Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Chase Coverage: Kansas Wrap-Up Report

2010 Kansas Oct NSCS Greg Biffle Victory Lane
In four of the six years since the Chase format was introduced the points leader coming out of Kansas has gone on to win the title. For those who aren’t fans of Jimmie Johnson, that’s not a good sign. That’s right, four-time Champion Johnson is back at the top of the standing, but it’s still anyone’s title to win.

Our ladies are back to provide you will a comprehensive wrap-up of the 12 drivers in the title hunt.

1. Jimmie Johnson – 5503 points (leader) – Rebecca Kivak
Three races into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Jimmie Johnson finds himself in a familiar spot: at the top of the point standings. After a hard-fought second-place finish at Kansas Speedway, the four-time champion wrestled the points lead away from Denny Hamlin. Only eight points now separate the two drivers. This is the third time in the last five years that Johnson has led the points for the first time in the Chase after Kansas.

Johnson may now lead the standings, but it was a difficult road to get there during Sunday’s Price Chopper 400. “Honestly, I drove 400 miles with my tongue hanging out just sawing at the wheel trying to get everything I could,” he said after the race.

The driver of the No. 48 Lowes/Johns Manville Chevrolet rolled off the grid 21st and wasted little time moving through the field. By lap 12 Johnson had picked up five positions and ran as high as 15th before the first caution came out on lap 40. The 48 team pitted but was pinned in their pit box, losing five positions and putting them back where they started, in 21st.

After the race restarted on lap 47, Johnson quickly fell back, dropping to the 24th position. The lack of clean air hurt the No. 48 and Johnson struggled back in traffic. When David Reutimann spun to bring out a caution on lap 52, Johnson brought the No. 48 Chevrolet into the pits, reporting a loose racecar. The crew made a chassis adjustment and took four tires. When the race restarted on lap 56, Johnson was 28th, the lowest-running of the Chase drivers. He made some bold moves to regain position and within 20 laps he had cracked the top 15.

The No. 48 crew continued to make major adjustments, which improved the car throughout the course of the race. By the time the third caution came out for Reutimann and Kyle Busch on lap 154, Johnson had broken into the top 10. By lap 240 Johnson was running in the top 5 and with 10 laps to go he passed Tony Stewart for second place. Unable to catch Greg Biffle with a lead of 7 seconds, Johnson crossed the finish line in the runner-up spot - and as the new championship points leader.

When asked about taking over the lead three weeks into the Chase, Johnson said, “It's a great position to be in, but it's way too early to think about it, to worry about defending. You have Chase guys running so good each and every week. … Just can't put your guard down. Doesn't matter if it's qualifying, the race. Until that checkered falls in Homestead, it's anybody's championship.” Johnson insisted it was “way too early to think about” what it would mean to win a fifth title. But after notching their second top-2 finish in the first three Chase races, Johnson and the No. 48 team are on the right track to bring home a historic fifth championship.

2. Denny Hamlin – 5495 points – Holly Machuga
Denny Hamlin and the FedEx team fought hard for their 12th-place finish at Kansas this weekend. But, sadly enough, they lost their points lead because of it.

Denny and his team struggled with the car all day long. They started 12th and fell back quickly, their car way too tight to drive. He was close to falling a lap down, but brought it back up to 10th after a pit stop and a few adjustments. However, 10th was the furthest he came up in the field. He stayed back in the early teens for the rest of the race and held onto what was a clearly horrible racecar. However, this was one of his better finishes at Kansas. Multiple crashes and car difficulties have ruined his races in the past.

“That’s the thing. It’s just you’ve got to make the most of your bad days, and if this is a bad day for us, then we’re going to rebound next weekend. We’re going to just keep fighting. That’s all we can do,” said Hamlin. On top of that, he was not concerned with Johnson taking the points lead. Denny is only eight points behind Jimmie Johnson. He is only concerned with finishing well in the remaining races. With that, Denny Hamlin might just be your 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.

