Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind the storylines surrounding Monday’s Chase debut at Chicagoland? Amy Henderson has you covered with her journalistic rendition of the Big Six questions everyone wanted to ask after the race…
Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. must feel like a yo-yo. Early in the season, he was near the top of the points chart and people were whispering about an upset title run. Then, Earnhardt hit a midseason slump, nearly fell out of contention altogether and people were whispering of a possible choke. Now, after a third-place run on Monday, Earnhardt finds himself in contention once again; he’s fifth in points, just 13 behind championship leader Kevin Harvick. While it’s likely that Earnhardt’s wild ride will level out short of the title, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver and his team put in a solid performance in Chicagoland. The old adage about luck proved correct, but only because the No. 88 was in position to capitalize on the misfortune of several competitors on Monday. If they can do that every week, improving steadily throughout the course of a 400-mile event they’ll be in good position come Homestead.
What… was THAT?
Wait, What?! Part I: At one point during the rain delay on Sunday, it seems some NASCAR officials were looking for something other than a break in the radar. Along with Brett Bodine, they were searching for the pace car. That’s right: NASCAR lost a hot pink Camaro. It turns out that a track intern had taken the car “to get it washed.” In a rainstorm? Yeah, right. Washed. And I’m an underground aviator.
Wait, What?! Part II: This race gives you two head-shaking, “really?” moments for the price of one. The grand marshal for the day? The GEICO caveman. And why do these bizarre things always happen in Chicagoland, home of the wayward giant orange and the displaced Muppets? Seriously, though, with such a dearth of sponsors in the field these days, it would have been nice to see the title sponsor forego the race in favor of sponsoring the No. 13 for the whole year. Instead, they’ve relegated the team to start-and-park status for several weeks, although Mears did run the distance Monday. Why? It seems to me that race fans would rather see a competitive, fully-sponsored field of racecars than a name on a billboard or a banner towed behind an airplane.
Where…did the polesitter wind up?
It may have been an all-Wisconsin front row at the start, but it didn’t end up that way. Matt Kenseth started the day looking like he had the car to beat, leading 46 of 267 laps during the race. In fact, he still looked strong as the laps wound down, fighting hard for a top-five finish… but the fuel-mileage monster bit Kenseth hard on the final lap. Kenseth crossed the line eighth, needing a helpful push from JJ Yeley to cross the line. Whoops. Assistance is allowed on every lap, except the last, so Kenseth was moved to 21st, the first car one lap down, as a result of the infraction. (Fellow Cheesehead Paul Menard, who started second, didn’t fare much better, finishing 20th.)
When… will I be loved?
Everyone was on his best behavior on Monday a week after the Richmond wreckfest. But for the second time in three weeks, Mother Nature reminded us who’s really in charge of the schedule, pushing the race to Monday. That mean many fans who sat through Sunday’s endless rain delay didn’t get to go back. It also means a ratings dip for ESPN, though at least someone, somewhere did the right thing and made sure that the race was shown online. It won’t help ratings or attendance numbers, sure, but it will help fans catch up after they spent the live portion of NASCAR’s Chase debut sitting at work.
Why… the heck did Yeley’s lap 204 contact warrant a caution?
You almost had to wonder if NASCAR was already looking for debris to tighten up the field when Yeley smacked the wall, because the damage to Yeley’s car was minimal and he made it to pit road under power, leaving no visible debris behind. Really, the rub was barely worse than an old Darlington stripe, yet the caution had the potential to change the outcome of a Chase race. Not only that, but both the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series have seen similar, if not worse, incidents where the race stayed green. The yellow flag that flew was simply not necessary. I’m all for throwing the yellow whenever there is any question about driver safety, such as a blown engine (the caution for Jamie McMurray was definitely warranted). But every time a driver brushes the wall? Come on, NASCAR. These guys didn’t learn to drive yesterday.
How… do the title contenders shake out after one Chase race?
It’s been accepted that you won’t win the Chase in the first race, but you sure can lose it. That’s doubly true now that points are equal to positions on the racetrack. In the past, a lead of 15 points could be erased in a single race, but now that’s simply not the case unless someone has a terrible day – most likely in the form of a mechanical failure or a wreck.
So, who lost themselves the title at Chicagoland? Denny Hamlin sits 41 markers out, and that likely spells the end of his title hopes. Basically, that deficit means that Hamlin would have to beat every other contender in every race, some by over four spots. Even if Hamlin could beat Harvick, the current leader, by that margin, he’d have to beat everyone else as well, and that’s a tall order, especially since Harvick is looking like a serious contender after his win at Richmond and runner-up finish this week.
Jeff Gordon, who came into the race as a title favorite, is close to the brink as well as Kenseth. Realistically, I would give anyone more than 20 points behind after Loudon little to no chance of winning. In reality, it could be less than that. Other than race winner Tony Stewart, Harvick and Earnhardt, nobody else looked even close to championship-caliber when the checkered flag fell. Earnhardt’s team doesn’t look quite ready to sustain that performance for 10 weeks, especially since a huge part of it was a fuel-mileage gamble that paid off – a strategy that just as easily could have backfired as it did on both of Earnhardt’s teammates. For Gordon and Johnson, that duo may have forfeited the title on the fumes of fuel that they didn’t have at the end.