ONE: Mercury Rising… Harvick vs. Johnson
The 2014 iteration of the Chase had a number of SportsCenter-worthy moments – many of which didn’t actually occur on the track. And perhaps unsurprisingly the 2015 version of the playoffs has already got its first off-track moment following the post-race contretemps between Jimmie Johnson and “not happy at all” Kevin Harvick in the drivers’ motorhome lot. Last year, you might remember, it was Harvick’s sneaky push to the back of Brad Keselowski that led to the fracas with Jeff Gordon at Texas Motor Speedway in race eight of the Chase. This year we have the shove in the chest of Johnson and then some flailing. So by my reckoning, if push comes to shove, then it’s only a matter of time before we get a proper punching match between Harvick and someone else. I read someone complaining on Twitter (and really that’s about 90% of Twitter isn’t it?) that they don’t want another nine weeks of out-of-the-car incidents like this one. Well if this is week one of 10, I’d say that person is right out of luck. There’s more to come, no question; possibly as early as next week. As for what’s next for the reigning champion, it’s as he so succinctly put in the post-race interview: he likely needs a win. Don’t forget, though, that he needed a win at Phoenix International Raceway in race nine of last year’s Chase. No one needs reminding how that worked out.
TWO: New Hampshire Suddenly Much More Interesting
Next up is Sprint Cup race number 42 at the 1.058-mile flat track of New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The track nicknamed the Magic Mile has not really lived up to its magic moniker of late, with races tending toward the processional, but given we have just 300 miles and Chase drivers itching to secure passage into the next round, I’m figuring we’ll see some fireworks. This will particularly be the case on restarts, a topic which has engendered a controversy all of its own of late. In short, it is the restarts this Sunday afternoon that may very well make or break the playoff chances for certain drivers. Back in July, it was Kyle Busch who won the race, leading some 95 of the scheduled 301 laps in the process. Second-place finisher Keselowski led 101 laps, with Harvick leading 59 laps on the way to a third-place run. Chances are the winner will come from one of the three aforementioned drivers but given the way the first race unfolded (and more on the winner below) who’s to say what we’ll witness this weekend. Hopefully it will be a fun one to watch.
THREE: Huge Win For Hamlin
When you see a driver start the race 31st, spin on lap 2 and just avoid going two laps down, you don’t tend to assume you’ll see that driver wheel his way to a top-10 finish, let alone Victory Lane, but that’s exactly what happened to Denny Hamlin this past weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. In the end, it was a gutsy call to stay out on old rubber and definitely his best restart of the year that saw Hamlin take the checkers for what he described on the radio as an “amazing day.” The way the Chase unfolds schedule-wise favors the Chesterfield, Va. native, with the final five tracks being among his best, statistically speaking. If Hamlin is starting this strongly, another run to the final four could well be on the cards. Plenty of prognosticators wrote Hamlin off when he tore his ACL, but again he’s proved the doubters wrong with a plucky effort when it counted. Given the speed in the entire Joe Gibbs Racing team at the moment, a win for the organization in race number one of the Chase was a strong possibility. That it was Hamlin, who hadn’t won since Martinsville earlier in the year, should send fear through the rest of the Chase participants.
FOUR: Will the 2016 Schedule Equal Chase Changes?
We’re still waiting word on the official 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule. The rumors had implied that a schedule would be issued at some point in the second half of September, but at the time of writing this column we’ve seen nothing formal as yet. Truth is the date the schedule is released is something of a moving target with no apparent fixed time when it happens. The 2015 schedule, for example, was announced in late August; the 2014 schedule was released in mid-October while the 2013 iteration was announced in late September. Of course, the really interesting question is not so much when we will know the order of the races, but what will actually change. I’m pretty confident in saying we won’t see a road course in the Chase, despite many suggesting that should be the case, but might we see some different venues in the playoffs? It’s certainly about time NASCAR mixed it up in the final 10 races. As we know though, schedule changes are slow and incremental, so if anything, the 2016 schedule will be evolution and not revolution.
FIVE: 2016 Package
And speaking of 2016, NASCAR will meet with all the relevant parties this coming Friday at New Hampshire to discuss the rules package for the 2016 season. Expect, then, to hear that the low-downforce package that was run with great success at Kentucky Speedway and Darlington Raceway will be implemented next year at least at all of the mile-and-a-half tracks, which make up the bulk of the schedule. Decisions will need to be made about both the bigger tracks and also the short tracks such as Martinsville Speedway. The net of all this is that we should have a tire/aero package that promotes and enhances good racing. Given some of the tedium we’ve seen this year, that can only be a great thing for the sport.