3. Kevin Harvick – 5473 points – Amber Arnold
What a difference a week makes for Harvick and the Shell/Penzoil team. Harvick spent the majority of his day in the top 10 at Kansas and ended up bring the car home in third place after 267 laps.

What is panning out to be the tightest Chase since its inception has Harvick now in third place, just 30 points behind new leader Jimmie Johnson. Harvick’s good day carried over into his post-race interview where he claimed the 29 team had a “good day.” Delana Harvick’s comments on Twitter after the race seemed to echo Kevin’s post-race comments. Harvick tweeted, “nice solid 3rd place finish for 29 team. So proud of @kevinharvick!”

The 29 team showed early on in the season they are a force to be reckoned with. I have no doubt as the Chase winds down we will see nothing less from Kevin, crew chief Gil Martin and the rest of the Shell/Penzoil team.

4. Carl Edwards – 5450 points – Amanda Ebersole
Week 3 of the Chase to the Sprint Cup is now in the history books and another successful race for Carl Edwards. Edwards and the Aflac team finished the race in sixth place, an amazing feat considering he started in 31st. And as a company, Roush Fenway Racing had a very strong showing: Greg Biffle won the race, Matt Kenseth finished seventh and David Ragan was 16th.

Friday’s practice was a handful for Carl; he started out around 19th on the scoring monitors and told crew chief Bob Osborne that the right front of the car was “undriveable.” After some changes the first practice concluded with Carl in sixth place. Next up on Friday was qualifying and Carl had a very early draw, going out eighth. He laid down a lap of 31.299 which, after all drivers completed their laps, left Carl starting 31st and furthest back of all the Chase drivers. During happy hour, the team seemed to hit on something and Carl ended up in seventh and ready for the race.

Starting the race Sunday, Carl had a lot of spots to make up to be in contention for a top finish and he didn’t waste any time in doing so. By lap 45 Carl was already up to 20th and was still headed further to the front. Around lap 110 Carl had made it all the way up into ninth place and had gained 22 positions since the green flag. On lap 164 when a caution came out for Kasey Khane’s blown tire, Carl and Bob made the decision to pit and take on two tires because of a vibration, which ended up being the right call because there was a loose wheel on the 99 Aflac Ford. On lap 237 during the final pit stops, Carl did manage to lead a lap and get those five extra bonus points in the all important Chase standings. The pit crew for the Aflac team had a great final stop, taking four tires and was out in 12.9 seconds.

In the final laps of the race, Carl was in a head-to-head battle with Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. As the checkered flag fell Carl ended up in sixth place, another top-10 finish for Edwards. (On a side note I hate to always hear about the points as we race, but found myself guilty of going on nascar.com checking Carl’s points position throughout, all the +/- was getting frustrating).

In the last 12 races, Carl’s had no worse than a 12th-place finish (Bristol) and his best was a second place at Chicagoland and Atlanta. As we pack up from Kansas, Carl is now up to fourth in the Chase standings and is 53 points behind our new Chase leader, Jimmie Johnson. California….here we come!

5. Jeff Gordon – 5445 points – Genevieve Cadorette
Jeff Gordon went to Kansas with a smile and a positive attitude. He likes to race in Kansas and has done well there in the past as he did over the weekend.

One Friday, he qualified third, his first top-5 qualifying finish since Pocono. It was an exciting day for him because he knows when he qualifies in the top 5, he has a racecar he can contend with. On Saturday, he had the second-highest finish in the practice run; that gave him and his fans hope that this would be their weekend to victory lane.

On Sunday, he started off strong; moving to the second spot immediately and holding on to second until lap 28, where he went down low and passed Kasey Kahne for the lead. He led for 31 laps and was passed by Matt Kenseth. Gordon had complained that his car was loose; at first it did seem to work for him but at lap 58, he started to loose momentum and fell behind to the fourth position and continued to fall behind. With 76 laps to go, he was as far back as 15th. That didn’t stop Gordon though; he kept on digging and moved forward until he reached the sixth spot on lap 240.

