Last week almost all the Chase drivers looked like they were in Las Vegas; gambling of course on their own fates in this year’s Chase for the Championship. It was almost as if the entire group of Chasers — make that the entire field — was seized by a case of collective optimism. Like the little train that could, they thought they could make the distance on fuel when yet another caution waved on the ragged edge of yet another fuel mileage window — and some of the biggest losers happened to be Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth.
The Chase contenders dominated the race and during most of the afternoon, at least eight of them circled the track among the top 10. In the closing laps, only Paul Menard kept them from sweeping the top 10 as Chasers occupied 10 of the first 11 spots. The final rundown of the Geico 400 was altered by cars running out of gas, but they demonstrated their strength. Their dominance and consistency also demonstrates just how difficult it will be for Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Gordon, and Kenseth to make up any ground so long as all of the Chasers continue to run that well.
For the next two weeks, look for Chase contenders to continue to dominate. In seven previous seasons, both New Hampshire and Dover have perfect records of Chase races being won by Chasers. It might not be one of the drivers we expect, however. The past four New Hampshire Chase races were won by a playoff contender that wasn’t expected to earn the ultimate prize. Additionally, none of the winners from the past four years are represented in this year’s Chase. Clint Bowyer won the fall race at New Hampshire in 2007 and 2010, Greg Biffle won in 2008, and Mark Martin won in 2009, so taking the checkers this week could be a double-edged sword.
New Hampshire is radically different in configuration from Chicagoland. Dover is unlike both tracks. Getting off to a good start in the Chase requires drivers and teams to be flexible and able to adapt to changing circumstances. These were also skills needed in the first 26 races to finish in the top 10 in points, so the favorites during the next couple of weeks will continue to come from this elite group.
Tony Stewart became the 16th different driver this season to win a Cup race. We expected him to turn up the heat during the summer months when tracks were hot and slick, but that didn’t happen as the team struggled to find the right chemistry. Stewart solidified his position among the Chase contenders in the final regular season races by finishing in the top 10 in three of the past four races. Now that he has cracked the code to winning, he could easily do so in back-to-back weeks. He has been great on short, flat tracks this year with top-10s at Phoenix, New Hampshire, and in both Richmond races. The only place he seemed to stumble was on the half-mile Martinsville Speedway. Plus Stewart loves the flat tracks and hasn’t won at New Hampshire since 2005.
Kurt Busch is averaging a top-10 finish in each of the last six races, which isn’t bad when you’re competing for a Chase championship. We, yet again, saw an anger Kurt Busch not only yell at his team on the radio but yet take his anger out on the media as well. We look to see Kurt channeling his anger and winning. Plus he is the most consistent of all the drivers!
Bowyer has two career wins at NHMS, so you can never count him out (even with the season he has had). Yeah, we all think his career will take the plunge into the dark abyss once he goes to Michael Waltrip Racing but; don’t sell him too short just yet! Bowyer can be the one to crash some hopes for the Chase drivers looking to make up ground this weekend.
Brad Keselowski had a dismal performance at New Hampshire earlier in the season (finished P35), he still won the pole for the 2010 Chase race…plus this kid has a fire lit under that race car. Keselowski is making moves and running like he wants this championship. Bad weekend at Chicago isn’t taking this kid out of fighting contention just yet!
This week…Everyone else in the Chase is an underdog! Why? Because drivers like Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin must make up ground early if they still want to be in the hunt for this year’s championship. Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch have been the favorites for the championship of late and honestly…we are worried they may be out before it really gets heated!
Will a non-chaser spoil the Chasers hopes or will the Chasers continue to dominate the final races of the year? We will soon learn the answers to these questions!