Brad Morgan · Tuesday September 17, 2013
The GEICO 400 took all day to complete because of two extensive rain delays, but in the end it was an exciting affair that set the table for the Chase going forward.
The problem is that several Chase drivers have already run into trouble. Engine failures were a major theme at Chicagoland, and the championship contenders weren’t completely immune to them.
This Chaser heavy edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not makes it clear that sound reliability will be a key factor for whoever is left standing after the next nine races and that some drivers have already been pushed to the brink after mechanical failures of their own.
Matt Kenseth’s timing couldn’t be any better.
Rain wasn’t enough to put the No. 20 Toyota’s engine under the weather like so many others. After leading up to the red flag on Lap 110, Kenseth continued to dominate when racing resumed over five hours later, pacing the field for a total of 89 laps – enough to collect his first ever win at Chicagoland Speedway.
Kenseth certainly played the part of pre-Chase point’s leader despite posting some uninspiring finishes in several races leading up to the 10-race playoff. All of that is behind him now however, and the driver holds the points lead heading into Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
A victory in Loudon would be another first for Kenseth, who hasn’t bettered 2004’s runner-up finish in 17 starts since at the one-mile track. But the veteran is no slouch either; with 13 top 10 finishes there and momentum on his side, another surprise victory isn’t out of the question.
Joe Gibbs Racing cars crossed the line one-two in Illinois with Kyle Busch serving as the second-place driver to Kenseth. That’s nothing to be ashamed about considering that Kyle has usually encountered issues in the past during the Chase.
Busch didn’t show any ill effects of his spotty history on Sunday evening, leading 67 laps. Moving to 2nd in the standings sets the No. 18 team up nicely moving forward. Like Kenseth, he was also able to avoid engine issues that killed chances for teammate Denny Hamlin as well as several Chase contenders.
Next, Rowdy will look for a repeat of July’s Loudon race in which he led 53 laps and finished second.
Kevin Harvick picked up where he left off before the Chase by posting a third-place finish at Chicagoland. The Richard Childress Racing driver is doing everything he can to make the most of his final year with the organization by collecting 42 points and remaining fourth in the standings through one Chase event.
The biggest highlight of Harvick’s night came during a close call on pit road. Late during the GEICO 400, Harvick was forced to bring the No. 29 Chevrolet to a stop in another team’s pit after he was boxed in and almost collided with other cars making their routine stops. The move was potentially race saving considering a similar incident might have been the cause for DNF suffered by Dale Earnhardt Jr.
An average finish of 8.67 in the last three races at NHMS would suggest that Harvick might begin to ascend the standings starting with the next race.
Jeff Gordon made the most of his newly awarded spot birth the Chase field by leading 22 laps en route to an impressive sixth-place finish. Gordon wouldn’t have even been considered for a Hot or Not spot had it not been determined that there was something suspicious going on between Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports at Richmond, but here he is, seventh in the standings and in the thick of the championship hunt.
Gordon now gets a chance to close the gap on Kenseth at a track where he has looked very comfortable over the years. During recent starts in Loudon, Gordon has been just as good, with only one finish outside of the top 10 since 2010.
Normally, a 16th-place finish wouldn’t merit a spot on the latter half of Hot or Not, but it is Chase season, and for drivers like Greg Biffle that’s not enough to help secure a championship. Biffle’s evening could have actually been a lot worse after it was discovered that the No. 16 Ford Fusion was slowly losing power, but the car never completely died and he remained on the lead lap.
The problem is that Biffle never showed the explosiveness to make up for mid-pack finishes like these during the regular season, instead relying on possibly the year’s most consistent set of finishes week in and week out. He is already 31 points outside of first in the standings and will need bonus points to regain lost ground.
Repeats of Biffle’s last two trips to NHMS (18th and 15th) won’t get the job done; instead he will need to aim for a 2008 type performance, when he achieved his lone win there.
The only non-Chaser in this week’s column is here because he won’t be eligible for mentions next season. Juan Pablo Montoya is leaving NASCAR after the completion of the 2013 season for the IZOD IndyCar Series. The Columbian driver signed a contract with Penske Racing Monday to drive the No. 2 car fulltime next season, joining Will Power and Helio Castroneves who are already members of Penske’s open wheel operation.
Montoya had been on a bit of a roll of late until a 32nd-place finish at Chicagoland. He fell to 20th in the standings heading to Loudon.
Joey Logano was among the best drivers in Sprint Cup in the months leading up to the Chase, but it only took one race to erase that momentum. Logano finds himself in an unfamiliar position, relegated to cold, after going down several cylinders and eventually losing his engine after 175 laps.
The 37th-place finish won’t be easy to overcome; no driver in the Chase era has won the championship after a finish this terrible in the first race of the playoff, the worst being Jimmie Johnson’s 25th in the first race of the 2010 Chase. While it’s still possible for Logano to dig himself out of the 52 point hole he currently finds himself in, things don’t look good for the Penske driver.
He’ll start on what would be a historic comeback trail at Loudon, where he finished 40th in the prequel there earlier this season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be forced to forge his own comeback because of an engine issue of his own. His troubles started when he radioed that he was having issues hearing spotter TJ Majors over the radio. Later he received substantial damage from teammate Kasey Kahne on pit road, requiring the No. 88 crew to make extensive repairs during the stop. From then on Earnhardt Jr. struggled because of that damage before the car stopped running with 44 laps to go.
Earnhardt Jr. finished 35th, two spots better than Logano, but sits 53 points behind the leader because he didn’t have a win in the regular season.
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