Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: Ready, Set, Chase – 10 Things to Watch in NASCAR’s Playoffs

For such a long season, the NASCAR calendar sure does seem to fly by. With 26 races in the books, we now arrive at the pay window: the ten races that will crown the champion. So without any further preamble (and believe me if this is over four lines my editor is the reason) here are 10 thoughts ahead of the start of the 2011 Chase.

Double J is still the main to beat

No question Jimmie Johnson absolutely remains the man to beat. By his own very high standards, 2011 has not been his best year; but as we’ve seen for the last half-decade when it comes time to chase, nobody, but nobody, does it better. I think it might be some time away yet, but one day we’ll look back at Johnson’s era of dominance and marvel at one of the all-time great (if not greatest) Hall of Fame stock car racing careers.

There are those who suggest it’s all because head wrench Chad Knaus is an evil mechanical genius. And yes, undoubtedly, he is a huge factor in Johnson’s success, but at the end of the day, Johnson is the champ because he is a superb driver.

But there is competition. Maybe more than ever.

Before the points were reset, after eight months and 26 races, just 34 points separated six drivers. Kyle Busch sat atop the standings, ahead of Johnson (-3 pts), Carl Edwards (-12 pts), Jeff Gordon (-18 pts), Kevin Harvick (-23 pts) and Matt Kenseth (-34 pts). Add two-time champion Tony Stewart, inaugural Chase winner Kurt Busch, the summer’s hottest driver Brad Keselowski, last season’s first loser Denny Hamlin, the reliable rocket man Ryan Newman or the eight-time most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., and you’ve got the makings of the sort of Chase NASCAR hoped for when they drew up the blueprints.

In short, the field is stacked. And with the unpredictable way the racing has gone this year, and all the first time winners, anything can, and probably will happen.

And there’s a bonafide rivalry.

Kurt Busch is, at times, very hard to like. He behaved like an out of control, petulant temper-tantrum throwing child with the reporters after the Richmond race and frankly he should damn well have known better. I get the adrenaline flows but there is no excuse for that sort of behavior.

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But here’s the thing: with the way things are shaping up between him and Johnson, it might escalate – big time – these next 10 weeks. There is clearly no love lost between the two and if Busch gets eliminated early don’t be surprised to see him exact revenge at the most critical of times.

First up, Chicago, where hope burns bright.

When the snarling pack of 43 cars take the green flag on Sunday afternoon (Sept. 18), the 12 Chasers will be divided by just 12 points. Chicagoland Speedway is not, perhaps, the natural choice to open NASCAR version of the playoffs, but just because it’s a cookie cutter don’t expect a lack of storylines from the GEICO 400 both on and off the track. And if nothing else, the GEICO Caveman (from the ads) is the grand marshal and will give the command to start engines: that ought to be amusing.

But fortunes can change in a flash.

I’ve always been against the school of thought that argues that Chase drivers should be eliminated throughout the course of the ten races. And the main reason is because it happens naturally. Blown tires, expiring engines, bad luck and errant strategy – you name it; it can happen. In a long regular season, a pair of poor finishes are easily hidden: not so in the Chase. Despite my above point about how close the Chase will be this year, you can all but guarantee 2-3 drivers will be totally out of the championship picture by the time we head for Dover and the Monster Mile.

Talladega Nightmares

One huge feature of the new points scheme is that poor finishes are magnified to a much greater percentage than under the old system. Winning and consistency are rewarded, as is right and proper, but DNFs in the Chase will almost certainly be disastrous. And thus Talladega looms large. It’s not hyperbole to say the sixth race in the Chase might just be the most important.

The quirks of the schedule see three of the four restrictor-plate races run in the first 17 and some 15 more races before the fourth and final race is run. Some five months have passed since the drivers have had to run full throttle around the 2.66-mile high banks of the biggest baddest track of them all and you can all but guarantee an instant classic when the circuit swings through Alabama on Oct. 23.

Could we see a new “Five-Time”?

For the first time since 2007, Gordon looks ready to truly contend for an elusive fifth championship, and first title under the Chase format. The season stats speak to great reliability and success (three wins, 10 top fives, 14 top 10s, an average finish of 11.6 and 721 laps led). Those, however, are just the numbers. We’ve seen a different Gordon this season and he has clearly benefited from the tutelage of crew chief Alan Gustafson, without any disrespect to Steve Letarte, who has done a fine job with Earnhardt. After 10 years of trying, 2011 might just be the year the old man finally (finally) drives for five.

Kyle Busch won’t win.

Just as with Gordon, we’ve seen a different side of Busch this year – a more mature, less emotional character. I think that he will win a Sprint Cup crown before he hangs up his helmet, but I just don’t think it will be this year. When it’s come down to Chase time, Busch has never come closer to getting the job done. His highest finish is fifth (2007), but even then he was some 430 points of the pace. Does he have the talent? No doubt. Can he put it all together when it counts? One year, for sure; just not this one.

Delighted for Junior.

Whatever happens to Earnhardt these next 10 weeks, he’s already proved his critics wrong. The crew chief switcheroo in the off-season at Hendrick Motorsports paid dividends for the 13-year Cup veteran; Letarte’s ebullient leadership has coaxed the best out of the Kannapolis native. Yes, the win hasn’t come – it will – but what this season has shown us (and perhaps him, too) is that Junior can compete at the highest level. I don’t feel like he’ll be sitting at the head table in Last Vegas in late November but it is not beyond the realms of possibility. What a story it would be.

I’m excited.

And finally, I’m excited for it to get going this weekend. I understand the criticism of the format and as a die-hard fan of English Premier League football where 38 games decide the championship; I’d consider it a travesty if they ever implemented the same system back home. So I get it why the longtime fans despise it. That being said, though, I can’t wait to see how the 2011 iteration of the Chase all unfolds with all the myriad twists and (left hand) turns these next 10 weeks. Should be fun. Enjoy it folks.

About the author

Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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