Ten-round title fight: one race at a time
September 07, 2013, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
As summer slowly turns to fall, so turns the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series into its home stretch.
Twelve championship-eligible drivers. Ten tracks. Ten races. By the time the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason comes to a close at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the numbers will boil down to one champion.
A glance at the 10 events that will settle the 2013 championship fight in the 10th annual Chase:
The race: Geico 400, Chicagoland Speedway, Sept. 15 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The lowdown: The 1.5-mile track in Joliet, Ill., will be without one of its historically best drivers -- Tony Stewart -- when the green flag falls on this edition of the Chase. Stewart has won three times there, with future Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick next on the track's win list with two victories. Starting up front isn't vastly important at Chicagoland -- only four times in the 12 races the track has hosted has the winning driver started in the first five rows. Oddly enough, a Ford has yet to break through for a Sprint Cup victory at Chicagoland, which joined the Chase rotation in 2011.
The race: Sylvania 300, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Sept. 22 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The lowdown: Kurt Busch used the 1.058-mile track in Loudon, N.H., as a launching pad to win the first Chase back in 2004. Since then, the tight, flat circuit has been a New England proving ground for potential champions. Jimmie Johnson has the best average finish among Chase-eligible drivers at 9.4; only Denny Hamlin's 8.8 average placing outranks him. Johnson, Busch, Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman are all three-time winners at the Magic Mile.
The race: AAA 400, Dover International Speedway, Sept. 29 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The lowdown: On the surface, going from one one-mile track to another might not seem like a drastic change, but the Monster Mile at Dover is a different animal. The steeply banked concrete track has the potential for disaster with its narrow, bowl-like layout. Among Chase drivers, Carl Edwards has been the most consistent at Dover with an admirable average finish of 8.6, but Jimmie Johnson has been the most prolific in Victory Lane with seven wins, tying NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Bobby Allison atop the track’s all-time list. In three of the last four years, the Dover winner has gone on to win the Sprint Cup championship.
The race: Hollywood Casino 400, Kansas Speedway, Oct. 6 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The lowdown: With 15 Sprint Cup races under its belt, the 1.5-mile Kansas City track possesses a modest stock-car racing history. But for teams, their notes on performing well at Kansas only go back one year. A repaving and overhaul before last season’s Chase race in the heartland increased the track’s banking, and with it, qualifying speeds rose dramatically to over 190 mph. The track’s changes have seemed to suit title contender Matt Kenseth best -- he’s won both races since the reconfiguration, one in a Roush Fenway Racing Ford and one with his current Toyota team of Joe Gibbs Racing.
The race: Bank of America 500, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Oct. 12 (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
The lowdown: The shorter of Charlotte’s two annual races may not have the endurance factor of the Coca-Cola 600, but it’s no less a test of a contender’s mettle. Joey Logano may not have a victory on the 1.5-mile track in the backyard of most NASCAR teams, but his average finish of 9.6 speaks to his consistency. The three drivers next in line in average finish -- all at 11.9 -- are six-time winner Jimmie Johnson, four-time winner Kasey Kahne and yet-to-win Carl Edwards. Clint Bowyer’s convincing victory in this race last season helped establish his credentials on the way to a runner-up finish in the standings.
The race: Camping World RV Sales 500, Talladega Superspeedway, Oct. 20 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The lowdown: The majestic 2.66-mile Talladega track can make or break championship hopes, turning the lone race in the Chase where engines are restricted into a matter of survival. Case in point: Matt Kenseth prevailed in this event last season, watching a 25-car pileup full of title hopefuls erupt in his rear-view mirror on the way to the checkered flag. Talladega has a long history of producing surprise winners, most recently doing so in May with David Ragan, but Jimmie Johnson has ruled restrictor-plate racing this season by sweeping Daytona and notching a fifth-place run in Talladega’s other event.
The race: Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500, Martinsville Speedway, Oct. 27 (1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The lowdown: The oldest and shortest track on the schedule has been a tricky road for drivers in NASCAR’s premier series since the inaugural 1949 season. In 129 races, 47 drivers have taken the checkered flag. More recently, two drivers have dominated the .526-mile track with Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin combining to win all but three of the last 14 Martinsville races. Only Johnson, Hamlin and Jeff Gordon have average finishes in the single digits at the paper-clip-shaped circuit, and Johnson enters the event with a two-race win streak in the Virginia hills. No matter who prevails, Martinsville has a habit of thinning the championship field.
The race: AAA Texas 500, Texas Motor Speedway, Nov. 3 (3 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The lowdown: The Lone Star State’s long association with doing things on a bigger scale carries over to the Chase, with pressure reaching great heights. The fast 1.5-mile circuit lives up to the billing. Title contender Kyle Busch won the most recent race at the Fort Worth track in April, and later scored on the similar intermediate-size track at Atlanta. Fellow Chase drivers Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson are two-time winners at Texas, but they rank behind Carl Edwards, a three-time winner.
The race: AdvoCare 500, Phoenix International Raceway, Nov. 10 (3 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The lowdown: As an oasis for motorsports in the desert, Phoenix has historically eliminated would-be contenders and set the table for the Chase finale. Last season, Jimmie Johnson -- a four-time Phoenix winner -- met his undoing in his pursuit of eventual champion Brad Keselowski on the flat, one-mile track with a hard broadside of the outside wall. But that race is less remembered for that or Kevin Harvick’s victory than for Clint Bowyer’s off-track face-off with Jeff Gordon after their on-track confrontation. With 312 laps of close-quarters fighting for track position, similar fireworks could ensue this season.
The race: Ford EcoBoost 400, Homestead-Miami Speedway, Nov. 17 (3 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The lowdown: The 1.5-mile speedway in southern Florida has hosted the season finale each year since 2002. One year later, the track added steeper, progressive banking and installed lights in 2005, setting up the late-afternoon into evening climax of the Sprint Cup season. As is fitting for Ford Championship Weekend, two longtime blue oval drivers stand out among the historically solid favorites -- three-time winner Greg Biffle and two-time victor Carl Edwards. Tony Stewart is the only other driver with more than one Homestead win, with the most recent his spirited, championship-clinching effort over Edwards in 2011.