In the final lap, he passed Carl Edwards and finished fifth. Moving up three spots and now the fifth seed of the Chase, he gained 25 points and is 58 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson.

6. Kurt Busch – 5433 points – Katy Lindamood
A solid top-10 finish was what Kurt Busch and the Miller Lite team hoped to score at Kansas. Unfortunately they fell a bit short in their goal with a 13th-place finish.

After the race Busch said in reference to his ill-handling car, “I had a handful of steering wheel most of the day and just did whatever I could to stay up with the leaders. This is a tricky mile-and-a-half that’s different from most others that we race on.”

Kansas has always been a difficult track for Busch to master, but coming off the final practice session, where he was fastest, and a solid qualifying run he was confident the team would be able to run well. Though Busch finished within the top 15, it wasn’t good enough to keep his position within the points. Kurt lost one position in the points and now sits sixth, 70 points out of the lead.

7. Kyle Busch – 5423 points – Lindi Bess
This past weekend at Kansas, Kyle Busch proved to us all that not only is he a great driver, but he has really matured. While Kyle was among the fastest in qualifying on Saturday for the NNS race, with Busch holding 2nd, it sure didn’t seem to help when it came to qualifying for the Price Chopper 400, Sunday’s Cup race. With a qualifying time of 31.182, Kyle would start Sunday in the 19th position. With a qualifying speed of 173.177, the #18 M&M’s Toyota Camry was just 1.467 mph behind pole winner Kasey Kahne.

Kyle rolled into Kansas third place in points and 45 points out of first place. As the cars rolled off pit road and embarked on their pace laps, you could feel the excitement in the air. It was Kyle’s hope to end this race in the top 10 and remain within the top-5 positions when that checkered flag dropped. Busch, of all people, knows that Kansas isn’t one of his better tracks. With an average finish of 24.3,  he definitely had his work cut out for him.

It wasn’t until lap 41 that we got the first caution. Green-flag racing resumed on lap 46 with a lead change. Within a few laps we had  another caution: this time it was Kyle Busch who bumped into Reutimann, #00. Kyle got on the throttle quicker than #00, coming out of turn 2. Reutimann ended up in the wall, bringing out the second caution of the race.

Back to green flag on lap 55 and a new leader with #17, Matt Kenseth. Kyle is actually up in the seventh position by lap 79. Kevin Harvick is in front of Kyle, and brother Kurt is in sixth. Over the next 20 laps would see five more lead changes, with Patrick Carpentier up front.

Kyle fought hard and managed to get himself up in the pack, with a high of sixth place and within 11 points of the top spot. It was around then that #00 decided he was going to "have at it" and discipline Kyle for what he saw as a lack of respect earlier in the race. Reutimann clipped the backend of Busch’s car, sending #18 into the wall. But it wasn’t the smoothest payback by the #00 Aaron's Toyota as he does damage to his own car, spinning himself out of control.

As a result of this intentional hit, the M&M’s Toyota Camry sustains some major damage. In Kyle's own words:  "The car is destroyed and will take some time fix." This is where Dave Rodgers really shined as a crew chief. Kyle was ready to take the car to the garage and replace the damaged parts. Dave talked him through it, explaining to Busch that if they just stay out and work on it, they are less likely to fall back as much as they would if they went behind the wall.

Kyle backed down and by doing just what Rodgers suggested, Kyle remained on the lead lap and finished in 21st position. This is a credit to the #18 pit crew for their hard work and to Dave Rodgers for his informed decision. This team should be very proud of their accomplishments during this race.

When Kyle was interviewed after the race, he was calm. His concerns were with the hard-working crew behind him. He has no intentions to take this any further. He did say that Reutimann could have waited until next season. There are 26 races, why now? A move like that affects the entire team, not just the driver. But he went on to say, “It is what it is.” This wasn’t the same driver who had said earlier, “I have a big problem with what just happened. If NASCAR doesn’t do anything about it, there will be a meeting after the race.”

