.6) and is first in Green Flag passes (559).
- Clint Bowyer (#15 Peak Antifreeze Toyota)- Clint is one of the four Chase contenders who has managed to get into the “show” without a win. He does, though, have eight top-five and thirteen top-tens, with a season DR of 94.3. He’s also looking for his first win at Chicagoland, and has a top-five and six top-tens, averaging a 10.1 finishing position over seven races. Clint currently sits eighth in DR with 91.8, ninth in laps run in the Top15 (1,277), and sixth in QP (229).
- Dale Earnhardt Jr (#88 Time Warner Cable Chevy)- Dale Jr is the second of four winless drivers this year, but he has managed five top-five and fourteen top-tens over the course of the season (season DR 94.3). Junebug has won here, along with three top-five and five top-tens, averaging 14.3 over 12 races. He may only be twelfth in DR w/ 89.5, but is second in Green Flag passes (516), fourth in QP (251), and eighth in Laps run in the Top-15 (1,383).
- Kurt Busch (#78 Furniture Row/Beautyrest Chevy)- Kurt is the third of the four winless drivers who have made the Chase, but has eight top-five and thirteen top-tens this season (95.1). All Kurt has been able to do at Chicagoland is post six top-tens, averaging 18.3 in 12 races. During those twelve runs, he’s only 15th-best in DR (84.3), tenth in Laps run in the Top-15 (1,239), and twelfth in QP (193).
- Kasey Kahne (#5 Farmers Insurance Chevy)- Kasey picks up the first Wild Card position with two wins, eight top-five, and eleven top-ten finishes (season DR 98.2). Kahne’s only managed two top-fives and three top-tens (avg finish of 19.0 in 9 races), and eighteenth-best on DR of 81.0.
- Ryan Newman (#39 Quicken Loans Chevy)- Ryan nearly had that Wild Card spot last week, had Clint Bowyer not spun and had he won the race; when Martin Truex’s penalty dropped him to a lower Top-20 position overall, Ryan was in. This year he has one win, six top-five, and twelve top-tens (season DR 81.3). He has also won here, with three top-five and seven top-tens overall (P17 DR of 82.8). The most notable stat in Ryan’s corner is he’s fourth in Green Flag Passes (468).
- Jeff Gordon (#24 Driver to End Hunger Chevy)- This is the second year in a row that all four Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) teams have made the Chase; Gordon was the “late” add on Friday when NASCAR Officials decided to permit him to contend for his fifth NSC Championship. He’s the fourth of our four winless drivers this season, with five top-five and twelve top-tens (avg 15.5).
This week’s selections:
- (TP) Kyle Busch is the likely driver to beat. He’s won both the Camping World Truck and Nationwide series races this weekend, so he’ll be looking to sweep the weekend. He only starts twelfth and was eighteenth-fastest in Happy Hour final practice; he’ll need to get his machine squared early if he wants to get out the broom.
- (TP) Kasey Kahne won Happy Hour final practice, and only starts fourth. He’s been inside the top-14 in five of the last seven races. Best in points earned over the last four Chicagoland races.
- (ITH) Matt Kenseth has three of his victories on 1.5-mile tracks. May only start tenth and ninth-fastest during Happy Hour, but five wins says a lot this season. Fourth-best in points earned over the last four 1.5-mile races.
- (ITH) Greg Biffle is one of the Roushketeers who have typically done well on the 1.5-mile tracks. Starts seventh, and fifth-fastest in Happy Hour. Could be the spoiler to Kyle Busch’s weekend.
- (S) Joey Logano leads the field to Green today at Chicagoland, and was third-fastest in final practice. Seventh-best in points earned over the last four 1.5-mile races, had only one finish outside the top 8 in the last seven races…could be quite the surprise.
- (S) Brian Vickers isn’t in the Chase, but considering he’s only raced at Chicagoland six times, he’s not finished worse than fourteenth, including a top-five and three top-tens. Could make a good “cellar-dweller” in fantasy picks.
- (RDR) Kurt Busch will start back in sixteenth, but was sixth-fastest in final practice. Six top-eight finishes in twelve races. Could be a breakout performance for him and his Furniture Row team.
- (RDR) Ricky Stenhouse Jr has never run a NSC race here, but has three top-tens and a win in the Nationwide series. Starts fifth and seventh-fastest in Happy Hour.
Going to be an interesting day…not just on Mother Nature’s contributions to the Chase, but also what happens when the Green Flag flies. Yes, the points have been re-shuffled with Kenseth on top; expect a lot of movement throughout the day. We’ll see if Jimmie Johnson can break his streak of lackluster finishes, if we’ll have a winless Chaser score their first victory to get off on the right foot, or if we’ll have a non-Chase driver outdrive the Chase field. All the action is soon to happen on ESPN; tune in to the television action, or catch the racing on your local MRN affiliate, or SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Channel 90). I’m definitely not going to miss this one…follow me on Twitter (@Speedglutton) for race updates, analysis, and an occasional rant.