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NASCAR Cup Series

The Story Behind the Stories: Chicagoland

By Matt Weaver – It was only fitting that Sunday’s NASCAR playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway featured a five-hour rain delay.

After all, it was the fallout from Richmond and the penalties handed out afterwards that dominated the news cycles, taking all the attention that should have been on the racing completely off the burner.

But once the delay ended and al the focus returned to the on-track product, the drivers put on a stunning performance, gave it 100 percent and it ended with Matt Kenseth in Victory Lane for a career-best sixth time with still nine races remaining in the season.

Whatever doubts anyone had about Kenseth and his ability to translate his regular season success to the Chase were completely eliminated. The same could also be said of fellow favorites, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson.

It’s so rare to see each of the top seeds occupy the top positions so early into a Chase. It always seems as if there is one expected contender that always flops in the first race and that just wasn’t the case on Sunday.

For much of the event, Kenseth, Busch and Johnson ran one-two-three and that should strike fear into the confidence of any Chaser that has ambitions towards hoisting the Sprint Cup trophy in November.

Kenseth entered as the No. 1 seed, led the most laps and won the race. Busch finished second and only lost three points on his teammate (-8) and Johnson finished fifth. Through at least one race, the top seeds backed-up their rank at Chicagoland.

Earnhardt, Logano take a mulligan

The performance by the top seeds has to be particularly disheartening for Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — Chasers whom were both victimized by engine failures that forced them to leave Chicagoland 12th and 13th in the standings respectively.

Both drivers were not heavily favored to score a bunch of victories in the remaining races during the Chase, meaning that consistency would have been their best path to a championship. Logano has just one victory while Earnhardt is still seeking his first.

Their title hopes are realistically dashed barring a miraculous barrage of wins and some bad luck from the front runners over the next nine weeks. With a maximum of 48 points up for grabs per race, Logano and Earnhardt find themselves at -52 and -53 behind Kenseth.

To their benefit, the eventual champion is afforded one mulligan but it’s rarely a successful tactic to use it this early.

In fact, only one champion in the Chase era has suffered a finish worse than 35th and won the championship and that was the 2006 Johnson buzzsaw that rallied from a 39th to win his first title. So Logano and Earnhardt have lofty expectations to replicate, starting next weekend at New Hampshire.

Shorter race tall on action

Sunday’s race was split into two halves as a result of the rain delay and the nightcap, frantic and full of energy, made me wonder how exactly a split distance race could be.

IndyCar tried a pair of split distance races once at Texas Motor Speedway and it failed only when the second race’s starting lineup was set by a blind draw.

The second half of Sunday’s race was so entertaining because there was no time to hold station. As soon as the red flag was lifted at Chicago, teams had just 157 laps to solve the new cooler track conditions and get to the front.

A twin evening/nighttime Cup race at a place like Texas in the spring might be worth the experiment. Or maybe I’m just trying to reinvent the wheel, failing to just enjoy Sunday’s race for what it was — a fantastic way to kick off the Chase.

Onwards to New Hampshire.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Stenhouse Earns Career Best Finish in Chicago

By Kelly Crandall – The last three weeks have been more successful for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and his No. 17 Roush Fenway team than the first 23 of the season.

Atlanta was the site of their first career Sprint Cup Series pole. A week later in Richmond they earned their first top 10 with a respectable 10th. And late Sunday night in Chicago Stenhouse captured his second career top 10 with a career best finish, an eighth place in the GEICO 400.

“We didn’t start off near like we wanted. We thought we had a better car throughout the weekend. We started the race and thought we were in big trouble,” said Stenhouse in the early morning hours of Monday as the race was delayed by rain for by five hours and 10 minutes.

“Luckily after the rain delay, getting back out there at night, it kind of helped our car turn a little bit better. I stayed out there that last caution, thought we were going to be in trouble with those guys behind us on tires, but we were able to hold them off, get an eighth place finish.”

It’s familiar territory for the NSCS rookie. When he began his turnaround in the Nationwide Series, which led to back-to-back championships, it began late in the season. For Stenhouse, he noted as much after winning the pole at Atlanta and said the team just hopes to carry some momentum into next season and accomplish at least some of their goals they had set prior to the season.

Off back-to-back top 10’s he moves to 19th in points and leads the ROY standings over girlfriend Danica Patrick. Stenhouse has been the highest finishing rookie in 22 of 27 races, including the last six weeks. Those goals for the young team led by rookie crew chief Scott Graves are beginning to come together.

They have a pole, their first career top 10 finishes and laps led. Stenhouse ran strong at Kansas in April and led 26 laps. It’s been enough for teammate Carl Edwards to recently say Stenhouse should have won that race had cautions fallen differently. Edwards also revealed he believes Stenhouse will be in Victory Lane multiple times before the season ends.

