Mash The Gas: Start The Chase At Chicagoland

The Chase Playoff field is set (as of the writing of this article) and not without controversy as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the Chicagoland Speedway for the GEICO 400. A strong start to the Chase is key to winning the championship as with only ten races remaining there is little room for mistakes.

The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup consists of ten races starting this weekend at the Chicagoland Speedway and ending November 17th at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. The top ten drivers in the point standings following last weekend’s race at Richmond and two wild card drivers are eligible to win the 2013 championship. The driver standings have been reordered with all Chase participants receiving 2000 points plus three bonus points per win for the drivers that were in the top ten.

The GEICO 400 and the 2013 Chase will see the green flag fly on Sunday, September 15th at 2:15 EDT. The race at the Chicagoland Speedway is scheduled for 267 laps on the mile and a half “D” shaped oval.

The drivers to watch at this race are the Chase drivers and here are our thoughts on the Chase chances for each.

Matt Kenseth
Dan Margetta: This is Matt Kenseth’s best shot to win the title since his championship season in 2003 under the old point system. While the #20 team led the regular season in victories, they have also shown a remarkable ability to turn their bad days into respectable points finishes. In years past, through bad luck, mechanical issues, or conflicts with other drivers, there was always one lone issue that would derail Kenseth’s title hopes. That could change this year as the #20 team is plenty capable of rattling off ten strong races and Kenseth is definitely one of the favorites to win it all.

Jimmie Johnson
John Wiedemann: Which #48 team heads into Chicagoland? Is this the team that dominated past Chase seasons? Or is this the team that was beaten in the Chase last year by Brad Keselowski? Is this the team that has finished 28th or worse the last four races? If the #48 team can flip the switch and return to the dominant team that held the top position in the points for most of the season, then the rest of the field should be worried. If another “bad luck” incident befalls Jimmie Johnson this weekend, then it may be too much this team. Johnson does have seven top tens, four top fives and one win in the results from the last time he raced at each of the tracks in the Chase. Starting out with a ten plus point advantage over half the Chase field will help, but there are too many questions to be answered to make a prediction. My prediction, they will “flip the switch” and Johnson will battle Kenseth and Kyle Busch for the championship.

Kyle Busch
DM: Much like the 2005 “milk and cookies” meeting between Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson elevated the #48 team to legendary status, Kyle Busch and the #18 team’s breaking point moment came with missing the Chase last year after a wrong pit call. Instead of imploding this team was the best on the circuit over the final ten races of 2012. Now they’re back in the title hunt with a very strong chance of being champions. It will take an effort equal to last year’s season ending run and as the pressure rises they have to stay focused to eliminate self-inflicted mistakes. I think they can do it and I still stand by my pre-season prediction that Kyle Busch is the 2013 Sprint Cup Champion.

Kevin Harvick
JW: I predicted in the pre-season that Kevin Harvick would not be in the Chase. So, I was wrong about that. With two wins and three top eleven finishes in the last four races, Harvick enters the Chase strong. Looking at the races in the Chase, Harvick runs well at all of them. Even though he is a lame duck driver at Richard Childress Racing, he is their only hope. Harvick has two wins at Chicagoland and a fast start will be telling for this team. The Chase is no place for a “Closer”, start strong and finish strong.

Carl Edwards
DM: Carl Edwards is the top sleeper in the Chase. After spending most of the season under everyone’s radar with uneventful but consistent runs, this team has showed some strength over the last three weeks culminating in the Richmond win. It also appears Carl and crew chief Jimmy Fenning are finally starting to speak the same language which could prove to be dangerous to the competition in the Chase. The last time Carl was here, he lost the title on a tie-breaker and that experience provides plenty of incentive to win it all in 2013.

Joey Logano
JW: Will Joey Logano be in the Chase when this weekend rolls around? Amongst all the spinning, pitting and other ploys to get teammates in the Chase, Logano’s team is accused of working with another driver to pick up a position which allowed him to make the Chase. Whatever happens, Logano is in the Chase now and could really make some news. Logano has improved each and every race with his new Team Penske Ford and had a streak of six top ten runs including a win leading up to last weekend’s race at Richmond. Starting near the front is important and Logano has been doing just that with a tenth starting position average in the last ten races. Will Logano be a factor in the Chase? I believe he could make a run but will finish in the top five at the end of the season.

Greg Biffle
DM: Greg Biffle is quietly back in the Chase after putting together a string of solid runs in the last few weeks. The team has one win this season at Michigan but I’m not sure they have shown enough strength to be considered as title contenders. They’ll need to step up their game over the next ten races and show they can run consistently with the Gibbs and Hendrick cars.

Ryan Newman
JW: Somewhat lost in the controversy of Richmond is the run that Ryan Newman had to take the lead away from Carl Edwards. Also lost is the fact that the pit crew let him down when Newman came in leading and left in fifth for the final restart. Newman has been hit and miss all season and the lack of consistency will hurt him in the Chase.

Clint Bowyer
DM: Prior to Richmond, Clint Bowyer was a “racer” with a strong chance to become champion this year. After his Richmond spin out shenanigans, Bowyer has a long way to go to earn that moniker again. Pretty much everyone in the garage and grandstands are mad at this team and that’s a major distraction that’s very hard to overcome. Don’t expect Jeff Gordon to cut Bowyer any slack over the final ten races and keep an eye out for increased technical scrutiny from NASCAR. Bottom line: Clint Bowyer as the Sprint Cup Champion would be a major long shot and upset.

Kurt Busch
JW: What a season for Kurt Busch and what a change from the last two seasons. Two years ago, Busch’s season imploded at Team Penske. Last year Busch showed what he could do with the Furniture Row ride with three consecutive top ten finishes in the final races of the season. This season has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride but it has culminated in Busch putting a single car team into the Chase. Busch still does not have a win this season and only has two top ten finishes in his most recent races at the tracks coming up on the schedule. No one should ignore this driver and team though. If they can eliminate the crew mistakes and mechanical issues that derailed them this season, Busch can put them in contention each and every week.

Kasey Kahne
DM: Kasey Kahne and the #5 team have teased us all season by running fast but not closing the deal. Yes, they have two wins but they have also thrown away at least four more (Coca-Cola 600 and the three second place finishes to Matt Kenseth come to mind). If they come out of the box with a win in the first three weeks of the Chase, they could be a force to reckon with for the championship. Otherwise it’s just more of the same and second place is the first loser.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
JW: Dale Earnhardt Jr. did what he needed to do to make the Chase, but nothing more. The #88 team has been quiet this season with an average finish of 14.2 so far, but there hasn’t been much flash with only five top ten finishes and no wins. It would take a bigger switch than teammate Jimmie Johnson needs for Earnhardt to be in contention for the championship. Starting fifteen points behind current standings leader Matt Kenseth, the ground is too much to make up for a driver averaging a top fifteen finish.

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