Matt Stallknecht · Friday September 13, 2013
I don’t even know how to begin this article. After that mess of a finish to what was an otherwise excellent race last week, I’ve been unable to craft the right words to describe how I felt about the whole situation. Perhaps I never will. What Michael Waltrip Racing did at the end of last weekend’s race was morally reprehensible, and quite frankly, NASCAR did not penalize them severely enough. As for the Penske Racing incident… we still need more information on that one or else that story will likely fall out of circulation. It was a dark night for the sport overall, and this writer can only hope that NASCAR takes the right steps to prevent such a mess from happening again.
Regardless of what happened last week, the fact remains that the Sprint Cup Series is back in action this weekend at Chicagoland. That means, like anything else, both life and the sport will move on. More races will be held, fans will continue to watch, and new storylines will slowly erode the painful memories of last weekend’s fiasco. The sky is not falling, contrary to what some choice doom and gloomers in the media would have you think.
For better or worse, the 2013 Chase is officially on, and we have much to discuss in that regard.
1. Will Penske Racing be penalized for their alleged bribery?
This controversy is, without a doubt the most pressing issue heading into the weekend. The MWR situation has essentially been rectified (albeit not severely enough), so this “manipulation” remains as the last vestige of unsolved mystery from Saturday night. The question everyone is asking right now, of course, is whether or not Joey Logano is going to be removed from the Chase or be penalized in some manner.
I can answer this one rather quickly: the answer is “no,” Penske Racing is absolutely not going to be penalized for what they may or may not have done Saturday night. I know for some of you that it probably stings to read that, after how incriminating the No. 38 team’s radio communications sounded. But the simple fact is that you can’t penalize Penske when there are no actual Penske communications that reference any sort of “deal” being made.
There are a number of other reasons, too that put this one in a different category compared to MWR. Front Row’s comments may have been less incriminating, in greater context, and we have no idea what kind of “deal” was actually made. In other words, there is not nearly enough evidence to drop the hammer on the No. 22 car, and it hardly matters anyway when you consider the No. 22 was already locked into the Chase. Not to mention that since the Richmond results are official, even if NASCAR did decide to penalize Logano, they likely wouldn’t be able to knock him out of the Chase.
At the end of the day, what Penske Racing allegedly did is nowhere near as shameful as what MWR tried to pull on Saturday night; in my opinion, that means it would not / does not warrant a serious penalty. Drivers and teams have been coordinating variations of the same deal that Penske and Front Row allegedly cut for years, and NASCAR has never penalized such actions. If NASCAR were to punish Logano, they would have to punish drivers every time they pulled over to let a teammate lead a lap, which is considered accepted practice at this point in the world of NASCAR.
2. How will the Richmond fiasco affect the sport in the coming weeks?
I try to avoid overtly broad topics in this column, but this one is just too big and relevant to ignore. The Richmond fiasco has been arguably the biggest news story to rock the NASCAR world since the death of Dale Earnhardt. Seriously. Even big stories that went mainstream in the past few years, like Trevor Bayne’s Daytona 500 win, the 2011 title battle, and even the jet dryer incident of the 2012 Daytona 500 pale in comparison to what went down Saturday night.
Mainstream news outlets from around the globe covered and weighed in on NASCAR’s latest and most distressing controversy. Even Stephen A. Smith, a pundit whose discernible NASCAR knowledge is negligible at best, gave his national take. NASCAR utterly dominated the sports headlines this week, trumping that of even Week 1 NFL action, but it did so for all of the wrong reasons.
The question I have to pose for you, my readers, is this one: is such negative publicity really such a terrible thing? I have experienced a great deal of cognitive dissonance over the past few days when contemplating this thought, but I have come to the conclusion that the Richmond fiasco will ultimately end up being a short-term boon for the sport. It shouldn’t be that way, but I am afraid that is exactly how this madness will all play out. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. seemed to agree with this line of thought when asked about it during his Chase Media Day interviews yesterday. He went on record as saying that he was “fascinated” by how the whole situation had played out and that all of the added media attention this week would undoubtedly “bring more eyeballs to the sport in the coming weeks.”
I agree with Earnhardt wholeheartedly. There will almost certainly be more folks watching on Sunday who wouldn’t ordinarily watch due to the endless attention NASCAR has received this week. People want to know who “this Clint Bowyer guy” is, or “what this Chase thing is all about.”
Perhaps there is a silver lining after all.
3. Can Matt Kenseth capitalize on his No. 1 seed in the Chase?
Sure, it might only be a three-point lead, but the fact remains that Matt Kenseth enters this weekend’s race at Chicagoland as the overall Sprint Cup points leader. Kenseth jumped five spots in the standings courtesy of his series-leading five wins. It might all be psychological, but Kenseth and his team have the advantage of entering the Chase as the proverbial leader. Do not for a second think that this edge isn’t important.
On paper, 2013 appears to be Kenseth’s best chance to win a Chase title. His team has been the best in the business on the 1.5-mile tracks, ovals which dominate the playoff format. He has perhaps more momentum than anyone, armed with the hunger of something to prove after leaving Roush Fenway Racing and he has a mental advantage heading into the weekend knowing that he is on top of the charts. The question is whether or not he can capitalize on all of these advantages.
Personally, I believe Kenseth will capitalize. With how strong his No. 20 team has been on 1.5-mile tracks, I think you will see Kenseth deliver a strong run at Chicagoland and build on his points lead. If he can do that, I think it would make him the favorite to win the 2013 Chase. He’s won a championship before, and he absolutely has what it takes to win again.
4. How will Sunday’s race unfold? Who is the favorite?
Chicagoland Speedway is not exactly known for being an exciting Sprint Cup track. That is not likely to change this weekend. Having said that, there are certain aspects of this oval that make it much trickier than it would otherwise appear. One of the most underappreciated aspects of Chicagoland, for instance, is its surprisingly abrasive track surface. Tire wear will definitely be a factor, meaning that drivers who can conserve their Goodyears effectively will have a slight advantage. It will definitely be something to keep an eye on.
As for the race itself, expect long green-flag runs. Chicago is known for that, and as such, fuel mileage will become paramount late in the race. I am actually predicting that the finish will come down to fuel mileage.
Of course, anytime that type of scenario joins the conversation, the phrase “Brad Keselowski” immediately joins the discussion as well. Given that Keselowski missed the Chase, the pressure is off both he and his team now; as a whole, they can shift their focus towards building momentum for 2014. That’s a perfect recipe for a rejuvenation of the No. 2 team, and I think you will see Brad Keselowski grab his first victory of the 2013 season on Sunday… courtesy of fuel strategy.
Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions For The 2013 GEICO 400
1. 2 – Brad Keselowski
2. 20 – Matt Kenseth
3. 48 – Jimmie Johnson
4. 22 – Joey Logano
5. 18 – Kyle Busch
6. 24 – Jeff Gordon
7. 1 – Jamie McMurray
8. 56 – Martin Truex, Jr.
9. 11 – Denny Hamlin
10. 78 – Kurt Busch
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