And yet, while the team has finished every race thus far in 2013 and now have their career best finishes under their belt, the Mississippi driver still isn’t quite comfortable behind the wheel.

“I wish I knew. I feel like our cars still don’t drive very good,” Stenhouse said about the recent success. “I think Scott is making good calls to get us track position at the end of those races and we’re able to hang onto it. We still got a lot of work to do.”

Nine races remain in the season with numerous tracks left Stenhouse and the Best Buy team will visit for the second time. Now with notebook and experience in hand.

“It’s good to carry that momentum from that pole in Atlanta, two top 10s now. We were looking forward to carrying that on the rest of the year. We still got a lot of work to do. I think just good pit calls there at the end keeping us out on the track and getting track position has been the best for us lately.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

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NASCAR Cup Series

Kenseth’s Win Makes a Statement Towards Chase Hopes

By Reid Spencer (NASCAR Wire Service) JOLIET, Ill.–  The rich got richer.

Matt Kenseth, the top seed in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, added to his advantage in Sunday’s rain-interrupted GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.

With a strong push from Kevin Harvick after a restart with on Lap 245 of 267, Kenseth pulled away to beat Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch to the checkered flag by .749 seconds and deny Busch the second three-series weekend sweep of his career.

The victory was Kenseth’s sixth of the season, tops in the Cup series, and his most ever in a single season. The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota claimed his first win at Chicagoland and the 30th of his career, 22nd on the all-time list.

“I’ve always wanted to win here in Chicago,” an elated Kenseth said in Victory Lane. “It’s only a couple hours from where I grew up–up in Wisconsin. So it feels great to finally get the win here. We’ve been close a lot.”

Harvick came home third, followed by Kurt Busch, who rallied from a lap down after a pit road speeding penalty in the first third of the race.

Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon both overcame considerable adversity to finish fifth and sixth, respectively, as Chase drivers claimed the top six spots in the finishing order and 10 of the first 12.

Other championship contenders weren’t so lucky. Pole winner Joey Logano brought his car to pit road under caution with engine issues on Lap 149 of 267. After Lap 175, the engine gave up the ghost, and Logano retired in 37th place.

With the nose of his car punctured during a pit road accident on Lap 169, Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered an engine failure on Lap 226, his heavily taped car overheating and ultimately erupting in a geyser of steam and smoke. Earnhardt dropped out in 35th place.

“We had a car we were pretty happy with and you know just thought we were going to have a pretty good night,” Earnhardt said ruefully after taking the car to the garage. “I don’t know what was going on on pit road there, but we knocked the front end off of it on pit road.  Those guys all stopped on pit road in front of us.

“We were trying to get that fixed.  We still had a chance to get that fixed and get the downforce back in the front.  We cut the grill all up and the downforce was gone and we lost a lap there. We were going to get that patched up and maybe be able to make something out of it, but something broke there in the motor. It’s tough. It’s going to be really hard to win a championship this far behind.”

The race was red-flagged for more than five hours as rain pelted the 1.5-mile track. The action resumed at approximately 10 p.m. ET with Kenseth in the lead.

Kyle Busch held the lead when Justin Allgaier’s spin off Turn 4 on Lap 239 caused the ninth caution. Busch and Kenseth lined up for a restart on lap 245 with Busch to the outside, Harvick behind Kenseth and Kurt Busch behind his brother.

Harvick thought his best option was to push Kenseth rather than to take the two cars on the front row three-wide into Turn 1.

“They were evenly matched,” Harvick said of Kenseth and Busch. “I was hoping they would get side by side, you have one of them slide up, able to get three‑wide or something happen.

“I figured that was better than going to the bottom and getting three‑wide and being pinned on the bottom and getting passed by two or three cars on the top. I figured that was my best option.”

Kenseth was delighted Harvick saw it that way.

“Man, he gave me a big push on that restart, where he could have tried to squeeze it in on the apron, (but he gave) me a big push and go me out front,” said Kenseth, who leads his teammate by eight points with nine races left in the Chase. “I owe him one for that, for sure.”

Kyle Busch, who had won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series races the previous two days, saw his chance for a sweep evaporate after Kenseth pulled away.

“Oh, yeah, I watched it slip right away,” Busch said. “Nothing you can do about it. Certainly, it would be nice if we could have won tonight and brought home a trifecta. I didn’t think we had a chance after yesterday’s practice. In the race today, the car was totally different. I could drive the heck out of it.

“It was going to be cool, (but) there’s always those cautions.”

Johnson continued to experience the sort of adversity that has plagued him for the last two months–with one major difference. This time he overcame it.

