News & Media

Happy Hour: Speeds may offer clues, but no answers for race

September 16, 2011, Joe Menzer,

JOLIET, Ill. -- Kenseth fastest among Chasers in Chicago Happy Hour; Busch 44th overall

For the first time in the eight-year history of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Chicagoland Speedway will play host to the Chase's first race on Sunday.

Driver Denny Hamlin said he believes the switch to the 1.5-mile track will offer quicker clues to which of the 12 drivers are going to be the most competitive in the 10-race Chase that determines the Sprint Cup champion. But he added that it will offer only clues -- not definitive answers.


Happy Hour Speeds
2.K. Kahne184.08729.334
3.M. Kenseth183.53629.422
4.P. Menard183.37429.448
5.K. Harvick183.33129.455

"Being a 1.5-mile track, you're going to come away with a good idea of where guys are lining up for the other bigger race tracks in the Chase," said Hamlin, noting that there are four other 1.5-mile venues to be visited during NASCAR's postseason party. "The way we used to start the Chase, you never really until the center part of it who had the speed to win it. So I think now you'll have a better idea of that earlier.

"But at the same time, no one can draw conclusions off one race anywhere. Just because one guy goes out and has a so-so race or another guy wins at Chicagoland, that doesn't mean that's the way it's going to be for them for the rest of the Chase."

With that in mind, it was debatable how much the speeds in Friday's final Sprint Cup practice actually will mean once the Geico 400 gets underway Sunday shortly after 2 p.m. ET.

The top speeds posted by the Chasers belonged to Matt Kenseth (183.536 mph, third overall), Kevin Harvick (183.331 mph, fifth overall), Jeff Gordon (182.852 mph, sixth overall), Jimmie Johnson (182.809 mph, eighth overall), Carl Edwards (182.723 mph, 10th overall) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (182.235 mph, 11th overall).

Non-chasers Brian Vickers (184.275 mph) and Kasey Kahne (184.067 mph), teammates at Red Bull Racing, were fastest overall while another non-Chaser, Paul Menard (183.374 mph), also was in the top five at fourth overall.

Five-time defending champion Johnson said the overall speeds were up because of cool temperatures Friday, but wondered if everything might change come Sunday. Friday's temperatures never reached above 55 degrees during final practice, but a high of 72 is predicted for during Sunday afternoon's race.

"When I saw the schedule last year when it was released, I felt comfortable about this track being moved into the Chase. It's obviously much different than what we've experienced over the last four or five months with the temperatures," Johnson said. "There is a lot of grip on the track. I'm not sure how it's going to play into our efforts Saturday for qualifying, but [Friday's practices] hopefully were a good chance for us to get a feel for the race."

"This Chase is like poker. It's not like just playing the cards you've got. You're playing against everybody else at the table."


Perhaps as significant as who was at the top of the speed chart was who wasn't. Among those who struggled: the Stewart-Haas Racing cars of Ryan Newman (179.241 mph, 36th-fastest overall and 10th of the 12 Chasers) and Tony Stewart (179.093 mph, 38th overall and 11th amongst the Chasers).

The only Chaser slower than them in Happy Hour was top seed Kyle Busch, who was 44th overall with a fast lap of 178.802 mph that was, by Chicagoland standards on Friday, very slow. But Busch was quick in the earlier practice, finishing fourth-fastest, so it wasn't that much of a concern for him.

For Stewart, on the other hand, it appears to be a continuation of a winless season he has found mostly frustrating.

"For sure this is the least amount of confidence we've had going into [a Chase]," Stewart said. "But at the same time, you look at it and go, 'Well, we're not expected to do anything with the way we ran this year, so anything we got out of it is going to be a bonus.'

"It doesn't mean we're out of it by any means. We've had two really good weeks in a row and we've got two tracks in a row coming up here that are good for us."

Stewart also warned not to make too much of whatever happens in this first race in the Chase.

"It's easy to sit here and say it's important to get off to a good start," he said. "But you don't know what's going to happen for 10 weeks. Week 1 and Week 10 have the same importance.

"This Chase is like poker. It's not like just playing the cards you've got. You're playing against everybody else at the table. If the best Chase guy runs 15th and everybody else runs worse than that, then it's not so important to run well in this first race. But you pretty much know that's not going to be the case -- and that you're going to have to have 10 pretty good weeks to get this done."