Race Weekend Central

Five Points to Ponder: The Chase is Here…and In Like a Lamb

*ONE: They Lied…Neither Keselowski, Johnson “Showing their Hands” After Round 1*

OK, it’s taking the statement a bit out of context. When Brad Keselowski was asked immediately after winning at Chicago whether or not he and Johnson were showing their hands, the question was posed as to whether either of them were sandbagging during the race’s final green-flag run. But in a larger sense, despite Keselowski’s insistence that both he and Johnson were giving it all they had (Johnson’s own post-race comments were in concurrence, as he noted the No. 2 simply outran them to the checkers) both drivers weren’t telling the whole story. They were both rather… subdued.

Keselowski, while thrilled in Victory Lane, treated his race number one triumph very much like a BCS college football team celebrates their season-opening win over Savannah State; a great team effort, fun to play, but a miniscule accomplishment in the bigger picture. Johnson, meanwhile, showed no signs of exasperation or frustration with being forced to settle for runner-up after losing touch with the No. 2 car. Yes, he didn’t waste a single breath before bringing up the non-issue pit road blend point that Keselowski used exiting the pits after a fast green-flag stop, a maneuver that ultimately made his race-winning pass happen. But Johnson, in doing so moved forward quickly, admitting the speed wasn’t there to hold Keselowski off.

While not a disaster, Chicagoland was not the home of a rousing start to the season’s Chase.

Bottom line, both drivers had A-list cars that were fast right off the truck. Both drivers showed no lapses in concentration, no moments on-track, nothing that suggested they were even remotely out of control over the course of 400 miles. The five-time champion was in the form that won him those five Cups; the challenger wasn’t stupid enough to start running his mouth or acting overconfident.

There really wasn’t much for either to get excited about or out of shape over. This was about as uneventful an opening round as two favorites could ask for. Nothing was learned… all that came of it was that the Nos. 2 and 48 were among the favorites. Who didn’t know that already?

*TWO: Chicagoland Speedway the Wrong Venue for Opening the Chase*

Given the older asphalt, plus the fact the track didn’t get rained out and have its rubber from Saturday’s race washed away, Sunday’s 400-miler was far from the worst intermediate oval event NASCAR’s Cup Series has seen in 2012. But having said that, this Chase got started with much more of a whimper than a roar. There was no defining confrontation or event that left fans buzzing or stunned; the race was all but won on pit road, the biggest news other than a mechanical failure on the No. 24 car and a short fuel tank on the No. 11. There was no tussle on pit road between Kurt Busch and Scott Riggs’ crew after an early-race wreck. There was no traded paint between Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart coming to the checkered flag to score the first win. There was no left field Chase entrant that took the show by storm a la Greg Biffle or Clint Bowyer.

While these events in no way shape or form justify the existence of Brian France’s bastard lovechild known as the Chase, it does go a long way in demonstrating that starting the final ten-race stretch at Loudon was never a problem that the format needed to correct. Loudon was both a unique track layout and one that lent itself more to a bullring; translation, it put on a better race that was more in the hands of the drivers.

That’s hard to say looking back on Sunday, a race that was as much about engineering and aerodynamics than driver control. And while Chicagoland was certainly more representative on what the postseason field is going to race on for much of the final homestretch, that’s not necessarily a good thing for both the fans… and the fans of the Chase.

*THREE: Disarray Taking a Toll at Roush Fenway Racing*

Hendrick Motorsports was in fine form at Chicagoland. Stewart-Haas delivered one of the better performances their team has had in recent memory. Even Michael Waltrip Racing’s two Chasers scored top-10 finishes in their first go-round, even after Martin Truex, Jr. battled major handling woes early in the event. And then there was Roush Fenway Racing, the defending Cup runner-ups, the 2012 Daytona 500 champions and points leader for much of the season, with no top-10 finishes among any of the team’s cars, Chasers or not.

Even on the intermediate ovals that the team used to dominate, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth were relative non-factors even before the No. 17 car dropped a shock absorber on-track. The team’s average finish on Sunday? A woeful 16.7. It’s even more disastrous considering all of this self-destruction occurred on a weekend that, on the Nationwide Series side saw Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. take both NNS and Cup regulars alike to task.

It was no secret coming into this Chase that RFR had lost a step or two on the larger race tracks. But even with the biggest prize on the line, the seeming inability of Ford’s flagship and arguably the most experienced roster in the Cup garage to make any sort of progress with their packages is startling. And it’s more than a technical matter… it’s got to be one of mindset. Despite having two Nationwide titles and a Cup championship between them, Matt Kenseth’s a lame duck, Carl Edwards is reaping the comfort of a secure, long-time contract that was won last year, and Greg Biffle’s stuck in the middle, operating in a vacuum with two teammates that are treading water.

It’s perhaps ironic that a single-car operation proved to work well for Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. on Saturday in tackling the RCR behemoth and wrestling the points lead from Elliott Sadler. But on the Cup side, the results spoke volumes Sunday. The Blue Oval hasn’t won a title since 2004… and it’s going to be 2013 before they get another shot.

*FOUR: Why Ford’s Future Is Still Building Dodges…and Why It Doesn’t Matter*

Dodge’s time in NASCAR may be running short – they’re leaving, effective 2013 – but for Penske to win a championship they’ll have to keep making and refining new ones until the very last race of 2012.

ESPN spent a considerable amount of time discussing how Paul Wolfe’s No. 2 team was still building new race cars as Dodges despite their impending transition to Ford in 2013. The word “duh” comes to mind on a number of fronts. Dodge, Ford, whatever the make, Penske Racing is on the cusp of a Cup championship, perhaps the only piece of motorsports hardware that Roger Penske’s mantle is lacking. They’ve only got one team competing for anything the rest of this season.

And that Dodge comment, as powerful a statement as it may seem to make about the Penske camp’s dedication to the rest of 2012, really doesn’t mean much of anything. We’re in the age of the CoT. It’s a freaking kit car! Has anyone forgotten how Robby Gordon described being able to change his fleet of Cup vehicles over from one make to another in a matter of a few offseason hours?

There were plenty of reasons to jump on the Keselowski bandwagon after the No. 2 team’s performance at Chicagoland… there’s no need to clutch at straws to do so.

*FIVE: Jeff Gordon’s Wreck a Blessing?*

It was bound to happen… the No. 24 team has been in all but Chase mode since the early part of summer. There was no real chance they’d be able to keep the same momentum that carried 2012 from an utter disaster into a Chase-worthy performance without a hiccup along the way. That hiccup came on Sunday, courtesy of a stuck throttle that forced the No. 24 hard into the turn 2 wall. Gordon finished 35th, his worst result since Darlington, and now sits dead last in Chase points heading to Loudon.

If the shackles weren’t already off for a team that was counting its lucky stars just to be in the 12-car field, they’re off now. The mulligan is gone, and Gordon was the worst finishing Chaser by 17 spots. The gap facing the No. 24 squad is now significant, and points racing is no longer an option.

It’s a slim chance that Gordon will make a title run, as the bad luck that plagued him all year caught up with him again in Chicagoland. But there’s few drivers not named Tony Stewart capable of scoring the type of wins necessary to take a Chase by storm. Jeff Gordon is one of them.

*Connect with Bryan!*

“Contact Bryan Davis Keith”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/18454/

About the author

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.

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