It is a common belief that you can’t win the Chase in the first week alone, but you can certainly lose it. I tend to disagree with that statement. A good first race doesn’t guarantee a championship by any stretch, but it is definitely the way you want to start, and may make all the difference come Homestead. Same is true for a bad first race; there are still nine more races to make up for a poor result, but it may come back to haunt you later. Round one of the Chase saw some championship favorites on both ends of the spectrum:
*Tony Stewart –* For starters, what a sweet redemption this win is for Stewart, who lost the opening Chase race last year in similar fashion to how he won it this time. Could it be the start of a magical championship run? Just days after stating that he was one of five drivers that had no chance of winning the title, Stewart’s run at Chicago propelled him to second place in the standings – just seven points behind Kevin Harvick – along with a very favorable schedule coming up. Has Smoke just been playing mind games with everyone with his recent statements about not being competitive enough? If you think about it, Stewart has been fairly strong this year, but has simply had poor luck. By stretching his fuel load longer than anyone else, Stewart’s luck has appeared to turn the corner.
*Kevin Harvick –* It’s been a nice few weeks for Harvick. It continued at Chicago, where he turned an eighth place car into a runner up finish. While many of his main championship threats ran out of gas at the end of the race, Harvick was in full race mode, one of the few who wasn’t conserving fuel at the end. While he didn’t score the win, his second place effort was good enough to gain sole possession of the points lead. More importantly, Harvick is starting to prove his naysayers (myself included) wrong about his summer struggles carrying over into the Chase. It appears he is back to his early season form, which is a scary sign for everyone else.
*Jimmie Johnson –* You may be asking yourself how in the world Johnson could be happy with a tenth place finish after having the dominant car. Well, it’s clear he wasn’t happy at all, but his competitors really should be concerned. The only way he is going to lose one of these things is through tough luck or getting beat by strategy, both of which happened to him on Monday. Here’s the thing though; he was still able to finish in the top 10 whereas several other Chasers suffered much worse. Even when Johnson is a victim of bad luck, it’s still not that bad. He failed to win with the fastest car, falling to eighth in the standings, but Johnson needs to be looking at the glass half full here. When he was able to take the lead, he looked untouchable, which is something that had been uncharacteristically rare in the first 26 weeks. He wasn’t able to get the win, but it could have been much worse, as he managed to salvage a solid finish to still be in a good position for the remaining races on the schedule.
*Jeff Gordon –* Any momentum Gordon had going into the Chase was completely wiped out with his disappointing 24th place finish at Chicago. He was poised to finish better than that before running out of fuel on the last lap, but the whole day was a struggle for the driver who had scored more points than anyone in the previous ten races. Most importantly, Gordon’s sluggish afternoon showed that his issues at the intermediate tracks still exist. It looked like the team had turned the corner by winning Atlanta in dominating fashion, but Monday’s race proved otherwise. By no means is he out of it, but with so many other tracks in the Chase similar to Chicago, the No. 24 team has to be worried whether this is a sign of things to come in the final nine weeks.
*Kyle Busch –* Haven’t we seen this movie before? It seems like we did three years ago, when Busch led the points for most of the regular season before imploding in the last ten races. Just one race into the Chase and it seems like history will indeed repeat itself for this years number one seed. Busch was fairly strong at Chicago, leading some laps early and was a top five contender for most of the race. However, poor pit stops on what seemed like every caution period sent the No. 18 camp all the way back in the field. Each time, Busch patiently worked his way back into contention, but his hard work was rewarded with a devastating 22nd place result after running out of gas coming to the white flag. The advantage of the 12 bonus points he accumulated over the course of the regular season by winning four times has now been eliminated and he now has an uphill battle to climb. Much like his race this past Monday, Busch has quickly fallen out of the lead and will need to work his way back to the front. Hopefully for him, the end result will be much different from the one this past week.
*Matt Kenseth –* Different driver, same result. Like the aforementioned, Kenseth was a victim of the fuel mileage game, running dry on the final circuit. Of the three, however, this has to hurt the 2003 champ the most. While Busch and Gordon had their share of struggles all afternoon, Kenseth was one of the best cars, leading a total of 46 laps after starting on the pole. It was the perfect opportunity to get an edge on the likes of the No. 18 and No. 24. To make matters worse, Kenseth still crossed the finish in the top 10, but thanks to an illegal last lap push from fellow Ford driver J.J. Yeley, NASCAR dropped him all the way back to 21st. With Loudon the next track on the schedule, a venue he hasn’t had a top 5 at in over six years, Kenseth needed a good finish at Chicago arguably more than anyone else.
While it may seem silly to critique someone based off of the opening Chase race, it has proven in the past to be indicative of the weeks to follow. In 2004, Kurt Busch, who was hardly considered a championship favorite based on his regular season results, sparked his championship run by winning the opener at Loudon. His younger brother Kyle suffered the opposite fate in 2008, going from regular season champ to Chase chump. Unless your name is Jimmie Johnson, it is very important to start the Chase off strong, and several contenders may look back at Chicago as the reason why they lost the Sprint Cup.
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