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Track Smack: How pivotal is opening race to Chase contenders?

September 13, 2012, ,

Also: Is Hamlin title favorite and will Sadler or Stenhouse nab Nationwide crown?

1. The Chase opens Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. To the title contenders, how pivotal is this first race?

Mark Aumann: I think the adage, "You can't win the race on the first lap but you can sure lose it" is entirely appropriate here. We've seen championships get away with poor finishes in the first race of the Chase. Kyle Busch immediately comes to mind there with his issues at New Hampshire in 2008.

Jarrod Breeze: Ask Tony Stewart that question. I think with how the points are counted now -- as they were last year -- it is imperative to get off to a good start. Of course, it's also not how you start but how you finish. Stewart did pretty well in both categories last year. But really, it doesn't matter if it's the first race, the last race or any of the other eight in between, it will be difficult for any driver to have a disastrous result and win the title.

David Caraviello: Mark, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said exactly that last weekend at Richmond, and he's exactly right. I think the emphasis here is just on turning in a solid effort that doesn't put you in a hole. Regardless of Tony Stewart's victory last year, Chicago is more about getting off to a good start than it is posting a win and stamping yourself as a favorite. We've seen guys forced to play catch-up all Chase because of something that happens in the first race. The goal Sunday -- get a good finish and move on.

Jarrod Breeze: Jimmie Johnson got off to a poor start in his first Chase-winning season in 2006, but finished with a flourish. He was the definitive closer during his five-year title reign, just as Stewart was last year. Remember, Greg Biffle won the first two races in the 2008 Chase and didn't even lead the points after that second race. He finished a distant -- some 200 points off the lead -- third that season. But again, let's keep in mind that was a different point system.

Mark Aumann: It's funny -- the prevailing train of thought has always been that you could have one bad race and still win the Chase with nine good ones. Tony Stewart pretty much did that, coming back from the 25th-place finish at Dover. But he won five of the 10 races, too. And David, you're absolutely right. The key to the Chase -- just like the 26 races leading up to it -- is to take calculated risks with the idea of getting consistently good finishes ... and going for wins if the opportunity presents itself. You can't afford many missteps here.

Jarrod Breeze: You don't want to finish worse than 25th, though. If Stewart would have finished 26th in that Dover race last season, Carl Edwards would be the reigning champion -- and not defending his title in this year's Chase.

Mark Aumann: And JB, if Tony doesn't get all those wins, he's just watching Edwards run off with the trophy.

David Caraviello: Now, I'm going to throw a massive caveat into all this -- winning the first race doesn't guarantee you anything in terms of a title, but it does seem to help keep you in the running almost to the very end. I remember 2007, and Clint Bowyer dominating the Chase opening at Loudon, and that momentum keeping him into the thick of the championship race until only a few weeks remained. A win in the Chase opener was pivotal in Mark Martin's runner-up finish in 2009. Greg Biffle kept himself in it by winning the first two Chase races in 2008. And had Bowyer not suffered that penalty after winning the 2010 Chase opener at Loudon, he might have been in it at Homestead.

Mark Aumann: Oh, yeah. Winning at Chicagoland will be a nice way to kick off the Chase, but it won't mean squat if that guy falls on his face at New Hampshire. Like trying to scramble out of a 10-foot hole with a nine-foot ladder. To me, it's like a round of golf. You hate to have to take your mulligan on the first tee, because it seems like the rest of the day is just trying to find your swing. OK, when you're an 18-handicapper, it doesn't really matter because you know you're losing golf balls anyway.

Chase Seedings

2. Jimmie Johnson 2,009
3. Tony Stewart 2,009
4. Brad Keselowski 2,009
5. Greg Biffle 2,006
6. Clint Bowyer 2,006
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2,003
8. Matt Kenseth 2,003
9. Kevin Harvick 2,000
10. Martin Truex Jr. 2,000
11. Kasey Kahne 2,000
12. Jeff Gordon 2,000

Jarrod Breeze: No doubt, David, that a successful first race is much better than the alternative. It's hard to dig out of that first-race hole. Many times, the more you dig, the deeper you get.

