Top Chase seeds need Chicago boost
That’s why Sunday’s GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway (2 p.m. ET, ESPN, MRN Radio, SiriusXM Radio) could loom crucial among the 10 events comprising this year’s Chase.
Since becoming the postseason’s opening race, the GEICO 400’s two winners – Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart – went on to capture the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. Kurt Busch also won the Chase opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway en route to the 2004 title.
This year’s top three seeds – Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch – have a total of one win at the 1.5-mile track located in Joliet, Ill. Busch, the No. 3 seed with 2,012 points, won in 2008 but has posted an average finish of 19.0 in four subsequent starts.
No. 1 seed Kenseth’s last Chicagoland top-10 – a seventh – also came in 2008. The 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion who enters the Chase with 2,015 points, hasn’t had much luck since, averaging a finish of 18.75 from 2009-2012.
Johnson, in pursuit of a sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup title, has done everything but visit Chicagoland’s Victory Lane. The No. 2 seed with 2,012 points finished second in last year’s race – the Californian’s third runner-up performance among six top-five and nine-top 10 finishes in 11 Chicagoland starts.
Johnson, however, enters this year’s Chase lacking momentum. His most recent four finishes – 40th, 36th, 28th and 40th – are significantly worse than comparable performances of his five championship seasons which included at least one top 10.
Johnson remains the Chase’s top winner with 22 victories in 90 races – 17 more than Kenseth and Kyle Busch’s combined total.
Five drivers who failed to qualify for the Chase in 2012 made this year’s cut. They are Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards (No. 4 seed), Joey Logano (No. 9), Kurt Busch (No. 10), and Ryan Newman (No. 12). Logano is the only first-time Chase participant among this year’s qualifiers.
Last year’s qualifiers failing to repeat are 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Martin Truex Jr.
Kurt Busch Ready To Flex Some Chase Muscle
Kurt Busch and his No. 78 Chevrolet have accomplished the improbable.
The team based in Denver, Colo. – some 2,000 miles west of the hub of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series organizations – has qualified for this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™, the first single-car team to reach the postseason in the Chase era.
Where they go from here is anyone’s guess. No single-car team has won a NASCAR Sprint Cup title since Alan Kulwicki in 1992. Busch, however, believes a second NASCAR Sprint Cup championship isn’t out of reach.
“I can understand how some folks felt it was an improbable accomplishment for a little single-car team from Colorado to make the Chase but in reality the Chase was our goals from the beginning of the year,” said Busch, the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. “And believe me, this Furniture Row team continues to move the needle forward and grab traction.
“We have some muscle to flex in the next 10 weeks.”
Busch has risen from racing purgatory, returning to the Chase for a seventh time after leaving premier rides with Roush Fenway Racing and Penske Racing. He joined Furniture Row with six races remaining in the 2012 season and capped the campaign with three consecutive top-10 finishes – a first for owner Barney Visser’s organization.
Busch has yet to score a victory but he opens the Chase with arguably the greatest momentum among the 12 post-season qualifiers. Fourteenth with six regular-season races to go, Busch fashioned four top-five and five top-10 finishes. The team’s only stumble was a 31st-place run at Bristol when a suspension part broke. Busch has led six of his most recent eight starts. The team’s last of two DNFs came at Talladega in the spring.
“I keep saying we need to keep plugging away, protect our car and avoid major mistakes,” said Busch. “Look at our record. Our worst finish since the middle of March when something didn’t go wrong was 15th.
“It’s a matter of putting it all together in the 10 crucial Chase races.”
Earnhardt Hopes Third Straight Chase Is The Charm
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will compete in three consecutive Chases for the first time. He no doubt hopes what might have been a year ago will have a happier ending this time around.
In 2012, after scoring a drought-busting victory and leading the regular-season points standings, Earnhardt suffered concussion-related injuries that forced him to sit out two Chase races. Junior finished 12th in final rankings.
Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte must figure out how to replicate the season’s red-hot start – a pair of second-place finishes among consecutive top 10s that carried Earnhardt to the top of the standings after race No. 5 at Auto Club Speedway.