Johnson had taken the lead after a two-tire pit stop under a competition caution on Lap 32. His advantage had reached three seconds before confusion during a green-flag stop on Lap 75 cost him four positions on the track.

Johnson’s rear tire changer replaced a dropped lug nut on the right rear tire, but the NASCAR official overseeing the action in the No. 48 pit thought there were only four lugs on the tire, instead of the requisite five.

The official ordered the changer back to the right rear, costing Johnson precious seconds, before realizing that all five lugs were in place.

“One (lug nut) had fallen off during the hand-in (of the tire), so it was kind of hanging there, but the tire changer had taken the time,” said crew chief Chad Knaus. “He did his job. He did a great job getting the other lug nut on there and making sure it was tight.

“The official thought there were only four on there. We all make mistakes. That happens from time to time.”

Johnson, however, rebounded from the mishap and was running fourth when a sudden cloudburst coincided with Cole Whitt’s spin off Turn 4, necessitating the second caution of the day. Shortly thereafter, NASCAR brought the cars to pit road and stopped the race.

After the resumption, a broken jack dropped Johnson to 22nd in the running order, but the speed in his car carried him back toward the front of the field.

Gordon, an 11th-hour addition to the Chase on Friday, brought his car to pit road with a flat left rear tire after leading the field to a restart on Lap 173, but an opportune caution at the end of a pit stop cycle kept him on the lead lap late in the race.

Gordon carved his way through traffic and was battling Johnson for the fifth spot when the race ended.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Race – GEICO 400

Chicagoland Speedway

Joliet, Illinois

Sunday, September 15, 2013

 

1. (10) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 267, $334891.

2. (12) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 267, $261048.

3. (17) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 267, $221326.

4. (16) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 267, $169960.

5. (9) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 267, $176926.

6. (6) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 267, $161976.

7. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 267, $164431.

8. (5) Ricky Stenhouse Jr. #, Ford, 267, $158976.

9. (24) Clint Bowyer, Toyota, 267, $148273.

10. (20) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 267, $143123.

11. (8) Carl Edwards, Ford, 267, $142180.

12. (4) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 267, $119355.

13. (15) Aric Almirola, Ford, 267, $140891.

14. (21) Jeff Burton, Chevrolet, 267, $111180.

15. (26) Marcos Ambrose, Ford, 267, $130994.

16. (7) Greg Biffle, Ford, 267, $116030.

17. (29) Mark Martin, Chevrolet, 267, $143905.

18. (14) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 267, $132555.

19. (27) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 267, $126025.

20. (23) Danica Patrick #, Chevrolet, 267, $100180.

21. (13) AJ Allmendinger, Toyota, 267, $124438.

22. (11) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 267, $127571.

23. (41) Dave Blaney, Chevrolet, 267, $113013.

24. (37) Travis Kvapil, Toyota, 266, $118313.

25. (30) JJ Yeley, Chevrolet, 266, $96005.

26. (19) David Ragan, Ford, 266, $114388.

27. (36) Justin Allgaier(i), Chevrolet, 266, $111577.

28. (35) David Gilliland, Ford, 266, $93430.

29. (32) Landon Cassill(i), Chevrolet, 266, $90230.

30. (31) Casey Mears, Ford, 266, $101980.

31. (42) Joe Nemechek(i), Toyota, 266, $89780.

32. (3) Juan Pablo Montoya, Chevrolet, 261, $116794.

33. (22) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, Engine, 247, $109180.

34. (39) Timmy Hill #, Ford, Engine, 225, $89180.

35. (18) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, Engine, 224, $106945.

36. (33) David Reutimann, Toyota, Engine, 195, $88755.

37. (1) Joey Logano, Ford, Engine, 175, $122433.

38. (25) Brian Vickers(i), Toyota, Engine, 161, $90860.

39. (28) Cole Whitt(i), Toyota, Engine, 151, $78860.

40. (43) Tony Raines(i), Chevrolet, Vibration, 87, $74860.

41. (34) Josh Wise(i), Ford, Brakes, 84, $70860.

42. (40) Reed Sorenson(i), Ford, Vibration, 68, $66860.

43. (38) Michael McDowell, Ford, Brakes, 29, $63360.

 

Average Speed of Race Winner:  125.855 mph.

Time of Race:  3 Hrs, 10 Mins, 56 Secs. Margin of Victory:  0.749 Seconds.

Caution Flags:  9 for 46 laps.

Lead Changes:  25 among 16 drivers.

