Friday, September 18, 2015

Expectations and Eliminations: Five Questions for Chicagoland

(Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Come one, come all to one of the greatest 10 weeks in racing!

That’s right, it’s time for the Chase to get underway. It’s an exciting time for drivers, teams and fans who enjoy good competition. That’s exactly what this system provides.

As we head to Illinois to kick things off, I discuss that first race’s flaws, JGR, non-Chasers and more. Grab a slice of deep dish pizza and dig in…to this week’s Five Questions!

Should Chicagoland be the Chase-opening race? The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is kicking off its 10 Chase races at Chicagoland Speedway, the 1.5-mile tri-oval in Joliet, Illinois. The track is similar to four other tracks down the road, making it a good indicator of who will be in contention as the Chase gets underway. However, is it worthy of being the first race? The short answer is no; if NASCAR is trying to allure new people into watching the final 10 races for the excitement, you have to start off with that excitement. Chicagoland does not produce that. If the team were running the low downforce package, I would be absolutely giddy about this Sunday. That’s not happening, and it’s a real shame. Another factor is the other sports in the area. The Chicago Bears and Chicago Cubs both play at home this weekend, forcing fans to choose. Just thinking about the attendance numbers and TV ratings makes me cringe. I personally think the Chase needs an entire overhaul of the tracks involved but NASCAR is reluctant, which I don’t understand. Either way, Chicagoland should be moved either later in the Chase—which can be difficult due to weather—or not be there at all.

Can the Joe Gibbs Racing foursome keep their momentum alive? Move over, Hendrick Motorsports, there’s a new sheriff in town, and it’s JGR. All four Toyotas made the Chase field, a testament to their strength. The team has been killing it, and it won’t go away anytime soon. Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards are on top of it, and Kyle Busch is holding steady. The only issue that may form later is Denny Hamlin’s ACL injury. He’s having surgery after the season is over, but it may pose an obstacle during the longer races. That being said, I am not a doctor and don’t play one on TV. Hamlin has done well since he announced his injury, so maybe the entire team will compete for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Now that would be a show. I don’t see anything deterring their momentum. JGR fans everywhere, rejoice!

Will non-Chasers be a threat during these final 10 races? The sad truth is that many people will forget about those not competing for the championship. Media coverage will be locked in on who makes a good start and who puts themselves behind. Despite this, the other 27 cars aren’t going away. I expect non-Chasers to be a serious threat, claiming three wins overall. Some drivers such as Kasey Kahne and Aric Almirola barely missed the cutoff, and they will be determined to rebound. I can’t tell you who these winners will be, but I think they’ll break up the party three times during the next 10 races.

Who’s the biggest threat going into Sunday’s race? Of course, one of the looming thoughts about Sunday is who’ll end up in victory lane. Will it be a non-Chaser as previously mentioned, or will a Chase contender take the first checkered flag? Judging by the stats, it’s leaning toward the latter. Both Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski have two wins at the track. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver/reigning champion holds eight top fives and nine top 10s. The Team Penske driver collected three top fives and four top 10s. The only possible dark horse is Tony Stewart, who has three wins, eight top fives, and 10 top 10s. The No. 14 has been all over the place this year, but victory lane isn’t one of those places. Nevertheless, the biggest contenders will be Harvick, Keselowski or whoever is fast in qualifying. That’s the true key at tracks like Chicagoland.

What can we expect from this year’s Chase? The Chase was invented to get people excited for the championship battle—we can thank Kenseth for that. It’s comprised of 10 races with 16 drivers going head-to-head. Doesn’t that sound awesome? This is the second year with the new “knockout” format, and it will continue to impress this season. Teams now have a years-worth of notes under their belts. That should allow them to take more chances as the races dwindle down. The eliminations add pressure and make every position matter—and that’s how it should be. The Chase might not be perfect (hence my rant about Chicagoland at the beginning of this piece), but it’s something unique. I say “unique,” and many will respond, “But it’s NASCAR trying to be like the NFL!” I know. I cried the same sentiment when it was first announced. NASCAR has morphed it into something completely different with the added incentives for winning during the regular season and eliminating four racers at a time setting us apart. I think it makes for healthy competition, something served to the sport in a hefty dose. We’ll see action, drama and heartbreak. Those are what makes the sport human and worthwhile. I’m excited for the Chase as a whole, and you should be, too.

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