“Mistakes I’ve made, crashes I’ve gotten myself into, engine failures, things like that that have taken away from our ability to show how strong we are to get consistent finishes like we did last year,” said Earnhardt. “I feel like we belong in the Chase, feel like if we can put 10 races together, I think we can do it as good as anybody when it comes down to it. Hopefully we can make it happen.”
Earnhardt won at Chicagoland Speedway in 2007. Since joining his current team the following season, Earnhardt’s best finish is third in 2011.
First Timer: Logano Looks To Continue Regular Season Success In His First Chase
A blistering final seven races put Joey Logano in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for the first time, and now he has a chance to become the youngest champion in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history. That distinction is currently held by Bill Rexford, who was 23 years, 7 months and 15 days old when he won the title in 1950. Come Homestead, Logano would be 23 years, 5 months and 24 days.
If he can string together a series of races like he did to close the regular season, a championship is certainly within reason. Over the final seven regular season races – six of which were top 10s – Logano scored more points than any other driver (264).
Now, he enters the Chase as a first-timer, becoming the 24th different Chase driver, and looking to shock the NASCAR world. He certainly will have plenty of advice coming from owner Roger Penske and teammate Brad Keselowski.
Keselowski, of course, won the championship last year. He missed the Chase this season; much in part due to the 10 finishes outside the top 20 he suffered (he had four finishes outside the top 20 all of last season).
Still, he and Penske have that playoff pedigree – and will surely impart some of that wisdom on the Logano and the No. 22 team (this is Logano’s first season with Penske Racing). A member of the Penske Racing stable has made the Chase in each of the past five seasons.
Harvick’s Not Alone In The Chase
When the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway with the GEICO 400, Kevin Harvick will be the lone representative in NASCAR’s postseason from Richard Childress Racing. His teammates at RCR, Jeff Burton and Paul Menard, both failed to make the playoffs.
Harvick, however, won’t be completely alone.
Harvick and Kurt Busch, who drove Furniture Row Racing’s No. 78 Chevrolet into a Chase berth – the first time for a single-car team – will help each other out over the season’s final 10 races.
“They’ve always been helpful. I would say it’s going to be business as usual. We’ll expect to be there to do our part, to help the 29,” answered Busch when asked about how Furniture Row Racing’s alliance with RCR will benefit him in the Chase. “Right now it’s the 29 and the 78 coming out of that situation.”
Not only has Harvick worked with Busch because of their teams’ partnership, the two veteran drivers are both leaving their respective teams at the end of the season to join Stewart-Haas Racing.
With the points reset, Harvick sits fourth in the standings on the strength of two regular-season wins (Richmond and Charlotte, which is in the Chase). In 205 starts at tracks in this year’s Chase, he has 10 wins, 41 top fives and 95 top 10s.
In six previous appearances in the postseason, Harvick has compiled three wins, 13 top-five and 35 top-10 finishes in the final 10 races of the season as a Chase contender. His highest position in the final standings is third place in 2010 and 2011.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Etc.
Justin Allgaier will make his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start this weekend, driving the No. 51 Brandt Chevrolet for Phoenix Racing. Currently fifth in NASCAR Nationwide Series points, Allgaier is the 10th different driver to pilot the No. 51 car in 2013. He has three career wins in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. … In Richmond, Jeff Gordon won his first Coors Light Pole Award of the season. In doing so, he has now won at least one pole in 21 consecutive seasons, a NASCAR Sprint Cup record. He also became the 16th different pole winner this season.
Hornish And Dillon: Chicagoland And Championship Favorites
In the NASCAR Nationwide Series’ last visit to Chicagoland Speedway in July, Sam Hornish Jr. finished runner-up to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular Joey Logano. Austin Dillon crossed the finish line third.
As they return to the 1.5-mile track located west of Chicago for Saturday’s Dollar General 300 Powered by Coca-Cola, Hornish and Dillon are embroiled in a tight points battle. After a sixth-place performance at Richmond last Friday night, Hornish extended his points lead over Dillon by six to 16. Regan Smith finished third in the race and sits third in the standings 10 points further back.
