Top Chase Seeds Need Chicago Boost
No time to waste.
The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ is a sprint, not a test of endurance.
That’s why Sunday’s GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway (2 p.m. ET, ESPN, MRN Radio, SiriusXM Radio) could loom crucial among the 10 events comprising this year’s Chase.
Since becoming the postseason’s opening race, the GEICO 400’s two winners – Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart – went on to capture the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. Kurt Busch also won the Chase opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway en route to the 2004 title.
This year’s top three seeds – Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch – have a total of one win at the 1.5-mile track located in Joliet, Ill. Busch, the No. 3 seed with 2,012 points, won in 2008 but has posted an average finish of 19.0 in four subsequent starts.
No. 1 seed Kenseth’s last Chicagoland top-10 – a seventh – also came in 2008. The 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion who enters the Chase with 2,015 points, hasn’t had much luck since, averaging a finish of 18.75 from 2009-2012.
Johnson, in pursuit of a sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup title, has done everything but visit Chicagoland’s Victory Lane. The No. 2 seed with 2,012 points finished second in last year’s race – the Californian’s third runner-up performance among six top-five and nine-top 10 finishes in 11 Chicagoland starts.
Johnson, however, enters this year’s Chase lacking momentum. His most recent four finishes – 40th, 36th, 28th and 40th – are significantly worse than comparable performances of his five championship seasons which included at least one top 10.
Johnson remains the Chase’s top winner with 22 victories in 90 races – 17 more than Kenseth and Kyle Busch’s combined total.
Five drivers who failed to qualify for the Chase in 2012 made this year’s cut. They are Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards (No. 4 seed), Joey Logano (No. 9), Kurt Busch (No. 10), and Ryan Newman (No. 12). Logano is the only first-time Chase participant among this year’s qualifiers.
Last year’s qualifiers failing to repeat are 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Martin Truex Jr.
Kurt Busch Ready To Flex Some Chase Muscle
Kurt Busch and his No. 78 Chevrolet have accomplished the improbable.
The team based in Denver, Colo. – some 2,000 miles west of the hub of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series organizations – has qualified for this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™, the first single-car team to reach the postseason in the Chase era.
Where they go from here is anyone’s guess. No single-car team has won a NASCAR Sprint Cup title since Alan Kulwicki in 1992. Busch, however, believes a second NASCAR Sprint Cup championship isn’t out of reach.
“I can understand how some folks felt it was an improbable accomplishment for a little single-car team from Colorado to make the Chase but in reality the Chase was our goals from the beginning of the year,” said Busch, the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. “And believe me, this Furniture Row team continues to move the needle forward and grab traction.
“We have some muscle to flex in the next 10 weeks.”
Busch has risen from racing purgatory, returning to the Chase for a seventh time after leaving premier rides with Roush Fenway Racing and Penske Racing. He joined Furniture Row with six races remaining in the 2012 season and capped the campaign with three consecutive top-10 finishes – a first for owner Barney Visser’s organization.
Busch has yet to score a victory but he opens the Chase with arguably the greatest momentum among the 12 post-season qualifiers. Fourteenth with six regular-season races to go, Busch fashioned four top-five and five top-10 finishes. The team’s only stumble was a 31st-place run at Bristol when a suspension part broke. Busch has led six of his most recent eight starts. The team’s last of two DNFs came at Talladega in the spring.
“I keep saying we need to keep plugging away, protect our car and avoid major mistakes,” said Busch. “Look at our record. Our worst finish since the middle of March when something didn’t go wrong was 15th.
“It’s a matter of putting it all together in the 10 crucial Chase races.”
Earnhardt Hopes Third Straight Chase Is The Charm
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will compete in three consecutive Chases for the first time. He no doubt hopes what might have been a year ago will have a happier ending this time around.
In 2012, after scoring a drought-busting victory and leading the regular-season points standings, Earnhardt suffered concussion-related injuries that forced him to sit out two Chase races. Junior finished 12th in final rankings.
Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte must figure out how to replicate the season’s red-hot start – a pair of second-place finishes among consecutive top 10s that carried Earnhardt to the top of the standings after race No. 5 at Auto Club Speedway.
“Mistakes I’ve made, crashes I’ve gotten myself into, engine failures, things like that that have taken away from our ability to show how strong we are to get consistent finishes like we did last year,” said Earnhardt. “I feel like we belong in the Chase, feel like if we can put 10 races together, I think we can do it as good as anybody when it comes down to it. Hopefully we can make it happen.”
Earnhardt won at Chicagoland Speedway in 2007. Since joining his current team the following season, Earnhardt’s best finish is third in 2011.
First Timer: Logano Looks To Continue Regular Season Success In His First Chase
A blistering final seven races put Joey Logano in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for the first time, and now he has a chance to become the youngest champion in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history. That distinction is currently held by Bill Rexford, who was 23 years, 7 months and 15 days old when he won the title in 1950. Come Homestead, Logano would be 23 years, 5 months and 24 days.
If he can string together a series of races like he did to close the regular season, a championship is certainly within reason. Over the final seven regular season races – six of which were top 10s – Logano scored more points than any other driver (264).
Now, he enters the Chase as a first-timer, becoming the 24th different Chase driver, and looking to shock the NASCAR world. He certainly will have plenty of advice coming from owner Roger Penske and teammate Brad Keselowski.
Keselowski, of course, won the championship last year. He missed the Chase this season; much in part due to the 10 finishes outside the top 20 he suffered (he had four finishes outside the top 20 all of last season).
Still, he and Penske have that playoff pedigree – and will surely impart some of that wisdom on the Logano and the No. 22 team (this is Logano’s first season with Penske Racing). A member of the Penske Racing stable has made the Chase in each of the past five seasons.
Harvick’s Not Alone In The Chase
When the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway with the GEICO 400, Kevin Harvick will be the lone representative in NASCAR’s postseason from Richard Childress Racing. His teammates at RCR, Jeff Burton and Paul Menard, both failed to make the playoffs.
Harvick, however, won’t be completely alone.
Harvick and Kurt Busch, who drove Furniture Row Racing’s No. 78 Chevrolet into a Chase berth – the first time for a single-car team – will help each other out over the season’s final 10 races.
“They’ve always been helpful. I would say it’s going to be business as usual. We’ll expect to be there to do our part, to help the 29,” answered Busch when asked about how Furniture Row Racing’s alliance with RCR will benefit him in the Chase. “Right now it’s the 29 and the 78 coming out of that situation.”
Not only has Harvick worked with Busch because of their teams’ partnership, the two veteran drivers are both leaving their respective teams at the end of the season to join Stewart-Haas Racing.
With the points reset, Harvick sits fourth in the standings on the strength of two regular-season wins (Richmond and Charlotte, which is in the Chase). In 205 starts at tracks in this year’s Chase, he has 10 wins, 41 top fives and 95 top 10s.
In six previous appearances in the postseason, Harvick has compiled three wins, 13 top-five and 35 top-10 finishes in the final 10 races of the season as a Chase contender. His highest position in the final standings is third place in 2010 and 2011.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Etc.
Justin Allgaier will make his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start this weekend, driving the No. 51 Brandt Chevrolet for Phoenix Racing. Currently fifth in NASCAR Nationwide Series points, Allgaier is the 10th different driver to pilot the No. 51 car in 2013. He has three career wins in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. … In Richmond, Jeff Gordon won his first Coors Light Pole Award of the season. In doing so, he has now won at least one pole in 21 consecutive seasons, a NASCAR Sprint Cup record. He also became the 16th different pole winner this season.
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