Skirts and Scuffs Takes on the Chase: Close points battle as NASCAR sticks close to home

Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs

Headed home to Charlotte Motor Speedway, the Chase is on! Race No. 5 of the Chase to the Sprint Cup will get under way with a very close points battle atop the points standings as Carl Edwards leads Kevin Harvick by one point and Jimmie Johnson is only three behind. The top 8 drivers are separated by only 20 points.

Who has the best odds headed into Charlotte this weekend? Let the Skirts and Scuffs team preview the race weekend for you.

The top 12 drivers are listed in order of their standing in the points, followed by their stats at Charlotte. 

1. Carl Edwards - Atop the standings but no time to celebrate - By Holly Machuga
Top 5s: 4, Top 10s: 7, Wins: 0

 Carl Edwards is back on top after his top-10 run at Kansas this past weekend. Now the 99 team is headed toward Charlotte and the Bank of America 500 with an optimistic attitude.

Edwards has an average start of 18.6 and an average finish of 13.3. Odds are on his side as he won the All-Star Race earlier this year. Could it be his week to win a points race at Charlotte? 

2. Kevin Harvick - In it to win it - By Lacy Keyser
Top 5s: 2, Top 10s: 5, Wins: 1

As Kevin Harvick comes back to Charlotte, the place he won back in May, he has a lot on his shoulders: he’s second in points and is looking to steal that lead again. Can Harvick pull the sweep at Charlotte and win come Sunday? I believe he can. Harvick has a lot of momentum and he’s not one to count out. Will Harvick win again? Or will someone else be "the closer?"

Quote from Kevin about Charlotte: 

"As soon as it goes to night there, the track becomes a different race track than it is during the day. I'm sure that we'll practice during the day and have no clue what we have at night. All-in-all, it's going to be the same old Charlotte that it always is - really, really fast at night. The cooler it gets, the more grip there is." 

3. Jimmie Johnson - Five-time for a reason - By Amanda Ebersole
Top 5s: 10, Top 10s: 14, Wins: 6 

Charlotte Motor Speedway is a familiar track for Johnson and the No. 48 team. With much success, this could be the race that puts Johnson back in his winning ways, atop the points standings.

With six wins, 10 top 5s and 14 top 10s, Johnson is tied for the most wins at Charlotte with Hall of Famer Bobby Allison and future Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip.

“I think we’re going to be a threat (at Charlotte Motor Speedway). When I look back to Chicago, Kentucky, and Kansas obviously, our 1.5-mile stuff has been coming along pretty good over the last two or three months. So I feel good about it. Charlotte, with that asphalt that’s down, it is its own environment and it’s really tough to get your car right from the start of the race to the end of the race," said Johnson, speaking on his thoughts headed into Charlotte.  

4. Brad Keselowski - Confident headed to Charlotte - By LJ Cloud
Top 5s: 0, Top 10s: 0, Wins: 0 

Brad Keselowski finished the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway in third place, giving him his sixth top-3 finish in the last 10 races, and his third top 5 in the first four races of the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.

Keselowski and Team Penske’s No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge began to show flashes of the fire that won him the 2010 NASCAR Nationwide Series Championship with a win at Kansas in June, the first of his three wins this season. He’s also racked up a total of nine top fives, 13 top 10s, with an average finish of 14.5 on the season, having led 16 races for 280 laps. He heads into Charlotte fourth in points with six races left to go in the Chase.

While his Cup record at Charlotte Motor Speedway is less than stellar, Keselowski does know the way to victory lane. He won the fall 2010 Nationwide race at the 1.5-mile oval. His average finish is 19.5, but he’s only run four Sprint Cup races there. He does have six top 10s and two top 5s in his 10 Nationwide starts at the Concord, North Carolina track.

“Charlotte is definitely a track that I am looking forward to going back to,” Keselowski said of the upcoming race. “Especially now that the Miller Lite Dodge team is in the hunt for the championship. It was a place that I struggled to get a grip on during my early trips, but last year (crew chief) Paul (Wolfe) and I picked up a win in the Nationwide Series there and it seemed like a light went off for me. After winning the pole for the 600 in May, I felt we were one of the cars to beat. We put ourselves in position at the end of the race and just had nowhere to go when the 4 car ran out of gas. We just ran right into the back of him. That killed our chances for the win, but we know that we can run up front and lead laps there. I’m confident.”

Add confidence to momentum and Keselowski could find his way back to victory lane with a win in the Bank of America 500 under the lights Saturday night. 

5. Matt Kenseth - Consistent at Charlotte - By LJ Cloud
Top 5s: 6, Top 10s: 12, Wins: 1 

Finishing in fourth place right behind the Blue Deuce and Brad Keselowski in the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway kept Matt Kenseth right behind Keselowski in the points standings for the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.