In the July race, Hornish led 56 laps, including the first 48 laps. He was leading on lap 180 when the sixth and final caution flag appeared. As the race returned to green-flag racing on lap 185, Logano jumped ahead of him and led the final 15 circuits around the oval. Dillon paced the field twice for a total of 24 laps. Elliott Sadler, who is currently fourth in the standings (-28), led a race-high 81 laps before finishing fourth.
A second victory of the year for Hornish would put more separation in the standings between him and his closest rivals – mainly Dillon, Smith and Sadler – and could provide the breathing room the former IndyCar Series champion and Indianapolis 500 winner needs to reel in his first NASCAR title come November. His first win of 2013 came in March at Las Vegas. Hornish’s record at Chicagoland in four races is enough to convince even the most novice fans that a victory this weekend is a definite possibility. In addition to his runner-up finish, he’s notched finishes of fifth, sixth and eighth for an average finish of 5.25.
If there is one driver whose record at Chicagoland most resembles Hornish’s, it would have to be Dillon. Although Dillon is without a victory at the track, his average finish position in three starts is 4.0. He has two third-place performances to go along with a sixth. Dillon is winless in 2013, but has six poles, including a record four straight. A win this weekend for Dillon would close the gap on Hornish and make the championship bout hotter with seven races left.
Helping Hand: Earnhardt’s Experience Can Aid Smith In Title Hunt, Chicagoland
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will make his fourth and final NASCAR Nationwide Series start of the season this Saturday in the Dollar General 300 Powered by Coca-Cola. His participation could be just what the doctor ordered – for his teammate Regan Smith, who pilots the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet for Earnhardt and is third in the standings, 26 points behind leader Sam Hornish Jr.
With both drivers in the race, one can only suspect that both Earnhardt and Smith along with their teams will be more than willing to share notes on car set-ups and racing conditions in an effort to help the latter move up the standings.
Earnhardt’s first three NNS races of the season came in the season opener at Daytona where he finished fourth, Las Vegas in March (14th) and April’s Texas race (fourth). Smith finished 14th, seventh and seventh in the same three races. In addition, he’s captured victories at Talladega and Michigan.
Earnhardt, who won back-to-back NNS titles in 1998-1999, has made one previous start at the 1.5-mile oval. He finished 15th in 2006. In 12 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts at the track, he has one victory (2005), three top fives and five top 10s.
In four NNS starts at Chicagoland, Smith’s best finish is 13th this past July. He placed 26th, 40th and 28th in his three other starts.
Allgaier Debuts For Scott In NASCAR’s Premier Series
NASCAR Nationwide Series regular Justin Allgaier, who is fifth in the standings 52 markers behind leader Sam Hornish Jr., will make his first foray into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this weekend in the GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway with Phoenix Racing.
The 27-year-old Illinois native will pull double-duty this weekend, also driving the No. 31 Turner Scott Motorsports Chevrolet in the NNS Dollar General 300 Powered by Coca-Cola. In seven NNS starts at Chicagoland, Allgaier has one win (June 2011) and five top 10s.
Harry Scott, the co-owner of Allgaier’s NNS car with Steve Turner, recently purchased Phoenix Racing and is giving the driver some seat time in the No. 51 Chevrolet in the NSCS. Allgaier is expected to compete in two more races in the No. 51 before the end of the season: Charlotte and Talladega.
NASCAR Nationwide Series Etc.
Kenny Wallace will attempt his 900th national series start this weekend when he lines up for the Dollar General 300 Powered by Coca-Cola. His milestone start will come one night after starting in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series EnjoyIllinois.com 225 for his 899th overall start. … Nelson Piquet Jr.’s No. 30 Turner Scott Motorsports Chevrolet will be sporting a throwback Hooter’s paint scheme that Alan Kulwicki made popular. … Brett Butler, Maryeve Dufault and Kevin Swindell will all be making their Chicagoland track debuts in the series.
Reigning Champion Buescher Continues Impressive Run
Just like last season during his run to his first NASCAR championship, the second half of the season is proving to be James Buescher’s time of the year. Buescher picked up his first win at Iowa Speedway on Sunday and now he returns to Chicagoland Speedway where he won last year. With his second victory in the past four races, the Texas native now sits just 37 points behind leader Matt Crafton.