David Caraviello: Tony is kind of the exception with what he did last year, that win at the Chase opener at Chicago fueling a run to the championship. Of course, he kind of proved himself the exception during the whole duration of the playoff, which is another matter. But even after that, he went through a trough. Remember, he didn't effectively fire Darian Grubb until around Charlotte, midway through the Chase, which shows even the winner of that first race can deal with tough times later on. Tony weathered them and rebounded. Not everyone can.

Jarrod Breeze: Exactly. Stewart had a really good start to the Chase, and he had a great end to it. And it's those drivers to can close the deal -- i.e., Johnson and Stewart -- who win the title. Just ask Denny Hamlin. Well, maybe you shouldn't.

David Caraviello: That's the thing. There's such a pressure to be exceptional 10 weeks in a row, or pretty darn close to it. As big as race wins are in the Chase -- boy, did Stewart show that last year -- there's still a tendency to get conservative sometimes and point race, and just avoid the big blow-up. Somebody starts winning, that changes the whole ballgame.

Mark Aumann: I think in Jimmie Johnson's five championships, he only was "exceptional" the entire 10 races once, maybe twice. The others were just overcoming one or two bad races. And honestly, you have to have a little bit of bad luck happen to the competition.

Jarrod Breeze: Of course, we've only had three champions during the Chase era, the past seven by two drivers. But in most of those Chases, the champ won out, literally. This year will probably be no different. Whoever wins the most races during these next 10 weeks will probably be the one hoisting that trophy at Homestead.

David Caraviello: Now, now, JB. Denny actually had a good start to that 2010 Chase, finishing second behind Bowyer in New Hampshire. He backed it up with a top-10 the next week at Dover, too. He didn't have a bad Chase that year -- he had one bad race in it, and it let the championship slip away from him. I'm sure those memories are fresh in his mind as he starts this year as the top seed, but that's another topic for later in this Track Smack.

Jarrod Breeze: Exactly my point, David. A good start but a lousy finish. You have to be able to seal the deal or good starts are wasted.

David Caraviello: You need ... a closer! Where is Kevin Harvick? Or Kyra Sedgwick?

Mark Aumann: I'll amend JB's thought by saying whoever wins the most races -- and doesn't blow up in the others -- will win the Chase. Wins are good, but bad finishes are way worse.

Jarrod Breeze: I'll go along with that, Mark. I'll give a guy one 25th-place result, but if he finishes 26th in any one race, well, scratch him off the list.

Mark Aumann: Sounds good. Jarrod's Rule of 26. The new math, NASCAR style!

2. Denny Hamlin has the top seed. Jimmie Johnson has five championships. Which driver is the real favorite entering the playoff?

Jarrod Breeze: Really?

Mark Aumann: Based on his past performance, Johnson's got to be considered the favorite every year. However, Hamlin's still smarting from 2010, when he felt he gave it away at Phoenix. He claims he learned from that experience -- and I'll be interested to see if that's the case this fall. But if you look at the total points from the past 10 races, the thing that might surprise you a bit is that Brad Keselowski has scored the most points since Kentucky. And Jeff Gordon has the second-most over that span.

David Caraviello: Yikes. Do I have to make a call on this right now? Because I'm torn. I completely buy into Jimmie Johnson's ability to Jedi mind meld the rest of the field, given his history and his potential in this thing every season. He wins a race or two, I think he puts a mental lock on the rest of the field that can be tough to shake. But until that happens ... you have to go with Hamlin, don't you? There's no hotter driver right now in NASCAR, he's carrying momentum from a great finish to the regular season, and I think he has a chip on his shoulder wanting to prove he can do this. I like that combination, assuming he doesn't go to Joliet and have everything go wrong.

Jarrod Breeze: I've been wrong about Denny Hamlin before -- I predicted him to miss the Chase , I think, in the year he "lost" the Chase -- but I've got to go with the guy who's done it before. I don't necessarily believe Denny will have any lingering effects from the 2010 debacle -- he got those out of the way in a forgettable 2011 -- but if you want me to choose between the two of them, I've got five reasons why I go with Johnson at this point.

Who will win?

The Chase for the Sprint Cup? This week's race? Check out the up-to-date predictions.

