The Chase for the Sprint Cup started off with a bang as fuel mileage had fans holding their breaths in the final few laps of the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Running low on fuel, Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer ran first and second, respectively, with just a few laps remaining. Coming to the white flag, Stewart ran out of gas and Bowyer had just enough to cross the start finish line first with points leader Denny Hamlin right on his back bumper. As expected, there was a major shake-up in points and we can only wonder if we’re getting a glimpse of what the championship will look like at the end of the season.
Here are some questions on my mind following the Sylvania 300…
How much do we really know about the championship? … You’ve probably already heard (or maybe said yourself) that once race doesn’t mean anything for the championship. However, the statistics don’t lie. Since the implementation of the Chase in 2004, only once has any driver lower than second after the Chase-opening race at Loudon gone on to win the championship. Back in 2006, Jimmie Johnson was 9th in points and 139 points out of the lead after Loudon. However, an astounding run with five finishes in the top two in the remaining nine races gave Johnson the championship that year. Aside from that season, if history repeats itself we may very well be seeing Denny Hamlin holding the trophy come Homestead.
What does this mean for Clint Bowyer? … Every time Clint Bowyer has been in the Chase he has finished in the top five in points. Neither time was he considered a huge threat for the victory and was hardly considered a dark horse. Yet again, though, Bowyer has taken us all by surprise and not only won, but dominated, the first race in the Chase. Sure he won by the skin of his teeth on a fuel mileage gamble, but he put himself in position to do so. It’s not as if Bowyer has been a schmuck the entire season. In 27 starts this season, Bowyer has only finished outside the top 10 in 12 races. That’s almost 56% of the races! That consistency earned Bowyer a Chase berth, and he believes it can earn him a championship. Hard to say at this point, but he made it a lot easier on himself and his team with the victory.
Who is in and out of the Chase? … Again, one race doesn’t make the Chase but the statistics show starting it off strong is very important. Several of the pre-Chase favorites to win the championship had problems at NHMS and it shows in the standings. While Kyle Busch was able to rebound from issues he had at Loudon, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, and Tony Stewart weren’t so lucky. Stewart was well on his way to a win when he ran out of fuel coming to the white flag. Johnson finished a lap down and in 25th after being involved in multiple incidents and eventually having to pit off sequence due to a vibration. Kurt Busch was also involved in multiple incidents and finished 13th. Stewart fell from sixth to 11th in points and is 124 points out of the lead. Kurt Busch fell one position to sixth and is 86 points out. Johnson fell from second to seventh in points and is 92 points out of the lead. While none of these guys are out of the championship hunt by any means, it will certainly be a lot harder to work their way back to the top.
Is Dale Earnhardt Jr. “back”? … Earnhardt finished fourth on Sunday, putting smiles back on the faces of Junior Nation. Earnhardt and Lance McGrew have said they are experimenting with the cars to try and pick up the performance of the No. 88 team. It paid off on Sunday, but who is to say it will continue for the rest of 2010 and into 2011? While Earnhardt, who hasn’t won a race since 2008, believes that the team is moving in the right direction, can he convince his loyal legion of fans (and his harshest critics) of his resurgence?
Will Jamie McMurray outscore the Chasers? … Obviously McMurray can’t earn more points overall than the drivers in the Chase, but he can definitely earn more points in the 10 races than a few others. He’ll probably outscore drivers like Matt Kenseth who hasn’t done much this season and Jeff Burton who has been just consistent enough to stay in the top 12 in points. McMurray was the highest finishing non-Chaser on Sunday in the third position and has some good racetracks coming up. Had McMurray avoided some of the bad luck he suffered earlier this season, he’d be in the Chase where he belongs.
Bonus questions: Is Clint Bowyer a good “hero” for NASCAR? … Did we actually get through a NASCAR weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway without a single rain delay? … Does the Chase still suck?