Lap Leaders:   J. Logano 1-32; L. Cassill(i) 33; J. Johnson 34-36; Kyle Busch 37; J. Johnson 38-74; M. Kenseth 75; J. Gordon 76-77; K. Harvick 78; C. Edwards 79; R. Newman 80; J. McMurray 81-82; M. Kenseth 83-112; B. Keselowski 113; M. Kenseth 114-148; A. Almirola 149; J. Yeley 150-151; J. Gordon 152-168; B. Keselowski 169; G. Biffle 170-171; Kyle Busch 172-219; K. Harvick 220; D. Earnhardt Jr. 221-222; D. Ragan 223; J. Gordon 224-226; Kyle Busch 227-244; M. Kenseth 245-267.

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led):  M. Kenseth 4 times for 89 laps; Kyle Busch 3 times for 67 laps; J. Johnson 2 times for 40 laps; J. Logano 1 time for 32 laps; J. Gordon 3 times for 22 laps; K. Harvick 2 times for 2 laps; B. Keselowski 2 times for 2 laps; J. McMurray 1 time for 2 laps; G. Biffle 1 time for 2 laps; D. Earnhardt Jr. 1 time for 2 laps; J. Yeley 1 time for 2 laps; R. Newman 1 time for 1 lap; L. Cassill(i) 1 time for 1 lap; A. Almirola 1 time for 1 lap; C. Edwards 1 time for 1 lap; D. Ragan 1 time for 1 lap.

Top 12 in Points: M. Kenseth – 2,063; Kyle Busch – 2,055; J. Johnson – 2,052; K. Harvick – 2,048; C. Edwards – 2,040; Kurt Busch – 2,040; J. Gordon – 2,039; R. Newman – 2,035; C. Bowyer – 2,035; K. Kahne – 2,032; G. Biffle – 2,032; J. Logano – 2,011.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Swindell in at Swan Racing

By Kelly Crandall – Swan Racing will have its third different driver in as many weeks as Kevin Swindell takes over the No. 30 Toyota next weekend in New Hampshire. Swindell is also scheduled to drive the following weekend at Dover.

Swindell is a four-time consecutive winner of the Chili Bowl who currently competes in the Nationwide Series. He’s run 10 races with Biagi-DenBeste Racing with a season best finish of eighth at Indianapolis. It’s also Swindell’s best career finish.

“They’re trying to find somebody full-time for next year and move some different guys in the car and decided to use me,” Swindell said on Sunday night when reached by phone. He confirmed he will drive the car the next two weeks.

Swindell has never made a Sprint Cup Series start and has just 16 career NNS starts over the past four years. He’s also competed in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and the ARCA Series, where he won last season at Chicago.

“It’s a great opportunity and just try to treat it like another day at the office,” Swindell said about making his first Cup start.

Swan Racing announced last weekend in Richmond that David Stremme, who had driven the car in all but the season opening Daytona 500, would not remain with the team. Cole Whitt was tabbed to drive at Chicagoland this weekend as well as Kansas, Charlotte, Talladega and Phoenix.

The company is expected to announce another driver to compete in the remaining season’s races.

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

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NASCAR Cup Series

Weaver: Jeff Gordon Will Contend

By Matt Weaver – The Richmond incident lit a fire under Jeff Gordon that just may propel him to a fifth Sprint Cup championship.

The most common complaint levied against his inclusion into the Chase is that he had 26 races to get the job done and failed — and that’s simply not the case.

With eight laps to go at Richmond, Gordon had indeed raced his way into a playoff spot and was legitimately wronged out of that position. Sure, you can argue that the evidence was inconclusive or that NASCAR couldn’t guarantee how the race would have played out and those opinions are somewhat valid.

I agree with some of those sentiments and wrote as much yesterday.

But agree with it or not, Gordon is in the Chase and will be a factor moving forward and it would be foolish to think otherwise.

It’s a fact that the Hendrick Motorsports veteran has not won a race this season.

But neither has Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Clint Bowyer — all perceived championship contenders.

Gordon has not set the NASCAR world on fire this season but it’s not from a lack of speed. Like his Hendrick teammates, Gordon has power, especially on the long run. It is his restarts and the short runs that have proven the most problematic this season.

For whatever reason, Gordon hasn’t adapted well in the era of double-file restarts and that may continue to work to his undoing in the Chase. In an era where passing has become more difficult than ever before, restarts have become the most important element of Sprint Cup racing.

A Chaser-leading five DNFs have also hampered his stats this season — he’s been incredibly unlucky.

His potential victories at both Bristol (spring) and Texas were negated by wacky accidents and contributed to his bubble standing for much of the year. While that’s also an argument for why he can’t contend, it also makes you wonder what could be if the bad luck is completely out of the way.