So far this season, Kenseth has a total of two wins, nine top 5s and 17 top 10s, leading 17 races for 654 laps total. His average finish is 11.5. 

Kenseth’s No. 17 Roush Ford is sponsored by Fluidmaster for the Saturday night event at the track where he scored his first career Cup win back in May 2000. That’s the only time Kenseth won at Charlotte, but he runs well there with a total of six top 5s, 12 top 10s, and an average finish of 14.9 over his 24 races at what crew chief Jimmy Fennig calls their home track, since it’s “right down the road from the shop.” 

When asked his thoughts about the upcoming event, Kenseth said, “Track position is important every race, but it seems to be even more important at Charlotte over the past couple of years with this new style of car. The pavement has a lot of grip, and even though the track gets pretty wide, it’s a real fast track that can be difficult to pass at, so track position turns out to be very important there. You always want your car handling the best you can in order to put yourself in position at the end to have a good finish, and we’re going to do our best to get the Fluidmaster Ford the best finish we can.” 

Can Kenseth’s consistency advance him in the Chase? .With a single point separating Kenseth and Keselowski, a strong finish at Charlotte will be crucial in Kenseth’s quest for a second championship. 

6. Kurt Busch - Double Deuce looks to build off recent success at Charlotte - By Rebecca Kivak
Top 5s: 5, Top 10s: 6, Wins: 1 

Kurt Busch enters Charlotte Motor Speedway mid-pack in the Chase standings. Since the 10-race playoffs have gotten under way, the 2004 Sprint Cup champion has one win (Dover), one of two top 10s he’s collected in the first four Chase races. After a 13th-place finish last week at Kansas, Busch dropped two spots in the point standings to sixth, 16 points behind leader Carl Edwards. With the top 8 drivers separated by just 20 points, the No. 22 team will have to kick it up a notch to separate themselves from the rest of the competition.

Busch has an opportunity to do this at Charlotte. His history at the 1.5-mile track has been a mixed bag: in 22 starts, he has one win, five top 5s, six top 10s and three DNFs. However, in his last three races here, Busch has picked up his game, scoring two of his five top 5s. This includes his dominant win at the Coca-Cola 600 last May (achieving a rare sweep of the All-Star Race and the 600) and his fourth-place finish this spring. In the same three-race span, Busch led 255 laps, more than half of the total laps he's led at Charlotte in his Sprint Cup career.

To what does Busch credit his recent success at Charlotte? In a team press release, Busch said his crew chief Steve Addington, in his second year on top of Busch’s pit box. 

"We ran strong so many times in so many races, but just were not able to put the whole race together," Busch said about his track record at Charlotte. "We'd start out strong and look like we were headed to a good finish, but couldn't keep up with the changing track conditions and fall off drastically in the last half of the race. That's where Steve has been so impactful. We may not have qualified up front in all the races, but we've been able to make steady progress throughout each race and come out our strongest at the end when it counted the most."

Being able to adjust to changing conditions will help the Double Deuce’s chances under the lights on Saturday. Playing the right side of the fuel mileage game also helps, as Kurt and Co. found out in the spring race. With the right calls and luck on his side, Busch hopes to climb his way back up the points ladder after the Bank of America 500.  

7. Tony Stewart - Can he salvage a season mired with disappointments? - By Katy Lindamood
Top 5s: 6, Top 10s: 11, Wins: 1 

Tony Stewart started his 2011 championship hunt with a win at Chicagoland. He followed up the strong performance a week later at New Hampshire, but in the following two weeks he's gone from leading the standings to seventh. Stewart, who is one of only three drivers to ever win under the Chase format (others are Kurt Busch who won in 2004 and five-time defending champ Jimmie Johnson), said Thursday, “Anytime you are not leading you are playing catch-up. We definitely have to not have what we have had the last two weeks happen anymore for these next six weeks. We definitely have to not make any mistakes.”

Stewart finished 17th in the May race at Charlotte and hopes to turn his misfortune the last two weeks into fuel that will propel him back to the top of the standings, but it won't be an easy feat. Although Stewart has one Charlotte win on his resume, he's not been a superstar on the 1.5-mile track. In 25 races, Stewart has only six top-5 finishes. With sponsorship for his third team still not set for 2012, it's time for the owner/driver to put it into overdrive and see if he can't salvage a season that's been mired with disappointments.  

8. Kyle Busch - Looking for that elusive win at one of his favorite tracks - By Rebecca Kivak
Top 5s: 5, Top 10s: 8, Wins: 0 

It’s shocking to see that Kyle Busch has yet to score his first Sprint Cup win at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Not only is the track one of his favorites on the circuit, but he has six Nationwide Series wins and four Camping World Truck Series wins at the 1.5-mile oval. 