Mark Aumann: Johnson is coming into the Chase on a decidedly down note, but I question whether that's a huge factor in all this. In racing, momentum is only as good as your next set of tires. To David's point, the "mental game" is very real. And Jimmie (and Chad Knaus) may be the best in the business at playing it well. I think the 48 gets in the heads of all the other drivers and crew chiefs, and decisions get made in the heat of battle that might not be the best in the long run, just because they're trying to outthink Johnson and Knaus.

David Caraviello: Mark, I don't disagree -- but they're just not running as well right now as they were earlier in the summer. The top seed and more bonus points were there for the taking, and they left them on the table. They've suffered some DNFs in recent races. Jimmie still hasn't won since Indy, despite how good his cars have been. Now, if anyone can look past all that and wipe the slate clean, it's Johnson. Heck, Hamlin had back-to-back DNFs in the summer and look how he regrouped. I'm not a believer in teams being able to flip the switch -- you have what you have, for the most part -- but it's more a matter of figuring out which is the real No. 48 team: the one from June and July, or the one now?

Mark Aumann: It's the team that best stays focused on what they can do, rather than what they cannot control -- basically everything the competition is doing -- that will be there at Homestead. And that's really hard to do when you're sitting behind the wheel or on the pit box, and glancing at the scoreboard to see where the 48 is running.

Jarrod Breeze: Well, David, in years past Chase time has been Jimmie time. Let's see how the first couple of races shake out, and maybe his recent pedestrian-to-futile performances will prove to be more than a stretch of bad luck.

Mark Aumann: If we learned anything from 2011, it's that Johnson and Knaus are not infallible. But it'll take a Tony Stewart-type season to unseat them. Does Hamlin have that in him? He did two years ago ... until Phoenix. The biggest thing is that the Chase schedule plays right into Johnson's strengths.

David Caraviello: Of course, we're also at the point where contending teams start rolling out all brand-new cars, and some guys who locked in early have assuredly been tinkering with Chase stuff in the final weeks of the regular season. So perhaps that's not the best barometer. Regardless, Jimmie didn't go into the Chase on the best of notes. I just don't know how indicative that is of where they're running right now. Denny, on the other hand, is a known entity. He's going like gangbusters, and it's hard to overlook that at this point.

Mark Aumann: Two wins and a dominating performance at Richmond is a pretty nice string.

David Caraviello: Exactly. And I don't want to overlook anyone else in this favorite talk -- Mark earlier mentioned Keselowski, who should definitely factor into this thing. And Gordon could be a complete wild-card wild card entry given the new lease on life he's received, and how good his cars have been most of this year. The Roush guys, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth, are still formidable. And then there's Smoke, capable of anything, though I don't quite know if he can pull off a repeat of last season.

Jarrod Breeze: Let me throw this monkey a wrench: Denny is a lone wolf is this year's Chase, while Jimmie has three other teammates and a fourth (Stewart) with Hendrick engines. Does any of that matter?

David Caraviello: I guess Denny could use Kyle Busch as kind of a test car to try and pull things from, the same thing Carl Edwards said was winning to be for Biffle and Kenseth. No, those guys aren't in it, but they're still very good drivers on the same track, and able to provide solid information. They could absolutely have an impact, even though they aren't racing for the title.

Mark Aumann: JB, that's a very interesting point. It could, although you wonder if that will create more division rather than a unified front. At least in the Gibbs camp, it's all for one. And if we're talking real contenders, heck, throw the Waltrip guys in the mix. Martin Truex Jr. should have won at Atlanta and Clint Bowyer won at Richmond. They're also rolling right now. Should be fun.

Jarrod Breeze: I think it's wide open. But we'll know pretty much who the real contenders are in the first two to three races.

Mark Aumann: Really?

David Caraviello: JB's Rule of Two or Three? I get that confused with the Rule of 26.

3. There's no Chase in the Nationwide Series, but just one point separates Elliott Sadler and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Does either driver hold an edge down the stretch?

Jarrod Breeze: I don't think so. It's a pick 'em. Stenhouse had some bad races in the middle of the year and fell back, but since Sadler has sort of lost his grip on the lead. I think this thing will be close the rest of the way.

Mark Aumann: This is pretty much a reset of 2011, but I think this time, Elliott Sadler might have the advantage. Last year, he didn't win a race -- and he played catch-up to Stenhouse all summer. This year, he has four wins and he survived the back-to-back road courses. I think he's primed for a good stretch run.