Gordon says he expects to contend at eight of the 10 Chase tracks and got his renewed Drive for Five started on a high note on Friday by qualifying sixth at Chicago.

He’s one of just three drivers to have an average finish in the single digits at Martinsville and Hendrick power could make him a player at Talladega if he avoids the Big One like he did last October when he was the runner-up to Matt Kenseth.

And don’t forget that he’s the defending winner at Homestead, site of the season finale.

If Gordon can repeat his performance from much of last year’s Chase but eliminate some of the distractions, he will definitely be a player deep into the season.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

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NASCAR Cup Series

NASCAR Penalties Set an Example

By Jerry Bonkowski JOLIET, Ill. – Faced with conclusive evidence, NASCAR did the right thing in assessing the penalties it did to Michael Waltrip Racing and several of its officials and crew chiefs. It also did the right thing by its unprecedented move to put Jeff Gordon into the Chase, making it a 13-driver field for the first time in the 10-year history of the playoffs.

But there’s one thing NASCAR forgot or overlooked: to make a scattered, fragmented Chase whole, they should have reinstated Truex into the Chase and made it a 14-car field this one time.

Why? Truex was as much of a victim in the whole MWR shenanigans as Gordon was indirectly. And if the argument passed muster to put Gordon in the Chase, it should have been the same for Truex.

From everything I’ve seen, read or heard, Truex had no knowledge of the events that took place to get him into the Chase. For lack of a better phraseology, he was simply along for the ride while others attempted to pull a fast one, even if it was to ultimately benefit Truex.

There’s no question the driver of the No. 56 NAPA Toyota drove his butt off the last few weeks to make the Chase – even having to put up with not one, but two broken bones in his hand, suffered in a crash at Bristol a few weeks ago.

The penalties against MWR, the indefinite suspension of general manager Ty Norris, the points penalty against Clint Bowyer and the probation for each of the organization’s three Cup crew chiefs all notwithstanding, Truex should not have been the fall guy for the actions of everyone else that was punished.

Ryan Newman was placed into the Chase when Truex was DQ’d. Gordon was placed into the Chase when shenanigans between Front Row Racing and Penske Racing that all but guaranteed Joey Logano made the Chase came to the fore.

So why not put Truex back in the field, where he rightfully belongs, in my opinion?

Honestly, I’m hoping Truex goes on the run of his career. I’d love nothing better than to see him do what Tony Stewart did in the 2006 Chase, winning three of the playoffs’ 10 races, even though Stewart failed to qualify for that year’s Chase.

Unfortunately, it appears that someone will have to be made an example of, and Truex is forced to play that role – even though he’s the guy who had the least amount of culpability in this whole thing.

In the whole bigger scheme of things, NASCAR officials like Chairman/CEO Brian France, President Mike Helton, Vice President Robin Pemberton and Sprint Cup Series director John Darby, to all their credit, realized they were faced with not only the biggest scandal of the 10-year history of the Chase, but one of the biggest scandals in the 65-year history of the sanctioning body.

It would have been easy for them to look the other way, to sweep it under the rug or try to minimize what was a maximum bone of contention from fans, media and even fellow drivers and crew chiefs.

But instead, France, Helton, et al, stepped forward and did the best they could in a situation where they were damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

The big key is they indeed took action. They did call out drivers and teams that deserved to be called out – and penalized them appropriately. They listened to and heeded the outrage of the fans and media.

For too long, cheating in NASCAR has been unofficially tolerated. Call it what you will – working in the gray area, pushing the envelope or “it ain’t cheatin’ if you ain’t caught” – but there is no room for outright cheating. I don’t mind a little innovation, even working in the gray area to an extent, but when a driver, crew chief or pit crew members intentionally and blatantly break the rules, there’s no place in the sport for that.

France, Helton and the rest of the sport’s top officials are all very intelligent chaps. But for too long, they’ve let drivers and teams police themselves, only to see things happen like what resulted at Richmond.

It’s no secret NASCAR has lost a large number of fans, not to mention seen dramatic drops in at-track attendance and TV viewership ratings over the last six seasons. Sure, some of the blame can be placed on the downturn in the economy in 2007, which has continued to the present, but fan disenchantment has definitely taken an obvious toll.

With what it’s done in the last week, NASCAR has made it clear that if the fans aren’t happy, NASCAR isn’t happy. So going forward, we’re likely going to see a whole new sport with a whole new sanctioning body attitude.

One thing I learned long ago, no one is above NASCAR. The late Dale Earnhardt wasn’t, five-time champ Jimmie Johnson isn’t, and even a legend like Richard Petty still isn’t.

