The Frontstretch: Ready, Set, Chase: Ten Things To Watch In NASCAR's Playoffs by Danny Peters -- Thursday September 15, 2011

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Ready, Set, Chase: Ten Things To Watch In NASCAR's Playoffs

The Yellow Stripe · Danny Peters · Thursday September 15, 2011


For such a long season, the NASCAR calendar sure does seem to fly by. With 26 races in the books, we now arrive at the pay window: the ten races that will crown the champion. So without any further preamble (and believe me if this is over four lines my editor is the reason) here are ten thoughts ahead of the start of the 2011 Chase.

Double J is still the main to beat:

No question Jimmie Johnson absolutely remains the man to beat. By his own very high standards, 2011 has not been his best year; but as we’ve seen for the last half-decade when it comes time to chase, nobody, but nobody, does it better. I think it might be some time away yet, but one day we’ll look back at Johnson’s era of dominance and marvel at one of the all-time great (if not greatest) Hall of Fame stock car racing careers. There are those who suggest it’s all because head wrench Chad Knaus is an evil mechanical genius. And yes, undoubtedly, he is a huge factor in Johnson’s success, but at the end of the day, Johnson is the champ because he is a superb driver.

But there is competition. Maybe more than ever:

Before the points were reset, after eight months and 26 races, just 34 points separated six drivers. Kyle Busch sat atop the standings, ahead of Johnson (-3 pts), Edwards (-12 pts), Gordon (-18 pts), Harvick (-23 pts) and Kenseth (-34 pts). Add two-time champion Tony Stewart, inaugural Chase winner Kurt Busch, the summer’s hottest driver Brad Keselowski, last season’s first loser Denny Hamlin, the reliable rocket man Ryan Newman or the 8-time most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., and you’ve got the makings of the sort of Chase NASCAR hoped for when they drew up the blueprints. In short, the field is stacked. And with the unpredictable way the racing has gone this year, and all the first time winners, anything can, and probably will happen.

And there’s a bonafide rivalry:

The Kurt Busch/Jimmie Johnson rivalry is just one of the many intriguing storylines leading up to the Chase.

Kurt Busch is, at times, very hard to like. He behaved like an out of control, petulant temper-tantrum throwing child with the reporters after the Richmond race and frankly he should dam well have known better. I get the adrenaline flows but there is no excuse for that sort of behavior. But here’s the thing: with the way things are shaping up between him and Johnson, it might escalate – big time – these next ten weeks. There is clearly no love lost between the two and if Busch gets eliminated early don’t be surprised to see him exact revenge at the most critical of times.

First up, Chicago, where hope burns bright:

When the snarling pack of 43 cars take the green flag on Sunday afternoon, the 12 Chasers will be divided by just 12 points. Chicagoland Speedway is not, perhaps, the natural choice to open NASCAR version of the playoffs, but just because it’s a cookie-cutter don’t expect a lack of storylines from the Geico 400 both on and off the track. And if nothing else, the Geico Caveman (from the ads) is the Grand Marshal and will give the command to start engines: that ought to be amusing.

But fortunes can change in a flash:

I’ve always been against the school of thought that argues that Chase drivers should be eliminated throughout the course of the ten races. And the main reason is because it happens naturally. Blown tires, expiring engines, bad luck, and errant strategy – you name it; it can happen. In a long regular season a pair of poor finishes are easily hidden: not so in the Chase. Despite my above point about how close the Chase will be this year, you can all but guarantee 2-3 drivers will be totally out of the championship picture by the time we head for Dover and the Monster Mile.

Talladega Nightmares:

One huge feature of the new points scheme is that poor finishes are magnified to a much greater percentage than under the old system. Winning and consistency are rewarded, as is right and proper, but DNFs in the Chase will almost certainly be disastrous. And thus Talladega looms large. It’s not hyperbole to say the sixth race in the Chase might just be the most important. The quirks of the schedule see three of the four restrictor plate races run in the first 17 and some 15 more races before the fourth and final race is run. Some five months have passed since the drivers have had to run full throttle around the 2.66-mile high banks of the biggest baddest track of them all and you can all but guarantee an instant classic when the circuit swings through Alabama on October 23rd.