Buescher’s path to his first title was similar in that he was in the same spot in the standings (third) last year entering the final third of the season. The Katy, Texas native has enjoyed a mid-season turnaround that has seen his average finish over the first half of the season – 11th – improve to fourth over the past four races, thanks to a pair of wins (Michigan and Iowa) over that time span.
With the help of his recent surge in the standings, Buescher has improved from a season-low of 12th-place in the standings heading into Kansas Speedway to his current second-place standing.
Two of Buescher’s four wins came last year at Kentucky Speedway, a track that has already hosted its lone truck race this season back in June. If Buescher is going to catch Crafton, his ability to run up front in the four 1.5-mile tracks remaining on the schedule could be the key.
In addition to Chicagoland Speedway this weekend, the teams also will compete on intermediate tracks at Las Vegas, Texas and Homestead-Miami Speedways.
Wallace Jr. Looks To Join First-Time Winners Club At Chicago
Darrell Wallace Jr. has endured a roller coaster season and it appears the NASCAR Drive for Diversity graduate is slowly making his way toward the top of the standings.
Wallace has enjoyed a pair of top-five finishes over the past two events and heads to Chicago as a strong contender to join the other first-time winners in the series this season.
Wallace, who is the first African-American to compete full-time in the NCWTS in more than six years, has already built an impressive resume in his NASCAR career.
Wallace has won poles in both the NCWTS and last season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and has a career-best NCWTS finish of fourth at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in the first road course event for the series in over a decade.
Wallace has scored two top 10s in a row after suffering 21st and 28th place finish at Michigan and Bristol, respectively.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Etc.
Brad Keselowski will make another start in his No. 19 Ford this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. Ross Chastain won the pole in the truck at Iowa Speedway last weekend and finished second. … Ben Kennedy scored another respectable finish as the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East regular finished 15th at Iowa in his second career truck start. Kennedy will make his first start on a 1.5-mile track Friday night at Chicagoland Speedway. … Two-time Chicagoland series winner Kyle Busch will do triple duty this weekend, beginning with Friday night’s stint in the No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota.
NASCAR Next Set to Join in Chicago Festivities
Hoping to one day be on stage as Chase competitors themselves, the NASCAR Next drivers will join the 12 contenders for the 2013 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup this week in Chicago. The NASCAR Next group will attend Chase Media Day and Contenders Live at Navy Pier on the Chicago waterfront on Thursday, Sept. 12, then the majority of the group will participate in a fan event in downtown Joliet, Ill., later that evening.
On track this week at the regional touring series level will be the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West at Miller Motorsports Park and the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour at Riverhead Raceway. Greg Pursley will look to become the first West driver to win four races in a row at the Tooele, Utah road course while NASCAR Next driver and tour points leader Ryan Preece will attempt to run his Modified win streak at the Long Island bullring to three.
This weekend will draw a close to the 2013 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series points season. With a victory last week in the 250-lap special event at Motor Mile Speedway, Lee Pulliam has reached the maximum 810 points that a driver is able to earn in the points chase for the weekly crown. A driver’s best 18 feature finishes count toward national points, and Saturday was Pulliam’s 18th in a full field, defined as 20 or more cars. The standout from Semora, N.C., has 26 late model wins overall in his bid to repeat as national champion.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
- Next Race: GEICO 400
- The Place: Chicagoland Speedway
- The Date: Sunday, Sept. 15
- The Time: 2 p.m. (ET)
- TV: ESPN, 1 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 400.5 miles (267 laps)
NASCAR Nationwide Series
- Next Race: Dollar General 300 Powered by Coca-Cola
- The Place: Chicagoland Speedway
- The Date: Saturday, Sept. 14
- The Time: 3:30 p.m. (ET)
- TV: ESPN2, 3:30 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 300 miles (200 laps)
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
- Next Race: EnjoyIllinois.com 225
- The Place: Chicagoland Speedway
- The Date: Friday, Sept. 13
- The Time: 8:30 p.m. (ET)
- TV: FOX Sports 1, 8 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 225 miles (150 laps)