Last two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions have won opening race of Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup
JOLIET, Ill – Today they are scheduled to race. Finally.
Innuendo and investigations hopefully silenced by the familiar roar of engines.
It’s race No. 1 of 10, the first stop of a season-ending run that will see the series crisscross the country, compete on its largest track (2.66-mile Talladega) as well as it’s smallest (0.526-mile Martinsville), eventually to wind up some 1,200 miles from here in Homestead, Fla., where a champion will be crowned.
But today they race.
This will be the third consecutive year that Chicagoland, a 1.5-mile track located southwest of the Windy City, has hosted the opening Chase race.
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In the seven years prior to that, New Hampshire Motor Speedway served as the host venue and six different drivers kicked off the Chase with a victory. Only one – Kurt Busch in 2004 – managed to forge a championship trophy out of that early success.
Penske Racing teammates Joey Logano and Keselowski will line up 1-2 at Chicagoland, but this time it’s the 23-year-old Logano who has his eyes on the title. Keselowski, his time at the top winding down, appeared Chase worthy until devastating finishes in his last three outings painted his No. 2 Ford out of the playoff picture.
That five of the Chase stops, including this weekend’s, are contested on somewhat similar 1.5-mile tracks plays to his own team’s strength, according to Logano.
“The shorter tracks have been a little bit tougher for us,” he said. “So we know these races. We really have to capitalize; the other ones, we have to be under damage control and try to get our cars as fast as we can at them.”
Tied for sixth in points, Logano is one of a dozen in this year’s field of 13 that find themselves trailing leader Matt Kenseth having yet to turn the first lap.
Kenseth’s honeymoon with Joe Gibbs Racing has now stretched into the postseason, with the 2003 champion seeded No. 1 and enjoying a three-point advantage over second-place Jimmie Johnson. Kenseth joined JGR prior to 2013, and his five victories this season equal a career-best. To say that he and crew chief Jason Ratcliff have meshed would be an understatement.
The winner of this year’s first Chase race isn’t guaranteed a smooth path to the title, though, only a smooth start. Statistics, after all, aren’t guarantees.
“I used to just laugh at all you guys with your stats but I am starting to figure out that some of them work,” admitted Carl Edwards, the series’ most recent winner and tied for fourth in points as the Chase begins. “If I can lean on a stat I will. … There is some basic math involved. If (you) start well, you don’t want to give up any points ever throughout these 10 races. If you think of it that way, the perfect 10 races would be whatever it is, 48 points a race; the closer you can be to that every event the better.”
Chicagoland, he said, provides “a real measure of how the field will stack up.
“It is a track where you can do well on your own merit and you can pass here,” he said. “You aren’t going to get mired back because of a bad pit stop like you might at other places. It is a fast race track and it showcases what we do. We go fast and it is two or three-wide racing. It is a good venue for us.”
Edwards and his No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing team have rebounded nicely from a 2012 season that saw him finish 15th in points, just a year after battling Stewart down to the wire for the title.
Stewart, similar to Keselowski, won’t be chasing this year’s title down the stretch. The three-time champion and co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing is sidelined until 2014, the result of a broken right leg suffered in a sprint car accident earlier this year. Likewise, 2012 participants Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. didn’t make a return appearance.
It is the 10th consecutive year that Johnson has shown up in the postseason, a mark unmatched since the format’s debut in ’04. He’s won half of them. Talk about your statistics.
But the Hendrick Motorsports team has been hobbled in recent weeks, with Johnson fairing no better than 28th in his previous four starts.
Where others might see concern, Johnson only sees opportunity.
“We all know that the last four or five weeks have been awfully hard on the 48 team,” Johnson said, “but when I look at Bristol, Richmond, you can look at our stats in general, those aren’t strong tracks for us, so I don’t read too much into those (results). …
“With the Chase having five mile-and-a-half style race tracks in it, I look at the speed that we’ve been able to have, even though the finishes aren’t there, and feel very comfortable about where we are.”
Only once has Johnson begun the Chase as the top seed (2007), and his remaining four titles came after starting no further back in the field than third.
Typically, it’s a time when Johnson, 37, and his team shine. Twenty-two of his 64 career wins have come in Chase races.
Recent results might suggest otherwise, but few expect the No. 48 team to be off its game today, or for the next 10 weeks, for that matter.
“I would love to have more momentum … coming into the Chase, no doubt, but we don’t,” he said. “I think we’re a strong enough team where that won’t prevent us, won’t hamper us from winning a championship.”