In the most basic terms, it’s become crystal clear in recent days that that if drivers and teams don’t stick to the rules and adhere to the tenets of sportsmanship and fair play – the basic bedrock the sport was founded upon, but somehow seemed to get away from in recent years – NASCAR will make sure they do, one way or other.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Debatable Decision

By Matt Weaver – NASCAR did the right thing on Friday afternoon by including Jeff Gordon in the Chase for the Championship — but they completely went about it the wrong way.

The facts are more conclusive than NASCAR will ever admit but Gordon was wronged out of a playoff spot late at Richmond. All evidence points that Clint Bowyer spun out on purpose and that the incident triggered a chain of equal suspicious events that saw him miss the Chase.

The latest was a series of radio transmissions that indicates that Penske Racing may have colluded with Front Row Motorsports to help Joey Logano gain an additional position on the track.

In Brian France’s words, it was the “totality” of the closing laps that urged NASCAR to place Gordon into its playoff system. It would be a solid argument too if not for Monday’s initial penalties where NASCAR officials explained that they would not look at the “ripple effects” as a reason to place the four-time champion into the field.

Fair or foul, NASCAR declared that they were not going to recreate the ending of the race and assume what would have happened if the Bowyer loop had not occurred. What happened, happened. So the penalty came and went, Truex was penalized 50 points and out of the Chase, and Ryan Newman was added, while an agitated Gordon was left on the outside looking in.

It wasn’t fair but it was the best NASCAR could do within the restraints of its own boundaries without rigging the entire process. But that is exactly what happened on Friday, seemingly because fan outcry became far too much for NASCAR to shoulder.

Using the allegations against Penske and Front Row Motorsports, NASCAR was able to seize a scapegoat and give fans what they said they so desperately wanted in the first place but did it in a way that was equally unsatisfactory.

The Chase is composed of 12 drivers — the top-10 in points and two wild cards based on wins. Regardless of the circumstances, Gordon was not amongst those 12.

What NASCAR has done on Friday is the one thing executive Mike Helton stressed they were not trying to in the first place — right perceived wrongs. That’s not within NASCAR’s obligations. NASCAR has a right to protect its integrity and liberally does so through penalties, suspensions and probations.

But Friday’s actions were arguably devoid of integrity as the egregious decisions made by Michael Waltrip Racing, Penske and Front Row at Richmond. They rigged and orchestrated a playoff system just as unapologetically as the Richmond perpetrators did.

Doing it for the right reason doesn’t make it ultimately the right decision, especially after deciding that they were not going to assume the ripple effect on Monday.

The decision was a quantum shift in the league’s reaction protocol. It did not fit within its typical boundaries and had the perception of a group making it up as they go along. There’s a well-intentioned reason behind it but the perception is just as damning for the sport’s credibility as Saturday was.

It’s a slippery slope it and it needs addressing during Saturday’s special meeting.

This whole ordeal is surely unprecedented and NASCAR needs to announce that its response was not precedent setting. The Saturday meeting (or at least the off-season that follows) must provide clarity for what the expectations of the Sanctioning Body are moving forward and what the response to these misdeeds could be.

This way, inviting Jeff Gordon to the Chase can be written off as a one-time response to a special circumstance because it was the right thing to do.

It just wasn’t the right way to do it.

But outside of taking no further action — which wasn’t going over well in the first place — was there really a correct way to go about it?

The debate rages on.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Chase Driver Analysis

Popular Speed has produced a driver-by-driver guide of the 12 13 challengers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. Provide your analysis and opinion on our Facebook page and on Twitter at @PopularSpeed and @MattWeaverSBN. Staff predictions (made before the Jeff Gordon announcement) can be found here.

Matt Kenseth, No. 20 Joe Gibbs Toyota

Strengths: Like any perennial Chase driver, Matt Kenseth has thrived on the intermediate speedways this season. Four of his five victories have come on the high-baked at Las Vegas, Kansas, Darlington and Kentucky. That bodes well for his championship chances as the season includes another stop at Kansas.

Kenseth is also an ace restrictor plate racer, having dominated at Daytona and Talladega in recent seasons, despite not winning a race on those tracks this season.

Weaknesses: A champion like Kenseth doesn’t stick around as long as he has without having mastered each of the disciplines in Sprint Cup. The bane of Kenseth’s season has been mechanical reliability, having tied Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne for most DNFs amongst (the original) Chase drivers this season — three. (Gordon now eclipses them with five)

Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Strengths: Everywhere — but especially the intermediate tracks, the reason for Johnson’s dominance in recent seasons. Of Chase tracks, Johnson has especially been stout at Martinsville (seven wins), Charlotte (six wins), and Kansas (two wins).

