ONE: Cape Fear
For Jimmie Johnson, the comparison to Superman has been made many times over and for most of the first half of Sunday’s race that seemed an apt appraisal as the six-time champion dominated the early proceedings leading a race-best 118 circuits. But then a speeding penalty on pit road in a round of green flag stops mired Johnson back in the back – all but ending his chances of a morale-boosting first victory since he won at Auto Club Speedway in March in the fifth race of the season. “I just can’t believe I got in trouble down there leaving the pits,” said a resigned Johnson post-race. “I’m making adjustments and I was dumbfounded that happened. You can’t argue it.” Compounding matters, the No. 48 car failed the post-race laser inspection station twice. At the time of writing, points penalties haven’t been assessed but this will likely be a P2-level infraction which could see Johnson fined 10 driver points. So what started out looking like a really positive opening to the Chase became something of a fiasco for a team that just hasn’t looked quite up to speed all year long. Now obviously it’s far too early to write off the 16-year, 534-race veteran but it’s fair to say it’s not looking as rosy as it could have done midway through the race.
TWO: So close and yet so far
In the end it was a third-place finish for Chase Elliott – a very respectable start to his first ever NASCAR playoff campaign. But the bigger story was that he didn’t pick up the victory that looked all but his before a (very) late caution. Elliott paced the field for 75 of the 267 laps and looked strong out front before the final pit stop jumbled up the running order and saw the rookie slide out of contention. “That’s a fact of life,” pointed out Elliott with regard to the late race caution. “I guess fortunately and unfortunately I’ve raced long enough to know that these races don’t go green for that long period of time. We see more late-race cautions than we do not; that’s just the world we live in. It was expected; it’s going to happen.” Elliott’s strong run was something that race winner Martin Truex, Jr. acknowledged: “First off, I want to say I feel for Chase, I know what he’s going through. He did a great job. I wasn’t going to catch him.” But all the platitudes in the world mean little to nothing to Elliott who has looked likely to take the checkers more than once in his nascent 32-race career. All that said, you can’t help but feel Chase’s time is coming and that time is sooner rather than later.
THREE: Next Up, Loudon
Next up, we head to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for race two of whatever we’re calling this first three-race segment of the Chase this year. Thankfully there are no turtles or other strange creatures in the race title — the New England 300 – which feels much more apropos. This is the second trip of the season to the 1.058-mile flat track and the 44th Cup race at the “Magic Mile.” Matt Kenseth won the July race, leading the last 31 laps, one of two races he’s won in 2016 so far. The other win, perhaps appropriately, came at Dover International Speedway – the location for the next race. Jeff Gordon, who will not be racing in the #88 car this weekend, holds most of the statistical records (16 top-5’s, 24 top-10’s, 1,373 laps led and 36 lead-lap finishes). The one record he doesn’t hold is wins. Gordon has three to NBC broadcaster Jeff Burton’s four. With just three hundred laps to race (317-ish miles) there is no margin for error, especially for those Chasers on the bubble, so expect some drama particularly if we get into a rash of late race cautions. You never know quite what you’ll get at Loudon in terms of a competitive race, so it will be interesting to see what transpires this weekend, that’s for sure.
FOUR: Champion Pagenaud
It was a dominant race at Sonoma Raceway capping off an equally dominant season for Simon Pagenaud who won his first Verizon IndyCar Series title in style. His only challenger, Will Power, suffered an electrical problem with his clutch on lap 36 (of 85 total) which saw the Australian, who won the title in 2014, go eight laps down and completely out of contention. “It’s unbelievable, I think I will realize more tomorrow,” noted an emotional Pagenaud after it was all said and done. “My whole career has been about this, about today and getting to this point, getting to this level and running up front like that when you need it, for an athlete, I think when you can perform 100 percent under pressure like this is amazing. It’s such a great feeling.” For Power, it was a fourth second place overall finish in his eight full years of racing and you have to wonder had the chips fallen differently just how many championships the wheelman for the #12 Verizon car could have won. But to anyone following IndyCar this year, Pagenaud has been the man to beat with the Frenchman winning five of the 16 races. He ended up on the podium eight times, led a series best 406 laps and had an average finish of 6.1. Congrats to the champ – no one can argue that he didn’t deserve his maiden crown.
FIVE: The XFINITY Series Chase
This weekend will see the start of the inaugural NASCAR Xfinity Series Chase with 12 drivers competing across three segments and eight races for the title. Some of those drivers will be delighted to get a shot at a championship but for the points leader, veteran Elliott Sadler, it’s anything but delight. Sadler, a model of consistency in 2016 with 2 wins, ten top-5’s and a metronomic 23 top-10’s, will see a big points lead eviscerated. “Man, I wish NASCAR could wait until next year to start the Chase,” said Sadler. “It’s hard to give up that many points. Fifty-eight points ahead, and we know we’re all going to be reset.” All told, Sadler has run 777 races across the three series (435 Cup, 322 XFINITY and 20 Truck races) and nary a championship. Could this year be the year he breaks that title-less streak? Let’s hope so. Sadler is one of the true good guys in our great sport.