Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2012 GEICO 400 at Chicagoland

Key MomentBrad Keselowski took the lead after the final round of green flag pit stops and had a car that was simply better than everyone else for the final run to the checkered flag.

In a Nutshell – Another insomnia curing mile-and-a-half race starts off the Chase with a handful of “title contenders” already all but out of the hunt. Jimmie Johnson dominated the race but when it came time to claim the big, fake check his car just couldn’t keep up with the blue deuce.

Dramatic MomentJeff Gordon proved once again that the kill switch on the steering wheel isn’t really a viable alternative when the throttle sticks. He killed the wall when his hung on lap 189, easily the most serious accident of the race.

For some, Keselowski jumping up the blend line and “impeding” Johnson’s momentum was a close second. But when the most dramatic moment is a car coming off pit road…

What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week

For those conspiracy theorists who think team orders exist at Hendrick, think again; this weekend proved it’s not the case. During a lap 72 restart, Kasey Kahne was in perfect position to lead a lap without having a negative impact on Johnson’s race; however, the No. 48 didn’t yield an inch. In the end, the No. 5 never led a lap all day, and that point very well could come back to haunt him come Homestead.

NASCAR Non-Stop coverage from ESPN debuted during the second half of the race. Apparently, someone at Sprint finally listened to the fans and came to the realization that seeing commercials every 20 laps really won’t keep people glued to the television during the “playoffs”. Here’s hoping that all of NASCAR’s broadcast partners can see the forest from the trees and figure out how to make it happen on their telecasts as well.

Amazingly, NASCAR resisted the temptation to throw a phantom debris caution during the final, 73-lap green-flag run to add to the “excitement” of the first race of the Chase.

ESPN saw a need to have Marty Smith in the elevated pit studio because, apparently, four people behind the desk wasn’t enough.

NASCAR’s wave-around rule isn’t exactly new. But for some reason, the race officials haven’t figured out that they need to wave the cars around a little bit sooner when there are going to be around 20 of them taking advantage of the rule. Instead, they have to extend caution periods by a lap while the cars all play musical chairs figuring out where to line up.

A giant lizard in Victory Lane is admittedly a little creepy, but at least we didn’t have to listen to that crappy accent in postrace interviews.

ESPN went for a real stretch having Kid Rock rambling on about the patriotism of the Chase before the race started. Thank God they didn’t have Lady Gaga trying to convince us the Chase is good for everyone.

Try as Dale Jarrett might to convince the fans that Keselowski is the second coming of David Pearson, he’s got 97 more races to win before anyone is really going to buy into that line of malarkey.

The Hindenburg Awards for Foul Fortune

Gordon was all the rage after battling his way into the Chase at Richmond and celebrating like it was 1999 as he climbed out of the car. But after a hung throttle at Chicago resulted in a 35th-place finish, Gordon will be enjoying some lovely parting gifts but he won’t be hoisting the shiny silver trophy.

Casey Mears lost a right-front tire and totaled his car; he finished with a DNF in 36th. The folks at Germain have been having a pretty decent year, considering they’re just a single-car team but tough breaks like that continue to make their efforts more and more difficult.

Making the Chase as a “lame duck” driver was an impressive feat for Matt Kenseth, but having the right front shock fall off of his car is certainly not a positive omen for their upcoming run to try and win the title (he finished 18th). Kenseth’s comment on the radio that a lot of stuff has been falling off his cars lately can’t be good for team morale, either.

As if it wasn’t a slap in the face enough to Marcos Ambrose to have his entire team taken from him to try and help make the No. 43 more competitive, his car was plagued with some sort of electrical issue during the race that resulted in him slipping to 27th, four laps down. He also had to spend some quality time on pit road with a crew member in the car with him.

Regan Smith and Dave Blaney both had engine issues which brought their trips to Chicago to an early end. They were 33rd and 34th, respectively and left the track still without the long-term contracts they’re seeking for 2013 and beyond.

Denny Hamlin’s crew didn’t put enough gas in the car on their final pit stop, so he ran out of fuel coming to the checkered flag. Trying to save gas beforehand, as well as running out cost him more than 10 positions, dropping him 15 points behind the new point leader Keselowski.

”The Seven Come For Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Interestingly, before Gordon was the recipient of the Hindenburg award, he was lucky enough to catch a caution as his car was beginning to overheat thanks to trash on the grill. His luck appeared to be turning around the last few weeks and the fortuitous yellow looked to be another instance before his throttle hanging turned his luck sour.

