The Frontstretch: Four Burning Questions - Charlotte: Aero Difficulties As Title Chase Hits Halfway by Matt Stallknecht -- Friday October 11, 2013

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Well, that was… interesting. Last week, the Sprint Cup Series staged one of the most bizarre races of the entire season. Kevin Harvick took the checkered flag on an afternoon in which 15 cautions flew for 15 mostly unusual circumstances. On-track fires? Cars spinning on the straightaways? Blown tires? Such oddities were all accounted for on a strange Sunday afternoon that could end up rivaling the upcoming race at Talladega as the single biggest wildcard of the 2013 Chase. Now, as the series prepares for a 500-mile nighttime affair this Saturday night at Charlotte, many questions left hanging after Kansas beg to be answered. Can Harvick mount a charge towards the title? Or have Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth officially pulled away from the rest of the Chase field? Meanwhile, after “multi-tread” madness will the Gen-6’s aero difficulties disrupt the race at Charlotte? Analysis on all of these issues, and a few more are just a few short clicks away with Four Burning Questions.

Kevin Harvick won the most recent Chase race in Kansas. But can he keep the run going and pull into championship contention?

1. Is Kevin Harvick a legitimate championship contender?

As we near the halfway mark of the 2013 NASCAR postseason, it’s becoming increasingly clear as to whom, among the Chasers is a “contender” and who is a “pretender.” For now, feel free to slot one Kevin Harvick in the “contender” category.

Harvick flew under the radar for the opening three races of the Chase, posting finishes of third, 20th, and sixth, respectively. But last Sunday, Harvick elevated his performance to another level, earning the vaunted weekend trifecta of nabbing the pole, win, and most laps led award. With how dominant the No. 29 team and its driver was last weekend, it begs the question of whether or not they can keep this momentum up in order to challenge championship leaders Kenseth and Johnson. My answer? I believe they can.

Harvick is entering a stretch of racetracks that have all been good to him historically. A two-time winner at Charlotte, he won the most recent event at the facility back in May. Talladega is another great track for the veteran, evidenced by the fact that he has scored the second-most points at the Alabama track in the past eight races there. Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix, and Homestead? They’re all Harvick-friendly tracks as well. Consider also that Harvick is one of only two drivers within 30 points of Kenseth’s Chase lead, and suddenly, the prospect of a championship does not seem so outlandish.

Harvick’s formula for success going forward is simple: he just needs to back up his recent performance with another good run at Charlotte this Saturday, and then avoid the mayhem in Talladega. He is starting second on Saturday night, so he’s already off to a good start. If he is able to get through the next two weeks unscathed and remain within striking distance of the leaders, he may very well make a real championship run after all.

2. Have Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson “really” separated from the pack?

Much was made after Sunday’s event in Kansas that the two leading drivers in the championship hunt, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, had effectively “separated” themselves from the field. The prevailing thought was that since Kyle Busch lost so much ground in the points in Kansas, his fall from the top of the heap represented the fall of the last hope for Chase contenders not named Johnson or Kenseth.

But this theory could not be farther from the truth. Question 1 already demonstrated why Kevin Harvick is still in the hunt. Harvick is only 25 points behind leader Kenseth, while Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch are only 32 and 35 back, respectively. None of these drivers are even remotely out of contention. The general rule of thumb is that as long as you can stay within a race of the points lead before Talladega, you are still in the hunt. One wrong move by Kenseth or Johnson, and they have as many as three hungry drivers ready to capitalize on their misfortune.

Much like Harvick, Kenseth and Johnson need to get through these next two weeks without trouble before they can start to treat this Chase as a two (or three) man fight. The Fall race at Charlotte is underrated in terms of its toughness: it is a now-rare 500-mile event, on a track that is notoriously difficult on equipment. Charlotte is in no way a walk in the park, especially for Johnson, who has struggled here ever since the 1.5-mile oval was repaved.

Long story short, let the next two weeks play out before proclaiming that anyone has broken away from the field.

