Charlotte Motor Speedway is the site of Round 5 of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and as the Chase reaches it’s midpoint, the championship picture is becoming increasingly clear. After emerging from the last lap mayhem at Talladega with minimal damage, Brad Keselowski also emerged from Talladega with a 14 point lead in the Championship over his nearest foe, Jimmie Johnson. Denny Hamlin is still very much in the hunt for the title as well, but a poor finish at Talladega set his number 11 team back a good bit. With this Saturday night’s race looming as another important step in the Chase for the Championship, here are the big stories to watch heading into Charlotte.
*1. Can Jimmie Johnson close the gap?*
As was more or less expected, Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team stroked it for much of the race in Talladega, and as I predicted last week, they were junked at the finish due to being caught up in the last lap wreck. Johnson was swept up in the calamity while trying to make a mad dash for the front of the pack late in the race, and their strategy bit them hard.
Now, entering Charlotte, Johnson sits 14 markers behind points leader Keselowski, and given how consistent the No. 2 team has been as of late, the No. 48 has a bit of a hill to climb in order to make up the lost ground. Luckily, Charlotte is one of the No. 48 team’s best tracks, and they will no doubt be a strong contender on Saturday night. If Johnson and Co. want to win this championship, they need to reduce the deficit they face, preferably sooner rather than later
*2. Just how bad will the aero push be?*
Last year’s Bank of America 500 drummed up quite a stir amongst fans because of the dreaded “aero-push phenomenon.” By season’s end, one could probably pinpoint last year’s running of the fall Charlotte event as the race most visibly affected by the aero push. Drivers roundly complained for the duration of the event that passing was nearly impossible that night, even more so than at other 1.5 mile events from the season. Why this particular race was so light on passing compared to other 1.5 mile events from last year is anyone’s guess (For the sake of comparison, the 2011 Coke 600 was ironically one of the best events of the season. Go figure).
What does this all mean for the 2012 edition of this race? Hopefully not too much, as the lack of passing in last year’s race made the event rather tepid. But knowing that differing weather conditions and extremely small changes in aero grip seem to have a huge effect on the quality of racing at Charlotte, the whole “ability to pass” situation will be a big thing to keep your eye on Saturday night. Watch the ambient temperatures especially, as even the tiniest changes in air temp can have a huge effect on a car’s balance at Charlotte. With all this in mind, expect the team who best manages track position and makes frequent adjustments throughout the night to be in victory circle.
*3. Is the Kurt Busch/Furniture Row marriage going to work?*
This week is going to go down as one of the most important in Kurt Busch’s entire career. Busch is being given an unheard of fourth chance with a Sprint Cup team. The promising but inexperienced Furniture Row Racing squad believes that Kurt Busch is the man who can take the team to the next level (read: a Chase berth), and they courted the Las Vegas native all season long in hopes of landing him for the 2013 season.
Land him they did, and now the onus is on Busch to behave himself and make the most of what could very well be the last decent shot he has at staying in the Cup Series. Just last week, Busch made a fool of himself again, this time by endangering safety workers and (apparently) ignoring the orders of NASCAR officials. Furniture Row is the kind of team that has what it takes to do great things in this sport, and Kurt Busch is the kind of driver who can make that happen.
This week’s race at Charlotte will be the first race with Busch behind the wheel of an FRR No. 78 machine, and we are going to have a good idea of what this partnership is going to end up looking like going forward after this week. This obviously is a key item to watch for in this Saturday’s race, because if Kurt and company can not make the first week on the job, it is going to be a very long year in 2013 for all parties involved. Bank on it.
*4. Can Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer edge closer to the top of the standings?*
Ever so quietly, Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer have each put together solid Chase runs thus far. Kasey sits a mildly surprising fourth place in the standings, 36 markers out of the lead, while Bowyer sits fifth, just 40 markers back. Much has been made about the top 3 drivers in the standings (Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin), but given that there are still six races left in the season, there is still plenty of time for either Kahne or Bowyer to close the gap to the three leaders and make the championship battle a four or even five man fight for the title.
Each driver has been decently consistent thus far in the Chase, but they both need to start stringing together some top 3 finishes or even a win if they really want to make a serious charge at the title. And for Kasey Kahne, there is no better place to build momentum than Charlotte. Kahne is a four-time winner at Charlotte Motor Speedway and won the spring race to boot. If Kahne is going to win this championship, he practically has to win at Charlotte, as the competition is simply too tight to let a race you are clearly favored at slip through your fingers. Bowyer’s team has been solid on the mile-and-a-halfs this season, and a victory at Charlotte wouldn’t be a complete surprise. Regardless, these two drivers will bear watching as they try to make a last ditch effort to throw their names in the hat of contenders before the series enters its final stretch of races.