Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Winners And Losers From a Manic Monday In Chicagoland

Monday's rain-delayed "GEICO 400" at Chicagoland Speedway was a typical opening event in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. At least one underdog leapt unexpectedly into title contention, a handful of pre-Chase favorites stumbled badly and a number of other simply did what it takes to remain in the championship picture for another week. Here's the rundown after Week One:

The Winners:

Tony Stewart – The self-declared, non-championship contender proved himself wrong Monday, claiming his first checkered flag of the season and inserting himself solidly into championship contention. Don’t look now, but Smoke has finished third, seventh and fifth in his last three starts; the kind of surge that most of us expected – but never saw – at midsummer. He suddenly trails leader Kevin Harvick by just seven points, and if he can maintain his September hot streak, he could indeed be a factor in the battle for the 2011 championship.

Kevin Harvick – While so many others shot themselves in the foot (or slightly higher), Harvick recorded the kind of sure and steady effort that wins championships. His Budweiser Chevrolet ran in the second half of the Top-10 all day, then capitalized on a handful of empty fuel cells on the final lap to record a second-place finish behind Stewart. We didn’t see Harvick at his best Monday, but he and crewchief Gil Martin turned a Top-10 kind day into a runner-up finish and a spot at the top of the championship standings, seven points ahead of Stewart.

The Losers:

Jeff Gordon – Uncompetitive throughout the day, Gordon’s recent hot streak came to a shocking end Monday with a 24th place finish. His championship hopes may have taken a similar blow. The Dupont Chevrolet qualified poorly and fell back even further in the early going before a flat right-front tire dropped him to the back of the standings. He and crewchief Alan Gustafson scrapped their way back to the Top-12 in the late going, only to sputter out of fuel as they took the white flag. Gordon is now 11th in points, 25 out of the lead, and will likely need Top-5 finishes in each of the nine remaining races to have any shot at the championship.

Matt Kenseth – The former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion looked ready to get his Chase off to a rollicking start Monday. He qualified on the pole, led early and ran among the Top-5 throughout. Roush Fenway Racing builds killer horsepower, and those ponies come in handy on 1.5-mile tracks like Chicagoland. The downside, however, is lousy fuel mileage, and Kenseth ran his fuel cell dry a full lap short of the finish. He was pushed to the line by fellow Ford pilot JJ Yeley, earning him a penalty from NASCAR that dropped him to 21st at the finish. Now 24 points out of the championship lead, Kenseth and his Crown Royal Black team can only lament what might have been.

Kyle Busch – One sure sign of autumn is when blooms begin falling off the Shrub. Busch’s lackluster, 22nd-place finish Monday had a “deja-vu” kind of feeling, and left him scrambling for relevancy for the third time in as many Chase attempts. Busch now stands ninth in points, 19 off the lead, and indulged in a scathing bit of crew-bashing midway in Monday's race. With an unfortunate history of unraveling under the pressure of past Chases, he will need to turn things around in a hurry to avoid becoming a championship afterthought yet again.

Denny Hamlin – An ill-handling race car, loose wheels, slow pit stops; Hamlin and his team were out-to-lunch in every way Monday. Multiple pit road miscues will likely receive the lion’s share of blame for Hamlin’s dismal, 31st-place finish, and while they indeed played a role, the Fed Ex Ground Toyota was simply slow from start to finish. He set the tone for an abysmal weekend by qualifying 27th, and things never got much better than that. Something is seriously amiss with the #11 team this season, and they have just two chances left to make up their now-41 point championship deficit. Slim and none.

The Jury’s Still Out:

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – Most of NASCAR Nation has Junior on their “winners” list after a third-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway. But Earnhardt’s podium finish only looks good if you squint your eyes tight and ignore how it came about. Earnhardt’s AMP/National Guard Chevrolet ran between 12th and 17th place for most of the afternoon Monday, and surged into the Top-10 only after superior fuel mileage allowed him to race all-out against opponents who were nursing their cars around the 1.5-mile tri-oval at half throttle, in fuel conservation mode. He was sixth with two laps to go, then passed three cars on the final lap as their engines sputtered dry. Earnhardt outlasted them yesterday, he’ll have to outrun them to win the championship.

Jimmie Johnson – The five-time and defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion was in typical Chase form Monday, leading for a number of laps and positioning himself for a Top-3 finish until his fuel cell ran uncharacteristically dry, one mile too soon. Johnson sputtered home 10th, losing two positions in the title chase in the process. He now stands 16 points behind Harvick in the Chase for the Sprint Cup; a gap he can easily erase by continuing to run the way he did yesterday.

Carl Edwards – Edwards' Aflac Ford probably finished a few positions better than it deserved Monday. After all, keeping the engine running all the way to the finish pays dividends. Edwards was a Top-10 driver for much of the day, and while he never showed the ability to contend for the win, sometimes it’s enough to simply avoid disaster. A steady fourth-place showing will keep Edwards in the running for another week and keep his 2011 championship hopes alive.

Kurt Busch – The Shell-Pennzoil Dodge driver was almost certainly disappointed with his sixth-place finish Monday, after running at (or near) the front of the pack all day. He led a race-high 64 laps, but wasn’t at his best when the chips were down at the end. For now, a Top-10 finish will keep him solidly in the championship hunt, just 11 points behind with nine races to go.

Brad Keselowski – “Bad Brad” had a long stint as leader of Monday’s race, but even while he paced the field, you never got the feeling he was actually capable of winning. He hung around the Top-10 for most of the day, however, and took advantage of superior fuel mileage to outlast his way to a fifth-place finish. He now stands sixth in points (-14 to Harvick) and will live to fight another day.

Ryan Newman – Newman was near the front of the pack all day at Chicagoland. Not at the front, necessarily, but near it. His US Army Medicine Chevrolet did what it has done so many times this season, showing signs of brilliance without ever truly cashing in at Crunch Time. His eighth-place finish leaves him seventh in points – 14 behind Harvick – heading to New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a track he dominated in July en route to his only win of the season.


  1. Anonymous3:14 PM

    Great analysis Dave but where did you get those pictures? Many of them have a small head and big body. lol

  2. You forgot the biggest loser, the Fans. As soon as it went from a race to a fuel milage EVENT, I switched channels. The People's Court isn't that bad a show, suprise.

    With more fuel mileage events probable, instead of watching the races (and events) I think I'll revive tha Sunday drive and anjoy the Fall folliage.

  3. Anonymous8:56 AM

    Aren't all races fuel mileage races? Isn't it always a matter of cautions, tires, wrecks, pit stops, engines, weather, driver? If it was always a matter of fastest car winning then just watch practice and qualifying and call it a day. To me a race is driver and team overcoming all the obstacles given to them and coming out on top..not watching a car get out front in clean air and lapping the field.

  4. anonymous internet genius10:42 AM

    i understand the philosophies and mechanics of fuel mileage races, im just tired of seeing them this year. but hey, what can u do?