Weaknesses: From the outset, Johnson doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses. He’s won four times this season (twice at Daytona, Martinsville and Pocono) and led the standings for most of this season before the worst stretch of his career led him to four straight finishes of 28th or worse. That is his biggest concern going into his record 10th Chase appearance — that he won’t be able to turn it around.

Kyle Busch, No. 18 Joe Gibbs Toyota

Strengths: Of Chase tracks, Busch won from the pole at Texas Motor Speedway in April and had strong runs at Martinsville and Kansas. “Shrub” is capable of winning at all 10 Chase tracks and has avoided his signature prolonged slump this season, making him one of the title favorites.

Weaknesses: Like teammate Matt Kenseth, Busch has struggled with sporadic mechanical failures this season. While not enough to hamper his ability to make the Chase, it could cost him over a 10-race playoff.

Kasey Kahne, No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Strengths: Charlotte remains his go-to track amongst Chase venues, having picked up four wins in 19 championship point-paying events. Other safe bets include any high-horsepower tracks, especially Homestead where he has four top-10s in nine starts.

Weaknesses: This is just his fourth Chase appearance. Despite hitting his personal stride with crew chief Kenny Francis, is the duo prepared to chase their first championship together after finishing fourth last season?

Carl Edwards, No. 99 Roush Fenway Ford

Strengths: With 13 top-10s and just one DNF, Carl Edwards has been Mr. Consistency this season and was the regular season “champion” after surpassing Jimmie Johnson for the spot following his victory in Richmond.

Edwards is strong at every type of track and is starting to visit victory lane with more frequency after going through a prolonged slump that saw him miss the Chase in 2012. If Edwards can recapture his 2008 pace, where he won three Chase races, this could be Edwards’ long-awaited title run.

Weaknesses: The lack of wins will cost him over the course of 10 races, just like it did in 2011 when he lost the championship due to a tiebreaker on trips to victory lane. That question may have been silenced last weekend at Richmond.

Kevin Harvick, No. 29 Richard Childress Chevrolet

Strengths: Making his seventh Chase for the Championship appearance, Kevin Harvick is battle tested, having finished third in both 2010 and 2011. He is particularly strong at Chase tracks Phoenix, Homestead and Talladega.

Weaknesses: Lame duck. Harvick doesn’t like to hear it but there’s legitimate questions surrounding Harvick with his impending departure for Stewart-Haas Racing next season. But being the only RCR driver to make the Chase will likely offset those concerns.

Greg Biffle, No. 16 Roush Fenway Ford

Strengths: The Biff has a combined 10 wins at five of the 10 Chase tracks over the course of his career. Of those, he’s particularly strong at Homestead (3 wins), Texas (2), Dover (2) and Kansas (2). He has a strong track record of increasing his performance in the Chase having finished second in 2005 and fifth most recently in 2012.

Weaknesses: Biffle has endured a lengthy cold spell this season. Outside of his Michigan breakthrough, Biffle has been a consistent 15th place finisher. He made the Chase based on his consistency — 0 DNFs and has only three top-5s and 10 top-10s.

Clint Bowyer, No. 15 Michael Waltrip Toyota

Strengths: Amongst Chase tracks, Clint Bowyer has been both consistent and stout at New Hampshire and Talladega (two wins a piece). Toss in his pinpoint consistency from 2013 and Bowyer should be a solid threat to win the championship this year except…

Weaknesses: Spingate. Veteran drivers were not happy with what appeared to be an intentional spin at Richmond in order to help Martin Truex Jr. make the Chase. Bowyer might have a more difficult time in traffic than he has all season and he’s still winless through 2013 — not recipes for winning a championship.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Strengths: Perhaps the most consistent season of his Hendrick tenure, Dale Earnhardt Jr. appears long past the phase of his career where making the Chase is a big question mark.

This is his third straight appearance in the playoffs and he may be poised to make his first legitimate title run since 2004. Earnhardt has won at five of the 10 Chase tracks but all of that success came while driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Weaknesses: NASCAR’s most popular driver just isn’t winning right now. That’s it. He and crew chief Steve Letarte have found good chemistry and consistency but they need to start winning. And his starved fan base probably can’t think of a better time than the 2013 Chase.

Kurt Busch, No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet

Strengths: Making the Chase with one-car operation Furniture Row Racing might have been the result of Busch’s career-best drive.

Sure, Furniture Row has Childress backing but they’ve had it in years past without Busch. The 2004 champion made them a weekly contender and it did on largely on his qualifying efforts. His six front row starts made it easier to maintain track position and that’s exactly what the 78 team did.

With RCR only qualifying one team (Harvick) into the Chase, don’t be surprised if Furniture Row receives additional support as we get deeper into the playoffs.

