Magic Mile Moment: Breaking Down The 2011 Chase for Sprint Cup Field
There was very little rest for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship field after Monday's fuel mileage race at Chicagloand. However, for some of the sport's top drivers, that means an immediate opportunity to gain ground on their competitors.
Drivers like Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch are licking their chops to make up tremendous ground on points leader Kevin Harvick along with Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, who've gotten off to a strong start. Chicagoland somewhat halted their strong streaks in recent weeks, but as they say, the show must go on.
It wasn't long ago that the Cup circuit visited Loudon, NH, as they raced there a few months ago in a race that saw Ryan Newman triumph over teammate and car owner Tony Stewart.
While that duo enjoyed their successful Sunday afternoon performances that day, racers like Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski were about glad to leave The Granite State after they hit the SAFER barrier wall between turns three and four due to tire troubles.
Redemption is the name of the game for a lot of racers who are looking to make a statement for their bid for this year's championship. Monday's race certainly shook up the field, but with nine events remaining, there's plenty of racing action yet to unfold.
For anyone expecting Loudon to not be a fuel mileage event, it'd be a mistake to assume such a thought, as this track's plenty capable of presenting such a race. Jimmie Johnson urged his way to a season sweep at New Hampshire in 2003 by way of conserving fuel, while Tony Stewart lost in heartbreaking fashion last September.
Handling, tire conservation, as well as keeping the fenders clean for at least the first 200 miles are some of the keys to contending for the win at this track. Consider Loudon as Martinsville on steroids, with a near paperclip-like shape and sweeping corners that could abuse tires and brakes like the Boston Red Sox torturing its fans this month.
Here's a quick look at the 12-driver field, of course, with the opinions and thoughts of each driver just by this writer, and not representative of the drivers and teams themselves! While it is not listed in the same standings orders, each week, we'll analyze the field in this style.
The Early Favorites
Kevin Harvick: Is there any reason now to doubt the pride of Bakersfield, CA with his chance to win the ultimate prize of stock car racing?
He was denied the Cup last year, just running a tick off Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin for the championship. Still, if the old points system was in effect, he'd have been crowned the title, bringing the trophy back home to Richard Childress Racing for the first time since the late Dale Earnhardt's dominant years of the early 1990s.
This season, we've seen a remarkably restrained Kevin Harvick. Yes, it's no secret that he isn't fond of rival Kyle Busch, but it's a healthy one in which mind games and paint trading are used as often as folks talking about Ron Artest's new name "Metta World Peace."
That restrain has been prevalent especially with Busch, as he's not shown "Rowdy" or any driver that he can be easily riled up. It's almost to the point that he has a Machiavellian glint in his eyes, as if he knows what he's doing.
Loudon is a track where Harvick and his No. 29 crew would be happy to bring home another top-five finish, which is definitely in the cards. Having won at Martinsville and Richmond, which are somewhat similar to "The Magic Mile," Sunday might be the time for Harvick to capture his fifth victory of 2011.
Jimmie Johnson: Oh, if only gas mileage wasn't a factor for "Five-Time." One wouldn't need to be a rocket scientist or psychologist to figure out that Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are somewhat seething over the somewhat bittersweet results from Monday's Chicagoland race.
They were virtually in position to win at Joliet, IL before fuel mileage cost them a shot at their second win of the year, a victory which would have somewhat demoralized the field given their dominance during the final 10 races of the year.
Still, based on their performance this past week, it's quite clear that this team can be likened to a grizzly bear waking up from its long winter slumber. After months of relatively running quietly in the top-10, it looks like the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet is ready to reclaim its spot towards the front of the field.
Loudon has been a rather magical track for Johnson, as he's won three races at this facility. If this team drives their way into Victory Lane, it could very well be the beginning of the end for the other 11 racers who want to defeat the Johnson Express.
Carl Edwards: It almost seems like Carl Edwards has attended the "School of Matt KensethConsistency," which means running in the top-10 in such a fashion that hardly anyone notices your presence until the box score and recaps are published online and print publications.
There's a quiet, unassuming confidence with the No. 99 team and it could very well be their best bid for a championship since 2008. Sure, they haven't won as much as they did that year, they've kept themselves within striking distance for the Cup in rather respectable fashion.
Their flat track program isn't the best or the worst - which actually, at least personally, makes them very interesting to watch on Sunday. Will we see Edwards and crew chief Bob Osbourne take risks and chances to get a leg up on their rivals or play it safe for a top-10 at Loudon?
Jeff Gordon: Chicagoland was not what the No. 24 DuPont Chevy team needed in their quest for the Cup, but alas, that's why it's a 10-race playoff Chase, not a winner-takes-all spectacle. That said, they cannot afford to use up another mulligan if they plan to make a serious bid for a fifth championship.
