Danny Peters · Tuesday September 11, 2012
Ladies and gentlemen, after 24 races of preamble we get down to the serious business of the season: The 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup. The regular season is in the books, the elite field of a dozen is set and ten races remain before we crown this year’s champion at Homestead-Miami on November 18th. There isn’t really any other place to start this week’s edition of Five Points to Ponder.
ONE: Seven Teams make the Chase Including MWR for the First Time
A total of seven different Cup teams will have representation in this year’s iteration of the Chase. In both 2010 and 2011 the number of teams in the Chase was six while in 2009 we hit the high water mark with drivers from eight organizations making the top 12.
This year we have a new team represented in Michael Waltrip Racing with Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. securing the team’s first ever Chase berths. Yes, all four HMS drivers did make the Chase, but it’s good to see a wide variety of teams in the big show. It’s good for the sport, whatever the naysayers might think. You only need to look at what happened with Tony Stewart in 2011—winning five of the ten races—to know that anything really can happen. Given how difficult it was for MWR in their first couple years of operation, starting not just a brand new team as well as debuting a new manufacturer in Toyota, there must have been days when making the Chase seemed like an impossible dream. This week, before the serious business gets underway, MWR can take a quick minute to enjoy quite how far they’ve come.
TWO: Hendrick’s Pre-Season Predictions Looking Good (so far)
During the pre-season NASCAR Media tour, Rick Hendrick was bullish about the chances for his elite organization in 2012. “I’m going to be really disappointed if we don’t have all four cars in the Chase and I’m going to be really disappointed if we don’t win the championship,” said Hendrick. “I can’t remember having four teams this solid, this strong, at the beginning of the year.”
So far, so good then as all four drivers made this year’s Chase; albeit with Gordon’s entry into the field being by the very skin of his teeth. The question remains can the other half of the statement — winning the title — come true? Clearly, Jimmie Johnson (and his glittering haul of five titles) remains the driver to beat while Junior has shown he can run consistently at the front of the field and is a threat for a maiden title. Kasey Kahne, too, is relevant having overcome a sluggish start to his HMS career and while the soon to be mustachioed Jeff Gordon has struggled for much of the year, making the Chase might just be the shot in the arm he needs as he grapples for that elusive fifth title.
In short, it’s more than a good possibility a HMS driver takes the big trophy at the end of the Homestead race. In fact, it’s a one in three shot (which is about the limit of my mathematical ability.) And in ten races time, we’ll find out if Mr. H is truly a great prognosticator.
THREE: A First Time Champion?
One of the most intriguing aspects to this year’s iteration of the Chase is that the field is arguably more open than ever before. Sure, there are the heavyweights (and no, that wasn’t a pun about Tony Stewart’s girth) but no one has really dominated this year. Some have had great spells, sure, but it would be hard to say one driver has stood out head and shoulders above the competition. All of which makes me wonder if for the first time since Johnson won his maiden title we might just have a new champion.
Greg Biffle, for example, could become the first driver to ever win a title at all three top echelons of the sport, or Denny Hamlin could take the final step he couldn’t quite manage in 2010. Brad Keselowski is another driver very much in the mix—having shown he can both win and run consistently. Or how about that Junior guy? Wouldn’t that be something. Regardless of whom it might be, my suspicion is we’ll be crowning a new champion at Homestead and I firmly believe that whomever it is, it can only be a good thing for the sport we all love.
FOUR: For Some, 2013 Begins Now (but not really)
Yes, there are still 10 races to go but for those who had serious Chase aspirations, like Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, 2013 very much begins now. For these two drivers in particular the regular season has been, to put it mildly, a huge disappointment. Both had aspirations to run for a championship; both have fallen short – by just a couple of points (or positions on the track if you will) in Busch’s case. Next year we have the added wrinkle of new cars which, despite looking much more like their street versions, will still likely be more a case of evolution rather than revolution.
NASCAR’s main goal for the new machine is to reduce the aerodynamic push that has made passing in certain races this year all but impossible. A softer tire that gives up grip as a run goes on will also be a key component. Not all are convinced. “I’m very curious to see the tradeoff of mechanical grip versus aero. I have grown up in an aero culture and I subscribe to the fact you’ll never change the aero,” said Jimmie Johnson at an August test. “The lead car is going to be better than the second and on back. But there are a few that believe if you put more mechanical in it than there is aero, then the tides will turn.” All of which makes missing the Chase that much more frustrating for Busch and Edwards, who can’t even test set-ups for next year in these final ten races. Wins are what it’s going to be all about which actually isn’t really too much of a bad thing when all’s said and done.
FIVE: One Year Later
Finally, I’m going to change things up a little bit and comment on this Saturday night’s IndyCar Series season finale: a 500 mile race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA. Just under a year ago I was at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the 2011 IndyCar finale, the race when we so tragically lost Dan Wheldon in a horrific early lap melee. No one there that day will ever forget, nor will his many friends and fans around the world; nor should they which is why I make no apologies for referencing it again here albeit in a NASCAR column. Simply put, here’s hoping for a thrilling and safe 500-mile race under the lights this Saturday night (the first 500-miler outside the Indy 500 in a decade) and a worthy championship battle between Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
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