Weaknesses: The Furniture Row equipment can only go saw far and Busch still hasn’t been able to park it in victory lane.

Ryan Newman, No. 39 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet

Strengths: Someone had to make the final Chase spot. Both he and wild card rival Martin Truex Jr. were largely statistically interchangeable. The 2008 Daytona 500 winner has three wins each at Chase tracks Dover and New Hampshire but is marginal everywhere else.

Weaknesses: He has an average finish of 16.1 this season. Newman also didn’t do himself any favors at Richmond in throwing his pit crew under the bus when he believed he had not made the Chase before the MWR penalties.

Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Strengths: Jeff Gordon is a four-time Sprint Cup champion. He’s won at every track except Kentucky and has shown speed that isn’t indicative of his results this season. He’s the defending winner at Homestead and has had recent success at Chicagoland and Phoenix. He’s one of only three drivers to have a single-digit average finish at Martinsville Speedway.

Weaknesses: Jeff Gordon has struggled to finish races this season. He has 5 DNFs (which leads the updated Chase field) and has no consistency from week-to-week. Gordon always seems to find himself in the middle of the Big One at Talladega and Charlotte has proven to be a challenge in recent seasons for the No. 24 team.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

NASCAR Adds Gordon as 13th Chaser

Following a week of uncertainty, NASCAR has put all the controversies to rest and the Chase field is finally set.

After being alerted to questionable radio communication between Joey Logano’s No. 22 Penske Racing team and David Gilliland’s No. 38 Front Row Motorsports team, NASCAR has placed both teams on NASCAR probation until Dec. 31 for violating Section 12-1 (Actions detrimental to stock car racing).

Additionally and perhaps the larger part of the story, due to what Brian France called an “unfair disadvantage” a 13th car has been added to the Chase. Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet makes the Chase and puts all four of the Hendrick Motorsports cars into the playoffs.
“Based on all of our findings this week, we determined both Front Row Motorsports and Penske Racing organizations would be placed on probation for the remainder of this season,” said Brian France, NASCAR Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. “Additionally, based upon the totality of our findings, to be totally fair and equitable we decided that adding a 13th car to this year’s Chase is the appropriate action.
“Beginning with our decision Monday, which resulted in an unprecedented team penalty, and continuing with further examination of actions involving two other race teams, it is clear to us that attempts to manipulate the results impacted the Chase field.
“The integrity of our sport remains the cornerstone of NASCAR, and our actions this week speak to our commitment to ensure a level playing field for all competitors.”
Additionally, NASCAR has called for a mandatory meeting with drivers, owners, crew chiefs and other team personnel tomorrow to address this issue moving forward.
Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Staff Weigh-in on Chase Propositions

Predictions are fun.

They’re fun not because those who make them are often correct — but because they have the chance to be. The Chase for the Championship often plays out like a lottery, making it hard to predict but the staff of Popular Speed gave it their best shot this week and our predictions can be found below.

We tackled everything from the final running order to number of wins it will take to win the Sprint Cup championship. Read our predictions and tell us what we got right or wrong on our Facebook page and on Twitter @PopularSpeed before making a few picks of your own.

We’re going to repost these in November after Homestead. Will it prove us to be brilliant prognosticators or abject fools?

Let us know!

How many races will be won by non-Chasers?

Mike Calinoff – 3

Amanda Ebersole – 4

Jerry Bonkowski – 2

Matt Weaver – 2

Kelly Crandall – 1

Vito Pugliese – 3

Unique Hiram – 3

How many drivers will be mathematically eligible entering Homestead?

Mike – 5

Amanda – 3

Jerry – 4

Matt – 3

Kelly – 3

Vito – 3

Unique – 3

How many points will the champion win by?

Mike – 9

Amanda – 9

Jerry – 27

Matt – 8

Kelly – 10

Vito – 11

Unique – 5

How many races will the champion win during the Chase itself?

Mike – 2

Amanda – 2

Jerry – 3

Matt – 3

Kelly – 2

Vito – 4

Unique – 3

How many DNFs will the champion ultimately have during the final 10 races?

Mike – 0

Amanda – 0

Jerry – 0

Matt – 1

Kelly – 1

Vito – 0

Unique – 0

What is the most important race in the Chase?

Mike – Chicago (Critical to get off to good start, make statement)

Amanda – Talladega (Takes a smart plan, dumb luck to survive inevitable carnage)

Jerry – Texas (Will come down to final four contenders)

Matt – Talladega (Survive the Big One)

Kelly – Martinsville (Crunch time in Chase and could get crunched on the paperclip)

Vito– Martinsville (True contenders don’t fail here)

Unique – Talladega (It’s a chess game and one wrong move can change the face of the Chase)

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