However, it’s certainly not for a lack of trying. In the last 10 races at Charlotte, the driver of the No. 18 M&Ms Toyota has finished in the top 10 eight times. This includes a seven-race stretch from fall 2007 to fall 2010 that saw Busch finish third three times and no worse than eighth. Busch fell just short of the elusive Cup win here last fall, when he finished second after leading a race-high 217 laps. Busch’s driver rating of 106.5 is second-best among the 12 Chase drivers, just behind five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

Busch’s last visit to Charlotte was one he’d like to forget, finishing 32nd after spinning out twice in the Coca-Cola 600. But on the heels of three top-11 finishes in the four Chase races, plus his already solid stats here, a win is within Busch’s reach. Finally conquering his favorite track would help Busch trim the 20-point gap on points leader Carl Edwards and gain ground in a Chase battle that has seen him slip from the top seed to eighth in the standings. 

"It’s just been little things, but certainly little things can take you out of the running. It has been every single season I’ve been in the Chase that this stuff has happened," Busch said Thursday. "It’s just that we’re still able to fight and come back from where we are. Years past we would have been knocked out by now. At least we still have a fighting shot.”  

9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. - He may be down but still in the hunt for a win - By Unique Hiram
Top 5s: 5, Top 10s: 10, Wins: 0 

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet, is headed to Charlotte Motor Speedway 43 points (one full race) behind leader Carl Edwards. He and his team have been running strong on 1.5-mile tracks this season; therefore, there is optimism about the outcome of this race on Saturday night. Additionally, Dale Jr. was on his way to victory on the closing lap of the Coca-Cola 600 but ran out of gas just a short distance from capturing the checkered flag - so there is a high level of anticipation for a win.

Earnhardt Jr. had this to say about his progress this season: "My own expectations and my own ambition and what I want to achieve for myself sort of correlates with what my fans want out of me and what the media wants me to do," he said. "So that gets you a lot of attention when you don't do it, or you get close to doing it. But this year has been good. We've been productive and showing some signs of life in my career a little bit. That's been a good feeling. And everything that's went along with it this year has been really good." (excerpt courtesy of his interview with David Caraviello,

Although Earnhardt Jr. isn't necessarily concerned with taking home that coveted trophy this season, he is definitely in the hunt for a trip to victory lane. 

10. Jeff Gordon - It ain't over until the fat lady sings - By Unique Hiram
Top 5s: 16, Top 10s: 20, Wins: 5 

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon is headed to a track where he has been extremely competitive - Charlotte Motor Speedway. His racing statistics at this track include the following: 16 top 5s, 20 top 10s, five wins and eight poles. He and his team have faced some difficulties this past week (e.g. oiling system which caused a blown engine at Kansas); however, this team is resilient and will fight until the checkered flag waves at Homestead. 

Gordon finds himself seeded 10th in Sprint Cup points standings and has been deemed as being potentially out of the running for the championship. Is this true? Maybe or maybe not? I wouldn't count this championship driver out of the running just yet especially with some of the Chase tracks coming up along with "The Big One" in Talladega next week.   

11. Ryan Newman - Not giving up yet - By Katy Lindamood
Top 5s: 4, Top 10s: 7, Wins: 0 

Just like his teammate and owner Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman's 2011 season has been full of ups and downs but he's not giving up just yet. Although his chances of winning the Chase are all but gone because of the points deficit, Newman is out to move up as many places as he can in the final six races of the season. On Thursday, Newman said, "I think from our standpoint our team has done a good job to get to the Chase. We haven’t done a good job in these last three or four races in my opinion and we have to do a better job and the chance to redeem ourselves starts today.”

In 21 career starts at Charlotte, Newman has never taken home the checkered flag, but he has sat on the pole an impressive nine times. Newman also has four top 5s and seven top 10s at the intermediate track. Although he doesn't expect to find himself hoisting the trophy at the end of the season, he's still got plenty of time to earn an invite to the banquet in Las Vegas. 

12. Denny Hamlin - Plagued by problems lately - By Amanda Ebersole
Top 5s: 1, Top 10s: 5, Wins: 0 

To say the Chase is not going as planned for Hamlin and the No. 11 FedEx team would be an understatement. Problems have plagued the team this year and Hamlin has dropped to 12th in the Chase, sitting 79 points behind the leader.

Headed to Charlotte, Hamlin has an average finish of 16.6 in a total of 12 races and has accumulated one top-5 and five top-10 finishes. With a best finish of fourth, Hamlin needs to improve on that if he wants to make it to the end-of-year celebration in Las Vegas. 

Who will prevail at Charlotte when the checkered flag falls? Tune into Skirts and Scuffs on Sunday afternoon for our full Chase recap.
Skirts and Scuffs Takes on the Chase: Close points battle as NASCAR sticks close to home Skirts and Scuffs Takes on the Chase: Close points battle as NASCAR sticks close to home Reviewed by Admin on Friday, October 14, 2011 Rating: 5