David Caraviello: Oh, certainly. Not to knock anything Sadler has done all season, but this all seems set up for Ricky to take another championship with him to the sport's top level and that No. 17 car Matt Kenseth will leave behind. Stenhouse fell back, regrouped, and I can't imagine he's going to collapse again with so few races remaining. Sadler is trying to firm up a new ride for next season. I know he said that won't be a distraction, and I believe him, but all things being what they are now ... I'm not going to pick against Stenhouse.

Mark Aumann: The hardest thing to do is make up ground on someone, especially if they consistently run in the top five every week. And that was the case with Sadler last year. Because Stenhouse wouldn't falter, Sadler couldn't catch him. And then the bad finish at Phoenix finished him off. I think ESad learned something from that, and I'm picking him to finish it off this time around.

Sadler vs. Stenhouse

R. Stenhouse93541519

David Caraviello: Mark, I completely see your point. Sadler is in a much better position to make a run at this. He's simply having a better season than he did last year, he's winning races, and he's unquestionably going to be a factor in this down the stretch. But truthfully, Stenhouse looked vulnerable at points last year, too, and he responded with a devastating finishing kick. Ricky didn't finish worse than ninth from Atlanta on last season, and he's completely capable of another run like that this year.

Jarrod Breeze: There is a .3 difference in their average finishes this season. It's that close. I don't see that changing.

Mark Aumann: JB's Rule of .3!

Jarrod Breeze: Should I go and try to get an audition for a guest starring role on "The Big Bang Theory"?

Mark Aumann: That or a visit to the pi store.

Jarrod Breeze: I'll have the pi a-la mode.

Mark Aumann: Nice. Getting back to the topic, Elliott was visibly relieved in the hauler after Montreal. I think he really felt like getting a fourth-place run there -- and avoiding a huge points deficit -- was a springboard to the rest of the year. Richmond was not what he wanted, but I think we'll get a better feel for where these two guys are this weekend at Chicagoland.

David Caraviello: Stenhouse, it seems to me, thrives when he feels comfortable. And I think now we've completely entered his comfort zone, with tracks he's coming back to for the second time this season, with notebooks full of information to pull from. Again, none of this is to knock Elliott, who is certainly capable here. But Ricky has this set up rather nicely, kind if like he did a year ago around this point, even if his foe is a little more formidable than he was a season ago.

Jarrod Breeze: True, David, that Ricky is in a groove, but it's not as if Sadler has been chopped liver, either. But top-five finishes may not be enough if the other guy is getting top-three results.

David Caraviello: Sure, Ricky might have caught a break at Atlanta. But his last three finishes are second-first-second. His average finish down the stretch last year was 5.7. Not saying he's going to duplicate that, but it's a pretty nice baseline, and Ricky has been gaining on Elliott the last few weeks. To me all that points in one direction.

Mark Aumann: DC, I just feel Sadler's a bit better -- and Stenhouse is a little more vulnerable -- than at this point in 2011. But yeah, Stenhouse has put together finishes of second, first and second since Montreal. This should get good. If there's a race left on the schedule that could be the decider, I'm thinking Dover.

Jarrod Breeze: Why is that?

Mark Aumann: Seems like that's the track where you can get caught in somebody else's mess. The rest of the schedule is comprised of intermediates: Chicagoland, Kentucky, Charlotte, Kansas, Texas ....

David Caraviello: Aumann's Rule of Dover. Stenhouse did indeed finish 32nd in Dover in the spring. Part of a tough stretch that opened the door for Sadler to take the points lead.

Mark Aumann: It's a concrete theory.

David Caraviello: One thing we can probably all agree on ... this is a two-man race. Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish Jr. gave it a nice go, but the performance level among the leaders has been turned up. Thirty and 50 points out, respectively, is just too much at this point.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, Dillon would need a lot of bad luck from both contenders to make up that kind of ground. I think he's placing himself in the favorite's role for 2013.

Jarrod Breeze: I think this will be a back-and-forth struggle with the edge shifting from week to week. Then again, I could be completely wrong. That would be the Rule of Dumb.

Mark Aumann: Ha! Go have another piece of pi.