*1. Can Denny hold his momentum?*
In a Chase that can be defined in simple terms – Hendrick chassis vs. the field – Denny Hamlin stands out as the lone “wild card” capable of dethroning the Johnson juggernaut so many expect. Entering the Chase with two wins in his last three races, the driver of the No. 11 Toyota repositioned himself after a miserable summer and enters this Chase the No. 1 seed, albeit with a scant three-point advantage over his closest competition. The 2010 championship runner-up appears to have learned from that year of “almost,” now paired with a crew chief in Darian Grubb that’s won more Sprint Cup races since the start of 2011 than anyone else. Together, both create a compelling case of redemption and have the full focus of Joe Gibbs Racing behind them.
But for a team that has admittedly been inconsistent – at one point in early August, Hamlin appeared in danger of falling out of the top 10 in points – the first two weeks of the Chase will be critical. An awful 2011 for the No. 11 team was all but finished at Chicagoland last year, when tire problems and poor fuel mileage led to a 31st-place finish that left them dead last in the Chase. A 29th at Loudon followed, and just like that, Hamlin’s bid for a title was over before it even began.
Chances are, in 2012 that performance will be markedly better considering Grubb, with Tony Stewart in 2011 was the winning Chicagoland crew chief last September. Coming off a victory at the circuit’s last intermediate, Atlanta you’d think they’ll unload with a top-10 setup if not better. But Hamlin’s record here isn’t exactly stellar; in six career starts, he still has yet to lead a lap and has collected only one top-5 finish. So survival turns into success on Sunday, keeping the bad finish off the table a key to taking a step towards that title. It’s here, along with Loudon and Dover – the driver’s worst track – it’s expected Hamlin will lose ground to his rivals before rebuilding momentum during the middle portions of the Chase. So in some ways, if Grubb can simply keep this team 10th or better on Sunday, in the hunt it’s just as good as a win.
*2. Can Chicagoland give _NASCAR_ momentum?*
One of NASCAR’s most-maligned tracks, year two of Chicagoland’s place in the Chase comes at a critical point. On the circuit since 2001, the 1.5-mile oval has struggled to create close competition, side-by-side passing replaced by aerodynamic, single-file parades as the prime example of the “cookie cutter” track gone bad. One hour away from Chicago’s city center, it’s failed to gain traction with the community and attendance has been steadily declining – just 25,000 attended the speedway’s Nationwide standalone race this year, a startling 31 percent decline from the year before and good tickets still remain for this weekend’s main events.
Those struggles are why, in large part NASCAR took the lone date at the track and assigned it to the start of the Chase, hoping the recognition would kickstart interest in an area that’s not typically a racing hotbed. It hasn’t happened; note that for most of the week, instead of building postseason media momentum around Chicago the sanctioning body built a series of events out of town. Is that a sign they’re giving up?
Probably not, considering NASCAR’s “separate” track ownership arm, International Speedway Corporation owns the facility. But at some point, in order to want to come back fans will need to have a lasting memory from this racetrack. Off the top of my head, I can think of two in 12 years: Kevin Harvick’s spin-to-win in 2001 and Jeff Gordon knocking Matt Kenseth aside to take the trophy in 2006. That’s nowhere near enough, and if the race is anything like last year’s fuel mileage, take-out-your-calculator finish don’t expect another one to get added. So don’t come into this weekend expecting much; that way, you won’t be disappointed a la so many intermediate races over the past few seasons.
*3. Did Kevin Harvick’s team get it together?*
For much of the year, Kevin Harvick and the No. 29 team have been out to lunch. In fact, you could say their Chase bid comes more on the backs of early-season consistency, collecting a handful of top-10 finishes early on than anything they’ve done since the start of summer. But in the past few weeks, a crew chief change – pairing Harvick back with old flame Gil Martin – has sparked a renaissance. Two straight top-10 finishes, combined with a solid Nationwide Series victory for Harvick at Richmond have RCR thinking they might be able to make some noise yet in the postseason.
If it’s going to happen, Chicagoland presents an early test. Harvick won the first two Cup races ever held here, in 2001-02 and was runner-up at the event last year. Their track record at intermediates this season has not been strong, going without a top-5 result since Fontana in late March but he did dominate Atlanta two weeks ago in the Nationwide Series. That gives them hope, and Harvick a confidence boost at a time it’s sorely needed. When you enter the Chase behind a step, as this team has been you have to maximize opportunities and this track is one where the No. 29 team has to cash in if they’re going to be labeled a contender.
*4. Which non-Chaser will mix it up on Sunday?*
So much coverage is given to the postseason contenders over the next ten weeks, but since the title is still months away from being decided let’s spend some time on those who missed out. Mark Martin has had an excellent year on intermediates, in contention to win at Michigan back in August until a scary pit road incident nearly tore his No. 55 in half. Expect him to be running up front Sunday, the fastest of the three MWR Toyotas (even though the other two, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex, Jr. are in the Chase.)
Kurt Busch, believe it or not is also one to watch. Despite aerodynamics and engineering playing a big role at this track – something cash-strapped Phoenix Racing is behind on – Busch has run well here in the past, leading a race-high 64 laps here last year with Roger Penske. Fighting for a job, most recently linked to the Furniture Row No. 78 Chevy and a fourth car with Richard Childress Racing he needs a series of high-profile runs to keep his hopes for a better 2013 ride alive. Both he and brother Kyle won’t worry about ruffling the feathers of the other Chasers; they have too much at stake in their own careers to tiptoe around people. Expect at least one or two interesting moments from both on Sunday.