They're still in this category although if they come up even short of a top-10 at NHMS, they'll drop to the dark horse plateau. Monday's race was a glaring moment for the hottest team on the circuit, as they were off on all aspects of their game with a poor qualifying effort coupled with a car that handled as well as an X-Factor reject.
Crew chief Alan Gustafson is no stranger to winning at Loudon, as he helped Mark Martin nab a sterling win at this track two years ago when he was aiding the No. 5 team in their title efforts.
Additionally, Gordon's a three-time winner at this track and he could very well earn a fourth triumph on Sunday after a strong seventh-place qualifying effort.
The question is, which No. 24 team will wee see on Sunday - the one that's run on a rail since late July or the one that looked lost in confusion?
Tony Stewart: Yes Smoke, you are a legitimate, true contender for the title, no matter how much self-depreciation you place on yourself.
Sure, one race doesn't change or mean anything for most folks, but for the owner and driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1 Chevy, you know it had to mean the world for him to finally capture that first win of the year. Not to mention, he's jumped from ninth to second in the points standings, just seven markers from leader Kevin Harvick.
Just as much as he ran convincingly well at Chicagoland on Monday, a poor effort on Sunday could cost them dearly in terms of points and an opportunity to nab a third championship. Will Stewart find a way to destory his title efforts?
Two words: absolutely not.
Kurt and Kyle Busch: Ah, the tale of two brothers. Elder brother Kurt was cursing his way to a strong top-10 finish while Kyle was left fuming about fuel at Chicagoland on Monday.
Kurt Busch's race at Chicagoland was far from pretty, as they struggled with the handle once the track built up rubber on a long-run segment.
ESPN's Andy Petree mentioned how crew chief Steve Addington took note of how Kurt's No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge loses grip and the handle once there's marbles on the track. That is something they'll need to work on significantly if they want to make a bold bid for the Cup.
As for Kyle Busch, they've dropped down an echelon but only because of their fuel mileage stumble atChicagoland and because of their crash at this very track two months ago.
Will both of these Las Vegas racers find their way back into Cup contention before it's too late?
Brad Keselowski: Again, it's not to slam the Rochester Hills, MI native, but Loudon is one track that's somewhat tested the "Blue Deuce." Keselowski had a somewhat troubling race in July, as he wrecked hard here and it nearly cost him his chance to earn a Chase seed.
Instead, we saw about the most amazing run to a playoff spot that helped them garner a wild card position in amazing fashion.
Chicagoland was yet another strong run which saw them score another top-10 finish, a testament to the amazing chemistry between Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe.
If they can get yet another top-five or top-10 result on Sunday at Loudon, about the only concern for the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge team is Talladega, a restrictor plate spectacle which could very well make or break any drivers' efforts for the Cup.
Matt Kenseth: It's too bad that a rule cost the No. 17 team on Monday, all because of a competitor pushing Kenseth to the start/finish line with a Ford Fusion that sputtered on fuel. NASCAR made the right move, but it certainly hurt the pride of Cambridge, WI.
Still, there's plenty of time to make up for lost ground and if any driver is plenty capable of making up such a defecit for the Sprint Cup championship, it's Matt Kenseth. Both driver and crew chief JimmyFennig have captured the title in 2003 and '04 respectively, albeit from different Roush-FenwayRacing efforts.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: And this is why they race and why us writers try our best to predict what'll happen and most of all, break down what's happened.
Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte put together a masterful race, one that resembled their efforts back in the spring as early season favorites. They didn't just save fuel and get lucky with a strong finish - rather, they earned their way to the top for a great result.
With about every distraction virtually out of their way, the No. 88 Chevy team has its sponsor situation all set and contracts that have been signed. In simple English, the sky's the limit with this interesting bunch from Hendrick Motorsports.
Ryan Newman: Nothing spectacular, nothing out of the ordinary. While that may sound unsettling to some, in this instance, it means that an ordinary status for the No. 39 Chevy team results in a top-10 about three out of five races.
The circuit's back at Loudon, which is where Newman claimed his ultimate moment thus far in 2011 with a convincing win. No, he didn't luck into Victory Lane in July - rather, he muscled and clawed his way to the front, which is an example as to why he's now contending for the title.
What will we see from the Army/HAAS crew on Sunday? Well, don't be surprised if this bunch finds themselves within striking distance of the leaders, and I don't just mean points leaders in this case!
Denny Hamlin: Sadly, until the No. 11 FedEx Toyota team figures out how to snap out of their funk, Denny Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford will battle and press their way through the final nine races of the year in rather disappointing fashion.
It's amazing how a team that did everything but win the title last year hasn't been able to duplicate their feat for their title bid in 2011. Is it a case in which the pairing has waned in communication or their motor issues which have plagued them tremendously all year long?
Only time will tell but that is something that is not in abundance with Joe Gibbs Racing's veteran racer.