In my opinion, the original hit by #18 was not at all intentional. Kyle got back on the throttle much quicker than the #00 car and didn’t check up quick enough.  It was just racing.

Next week we move on to race #4 in the Chase. Even with the setback, Kyle is still in this thing and his best tracks are coming up!

8. Greg Biffle – 5418 points – Stacie Ball
How do you bring morale back to a team in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase? The answer is simple: you win a race in which you really had no idea what was going on with the car. Greg Biffle, the driver of the Sherwin Williams 3M Ford, did just that yesterday at Kansas Speedway. As I was watching the race, I could feel the excitement in the air once he took control of the lead on lap 207 from teammate Paul Menard. Many people were saying via many different media outlets that the drivers who were ranked ninth to 12fth in the Chase pre-Kansas were definitely out of the competition. But I think Biffle and others proved them wrong in Kansas.

As soon as lap 4 of Sunday's racing action, Biffle could feel the handling on his car changing as he moved from the fifth position on the grid to ninth. The first caution came out on lap 41 and it would be four tires, fuel and an air pressure adjustment for the Sherwin Williams Ford. He restarted eighth on lap 46 and quickly began gaining positions. Coming onto lap 91, the No. 16 had driven all the way up to second and two laps later a round of green-flag pit stops began. The crew made a couple of minor adjustments as he had informed them that the car was getting a little too tight. On lap 154, the third caution of the day came out and crew chief Greg Erwin opted for a two-tire stop.

On Lap 171 he was back in the second position behind Tony Stewart and remained there until what would be the final caution of the race came out on lap 186. Erwin called for four tires, fuel, an air pressure adjustment and a wedge adjustment. At this point, the 3M Pit Bulls turned in what might have been their fastest stop of the season. They completed the pit stop in 11.9 seconds. Restarting third behind two drivers who had taken only two tires and ahead of Stewart, Biffle took the lead on Lap 207 and never looked back. There would be one more round of green-flag stops but with the 3M Pit Bulls on the job, that would not be a problem. Biffle extended his lead in the closing laps for his second win of the season.

“Once we got our car adjusted we were off and set sail, the thing was really fast. I didn’t think even if there were more cautions that they would catch us. We had such a great car today and I couldn’t be any prouder of my 3M Ford team today and the Pit Bulls. I was even saving a little bit out there at the end too. I knew the caution was going to come out and I would need some tire to race these guys. So was Tony though. I think those guys were all saving for the end. Thank goodness this one isn’t a controversial win. Last time people were skeptical if I kept my speed up. I think I kept up plenty of speed this time. This is such a great race track. I am so excited we will be coming here twice a year,” Greg Biffle said after the race at Kansas Speedway in the media center once done in Victory Lane.

The teamwork between Biffle, Erwin and the Pit Bulls at Kansas Speedway showed that you are not out of it. You have to prove people wrong, and this race definitely did that for the No. 16 3M Ford. With seven races left in the Chase, the team definitely has a better chance of gaining more spots if they have repeat showings of their race at Kansas. Just because you are 85 points behind does not make you out of it! Congrats to Greg Biffle, Greg Erwin, Jack Roush and everyone at Roush Fenway!

9. Jeff Burton – 5402 points – Genna Short
While Jeff Burton’s qualifying run for Kansas wasn’t promising, his statements earlier in the week showed that the 31 team was not ready to give up. In fact, his qualifying runs have proven to be less than satisfactory in two of the first three races of the Chase. If one were to look at his qualifying run against his finishing spot in Kansas, they wouldn’t notice much of a difference.

Even though he finished poorly at the 1.5 mile tri-oval, the end was not indicative of his overall run in the 400-mile race. The 31 car led two laps under green while cycling through pit stops and had managed to stay in the top 5 for a good portion of the race, but the car began to fade over the last couple of runs.