Could we see a new “Five-Time”?

For the first time since 2007, Jeff Gordon looks ready to truly contend for an elusive fifth championship, and first title under the Chase format. The season stats speak to great reliability and success (3 wins, 10 top-5s, 14 top-10s, an average finish of 11.6 and 721 laps led.) Those, however, are just the numbers. We’ve seen a different Jeff Gordon this season and he has clearly benefited from the tutelage of crew chief Alan Gustafson, without any disrespect to Steve Letarte who has done a fine job with Dale Earnhardt Jr. After ten years of trying, 2011 might just be the year the old man finally (finally) drives for five.

Kyle Busch won’t win:

Just as with Gordon, we’ve seen a different side of Busch this year – a more mature, less emotional character. I think that he will win a Sprint Cup crown before he hangs up his helmet, but I just don’t think it will be this year. When it’s come down to Chase time, Busch has never come closer to getting the job done. His highest finish is fifth (2007), but even then he was some 430 points of the pace. Does he have the talent? No doubt. Can he put it all together when it counts? One year, for sure; just not this one.

Delighted for Junior:

Whatever happens to Dale Earnhardt Jr. these next ten weeks, he’s already proved his critics wrong. The crew chief switcheroo in the off-season at Hendrick Motorsports paid dividends for the 13-year Cup veteran; Steve Letarte’s ebullient leadership has coaxed the best out of the Kannapolis native. Yes, the win hasn’t come – it will – but what this season has shown us (and perhaps him, too) is that Junior can compete at the highest level. I don’t feel like he’ll be sitting at the head table in Last Vegas in late November but it is not beyond the realms of possibility. What a story it would be.

I’m excited:

And finally, I’m excited for it to get going this weekend. I understand the criticism of the format and as a die-hard fan of English Premier League football where 38 games decide the Championship; I’d consider it a travesty if they ever implemented the same system back home. So I get it why the long-time fans despise it. That being said, though, I can’t wait to see how the 2011 iteration of the Chase all unfolds with all the myriad twists and (left hand) turns these next ten weeks. Should be fun. Enjoy it folks.

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09/15/2011 03:58 PM

JJ will go down as the greatest 10 race champ of all time. I will NEVER, I repeat NEVER, consider his championships comparable to those who won a season long points standings. I read somewhere in the last few years of the Chase he was given 300+ points combined from the resets. That’s hardly worthy of someone who is the greatest.

34 pts seperating the top 6. Why do we need a Chase again?

Kyle needs to keep racing those minor league races. That way we can ensure that he will never win a title and he won’t as long as he races anything and everything most weekends.

Do to the DNF’s hurting more under the new points system, expect even more boring points racing throughout the Chase. I hope i’m wrong but I have stated all along that the races leading up to the Chase will be more exciting than those in the Chase. Exhibit A will be the follow the leader parade at Chicago this weekend. With the Bears playing the early game on Sunday, it will be interesting to see if people will show up to the track.

sylvia richardson
09/15/2011 05:21 PM


Don Mei
09/15/2011 05:28 PM

Steve , I completely agree with you so far as the chase is concerned; its phoney, contrived, artificial (just like BF) I am really amazed at how little interest I have in who wins the championship. Will I watch the races? Maybe. No cookie cutters though and maybe when it gets too cold out for a Sunday ride on my XR.

As to Johnsons record, I disagree with you on that. He didnt invent this idiotic format, Nascar did. Im going to just leave it at that because its a matter some people simply will never agree on.

Tom Dalfonzo
09/16/2011 09:08 PM

NASCAR is beyond stupid for not basing the championship picture entire on winning races. In the words of Al Davis: “Just Win, Baby.” Right now, it would be the Kyle & Kevin Show entering the Big Ten. I would want to give a win to both Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski to make it a four-way fight for the title.

Basing the championship picture on winning races would have drivers up on the wheel every race.

How does this sound for a incentive to lead races: award $1,000 for every lap a driver can lead in a race. Every lap led is another thousand bucks in a driver’s pocket. I think that will work.

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