3. Just how much of an advantage will clean air give?

The Gen-6 car has, in many ways improved the Sprint Cup Series. It’s an obvious improvement in the looks department, it’s faster, and it has created some buzz throughout the sport in a lot of positive ways. In racing conditions, the car has provided a small boost at a lot of tracks in terms of the quality of competition. The racing from third-to-fifth on back has been noticeably better with the new car; it’s also improved the racing drastically on bumpy and/or non-aero-intensive tracks.

However, one of the drawbacks of the Gen-6 car is that it appears to provide an increased clean air advantage for the top 2-3 cars on the track on smooth, 1.5-mile ovals — perhaps more so than that of the old Gen-5 cars. We saw this phenomenon at Kansas, and we saw it at the spring event at the very facility that the series is racing at this weekend.

There is really no way around this fact: clean air is going to provide an absurd advantage Saturday night. Charlotte is still a very smooth race track, and when you add cool nighttime conditions to the mix, it exacerbates the clean air advantage to untold levels. The Charlotte Fall race is widely considered among aerodynamic experts to be the hardest race of the year to make passes in due to the cool temperatures and the smooth racing surface, both factors which foster the dreaded “aero push.” The hard tire that is expected certainly won’t help, either.

Expect passing at the front of the field to be rare on Saturday night, which means restarts and pit strategy will have added importance throughout the race.

4. Who will capture the checkered flag on Sunday?

Unlike most weeks, this column is/was/will be posted after practice and qualifying sessions for the Cup race. Bearing this fact in mind, we can get a much, much clearer picture of who is going to be strong based on more than just recent history.

At the moment, Kasey Kahne appears to be the overwhelming favorite heading into Saturday night. Kahne was a major factor in the Spring Charlotte event, leading much of the race before being snookered by Kevin Harvick on a late restart. Leading Thursday’s practice session, the No. 5 car qualified fifth — but don’t expect it to stay back there for long. Kahne has a stellar 9.9 average finish in the past ten races at the facility, higher than any other driver and making him the favorite heading into the weekend.

Kevin Harvick also figures to be especially strong. Harvick shocked everyone once again on Thursday night by nabbing the outside pole for the race, his second-highest qualifying run since 2006. Harvick is the most recent winner at the track, and was strong in Thursday’s practice session to boot.

You can’t forget about Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson this weekend, either. Both drivers have boatloads of momentum, making them forces to be reckoned with, once again in Charlotte as they look to pad their points advantage. Johnson has six career wins at the track, more than any other driver entered in this 43-car field.

I’m still sticking with Kahne as my pick to win the race, though. He finally seems to have rediscovered some of his early magic, if practice is any indication, and Charlotte is his favorite racetrack. Sounds like a recipe for success to me.

Pre-Race Predictions For The 2013 Bank Of America 500
1. 5 – Kasey Kahne
2. 18 – Kyle Busch
3. 29 – Kevin Harvick
4. 48 – Jimmie Johnson
5. 20 – Matt Kenseth
6. 16 – Greg Biffle
7. 24 – Jeff Gordon
8. 42 – Juan Pablo Montoya
9. 22 – Joey Logano
10. 78 – Kurt Busch

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Carl D.
10/11/2013 08:45 AM

Ricky Stenhouse qualified 16th. Charlotte is notable as a track where lots of drivers get their first win… Gordon, Labonte, Kenseth, and McMurrray come to mind. If a chase driver doesn’t win, Stenhouse is as good a pick as any.

10/11/2013 10:27 AM

Really….the only thing I like about this weekend is that PRN is covering it. At least they will discuss real issues and give their opinion on it.

Bob Gimmault
10/11/2013 12:40 PM

You must be watching a different series than me. The racing has not improved with the gen 6. I’d like to have whatever you’ve been smoking

10/11/2013 01:45 PM

The racing stinks, its all about track position. The only racing is from the screwed up restarts where it is a free for all to get one or two positions. Thats not racing, imo.

10/11/2013 01:56 PM

Good article Matt.

10/11/2013 02:48 PM

Agree with Bob, other than cosmetically, the racing hasn’t improved much with the Gen6 car. Follow the leader still rules the weekend.

10/11/2013 07:41 PM

They should throw the debris caution every 10 laps and make them all come it to pit.

Hell, that would be better than what we’ll see Saturday night.

And I too am glad PRN is covering the race.