The 31 team managed to salvage an 18th place finish after what had been a promising day and have fallen from seventh to ninth in the Sprint Cup Series points standings.

10. Tony Stewart – 5376 points – Unique Hiram
Tony Stewart and the #14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet team showcased why they made it into the Chase at the completion of the Price Chopper 400 at Kansas Speedway. His starting position on the grid was 14th; however, he was able to finish strongly in the fourth position after completing all 267 laps of the race.

Additionally, Stewart led a total of 76 laps approximately at four different times during the competition.
“We’ve known we’ve been a better team than these last two weeks have shown,” said Stewart, who opened the 10-race Chase for the Championship with back-to-back finishes outside the top-20. “We just had bad luck the first race and then just a bad day the second race. Hopefully, the upcoming weeks will be like today.”

Even though Stewart remains in the 10th position of the Chase standings, he is only 127 points behind the new points leader Jimmie Johnson. There is sure to be some more shuffling in the points standings at the conclusion of the next few races. This team will continue to make tremendous strides as well as remain competitive if they can either finish in the top 5 and/or find themselves in victory lane over the next few weeks.

11. Matt Kenseth – 5354 points – Whitney Richards
Following two rough starts in the Chase, Matt Kenseth came to Kansas Speedway ready to turn his run in the Chase around. Kenseth and his crew had a good car coming into the weekend. He was 11th in the first practice session, third in the second practice session and 12th in final practice. In qualifying on Friday, Kenseth laid down a 31.052-second lap, which was good enough to earn him the 8th starting position for Sunday’s Price Chopper 400 at Kansas.

Once the green flag dropped, Kenseth wasted no time in picking up positions. He was inside the top 5 within the first 15 laps. As the opening run continued, Kenseth reported to crew chief Jimmy Fennig that the No. 17 Crown Royal Black Ford was beginning to get loose off the turns and that the nose of the car wanted to slide in the middle of the turns. Kenseth needed more front grip to be able to fight for track position and keep up with the leaders.

The first caution came out on lap 43, and Kenseth headed down pit road for four tires, fuel and air pressure adjustments. Once the race restarted, he began to make a charge to the front, taking over the lead on lap 56. While up front and in clean air, Kenseth ran different lines to see which one helped his car run the fastest. On lap 81, Kenseth fell to second, reporting his car was just a bit loose. Once the green-flag run stretched on, the No. 17 Ford became loose in and off the turns. Handling issues plagued Kenseth throughout the next few runs, despite changes to air pressure and track bar setting made whenever Kenseth had the chance to pit.

Kenseth remained toward the front for a majority of the race, but the loose-handling issues returned. He fought to stay inside the top five, but dropped back as the laps wound down. Kenseth crossed the finish line in the seventh position.

Kenseth remains 11th in the standings, 149 points behind new points leader Jimmie Johnson. 

12. Clint Bowyer – 5251 points – Amy McHargue
Clint Bowyer came into Kansas in 12th place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, hoping for a good weekend. What seemed to work in the practice sessions as Clint finished the three practice sessions secenth, 11th and ninth respectively, did not carry over into qualifying or the race. After qualifying to start the race in the 27th position, Clint knew he had a lot of ground to make up. From the time the green flag waved, Clint was fighting for position with a mediocre car.

Bowyer said he fought his car most of the day; he credits his pit crew for trying to help him improve the car. Clint was as far down as the mid-30s near the mid-point of the race, and though he fought throughout all 267 laps, all that could be had at the end of the day was a 15th-place finish. Clint earned 118 points in the Chase by finishing in 15th place, but earned no valuable bonus points by leading any laps.

Clint is 252 points behind the leader and more than 100 points behind 11th place in the Chase for the Championship. Although the #33 Richard Childress Racing Team cannot be numerically eliminated from the Chase, Clint Bowyer certainly has his work cut out for him over the next seven races.

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