Travis Kvapil drove an entire lap with a jack stuck under the side of his car and didn’t have anything catastrophic happen. The odds of that jack not catching and rolling out from under the car and doing major damage are pretty slim. While the finish for Kvapil wasn’t great – he fell off the pace in the final five laps and wound up 31st – it could have been much worse.

After a day where they both struggled mightily with their cars, the two Michael Waltrip Racing drivers (Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr.) managed to come home inside the top 10 – a fine effort for their Chase debut.

Keselowski will tell you it was playing by the rules because he wasn’t called for a penalty, but it was good fortune that NASCAR didn’t throw a penalty flag on the No. 2 after Chad Knaus gave his pit official an earful about how Keselowski blended onto the track.

Worth Noting

  • Keselowski is now tied for the most wins in the series this season with Hamlin at four.
  • Keselowski has eight career wins in Sprint Cup, with seven of them coming in the last two years.
  • Keselowski is leading the points for the first time in his career.
  • Keselowski, Johnson, Stewart, Hamlin, Kenseth and Bowyer are the only Chase drivers to lead a lap after race one of the postseason.
  • Johnson has now won 20 Chase races and finished second in 14 others.
  • Kyle Busch was the highest finishing non-Chaser, crossing the line in fourth.
  • Ryan Newman (fifth) has top-11 finishes in six of the last eight races.
  • Truex Jr. (ninth) has been 11th or better in eight of the last nine Cup events.
  • Carl Edwards (19th) has now gone 22 races without a top-five finish in the Cup Series (Fontana – March).
  • Three of the four drivers who won races, but did not make the Chase finished inside the top 10 on Sunday (Busch, Newman, and Joey Logano). They were also the only non-Chase drivers to leave Chicagoland with a top-10 result.
  • Gordon’s average finish since the return of the bad porn ‘stache is 35th.
  • There were 16 lead changes during the race, but only one of them actually took place as a pass on-track for the lead.
  • The top-10 finishers were comprised of five Chevys, four Toyotas, and Brad Keselowski’s winning Dodge. Greg Biffle was the highest-finishing Ford in 13th.

What’s the Points?

Keselowski started the Chase tied for second thanks to his three wins during the “regular season”. Winning at Chicago allowed him to overcome the three-point deficit that he had to Hamlin and he now leads the standings by three over Johnson.

Johnson may not have won the race but he led the most laps and scored the most points you can possibly score without winning. He is second and just three points out of the lead.

Tony Stewart didn’t replicate his start to the 2011 Chase where he won at Chicago for the first of his five wins in the “playoffs.” However, he did end up in the top six and he’s only eight points out of the lead in third.

Hamlin was on the highest of highs coming into the Chase having won back-to-back races at Bristol and Atlanta followed up by a dominating run at Richmond that didn’t quite end up like it should have. Now he’s tied for fourth, 15 points out of the lead after Sunday’s gas can debacle.

Kahne’s strong, third place, run at Chicago vaulted him from his Wild Card position in the Chase to a tie with Hamlin and Bowyer for fourth in points.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Biffle are at the top of the second half of the Chase drivers, sitting seventh and eighth but can’t afford to lose any more ground if they want to stay in the discussion at this point of the race.

The drivers behind Biffle are all but done, sitting over 20 points out of the top spot. They are, in order: Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon.

Meanwhile, for those of you keeping track of the “battle” for the Top 35, the No. 36 car, sitting 35th is 115 points ahead of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford in 36th. Basically, the top 35 in owner points as of now will be the top 35 at Daytona in February.

Overall Rating: The Chicagoland Speedway has been known to produce fuel mileage races, and that would have been a welcome change to the race Sunday. In a race where there was a grand total of one pass for the lead on the race track, the only real drama involved a heated debate about when drivers should blend onto the track after a green-flag pit stop. Even for a person who once lived in Chicago it is impossible to give this race more than one, single can of “vintage” Natty Light. For those of you who weren’t in the campground at Bristol a few weeks back, vintage means the beer is about seven years old and you will probably have to hold your nose just to choke it down. Knowing that half of the races in the Chase are on mile-and-a-half tracks, it does not bode well for the intrigue of the race to the championship in Homestead.

Next Up: The series heads back to Loudon, N.H. next weekend to the track known as the Magic Mile. The racing will certainly be more competitive than Chicago but honestly, there’s nowhere to go but up. On the plus side, the lobster bisque will be outstanding…

About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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