In what has shaped up to be about the most unusual weeks in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing's history, it's safe to say that if we've learned anything at all between the checkered flag last Saturday night at Richmond, VA to the kickoff day of the race weekend at Joliet, IL, there are no promises in life or with the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.  Ethical dilemmas surfaced as clandestine attempts to shake up the title field for the last 10 races of 2013 cropped up and it's safe to say that it's been rougher than the surface of Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Following Monday night's events in which NASCAR doled out some hefty penalties assessed to Michael Waltrip Racing that essentially booted out the "original" second wild-card seed of Martin Truex Jr. and propelled the No. 39 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy team of Ryan Newman into postseason play, dissension arose, particularly with fans of the No. 24 team of Jeff Gordon.  Gordon, who was in position to nab the 10th position in the Chase field, would relinquish that coveted spot when a caution came out for a Clint Bowyer spin that bunched up the leaders.  Bowyer, who's denied that the spin was intentional, along with Brian Vickers and Martin Truex Jr. were tacked each with 50 driver point penalties (prior to the Chase reseeding).

In some eyes, the penalties weren't justified, but there's now a book to be written by 12 different authors.  We have hungry drivers and teams who are anxious to kickoff the Chase at Chicagoland Speedway and battle for the coveted crown of NASCAR.  They're amongst the elites of the sport, ranging from veterans to some fresh faced young guns who have something to prove to their critics.  Whether it's Jimmie Johnson or Joey Logano, the goal for each of these racers is the same: to win it all.

Time to strap up, go racing, and get the prize, ladies and gentlemen.  And it's also time for #TeamTPF to go playoff style here too.  As we head into the Chase, "Track Talk" is about to get serious here.  While the usual three "Trending Topics" questions will be fielded by our panelists, here's where things get interesting!   When we reach the "Race Pick" segment of "Track Talk," all of us (including yours truly) will participate and choose our driver for the race win.  The panelist who finishes with the highest placed racer of the race weekend will become the "host" of the article, sharing co-authorship of the piece and essentially getting to come up with their own three "Trending Topics" questions.  In addition, we'll now keep track of points. Lastly, the panelist with the most amount of points after the season finale at Homestead-Miami, FL in November will win a 1/64 NASCAR diecast replica of their choosing (except if it's yours truly, which in this case, the runner up is the 'champion').

Without further ado, let's get started with "Track Talk" and talk about the Chicagoland edition of our "Trending Topics" right now with #TeamTPF's Matt Kacar, Shelby Parrack, Nick Brincks, and Jessica Tow!  Let's get it started!

Question 1

We've seen how the Chase has already gotten off to an auspicious start with Michael Waltrip Racing being heavily penalized from their actions at Richmond Int'l Raceway last weekend.  Did NASCAR send enough of a harsh enough tone to the competitors and teams or could more have been done?

Kacar :  NASCAR did not send a harsh enough message.  They got one thing right by penalizing Martin Truex Jr., thereby knocking him from the Chase. But the penalty for Bowyer was basically a non-penalty because he was already locked into the Chase.  They should have made it near impossible for Bowyer to win the title by penalizing him those 50 points AFTER the reset had happened. 

Parrack :  I think they sent a harsh enough tone, in my opinion I feel like it was too harsh on certain ends.  The guy who benefited from this incident (yet had nothing to do with the "cheating") got handed the worst penalty, and the guy who basically changed the tone of the race got a slap on the wrist and was barely effected.  I just hope this isn't a snowball effect that NASCAR has started.

Brincks :  Knocking one driver out of the Chase was harsh, but knocking both drivers out of the Chase would have been the right call.  Penalizing MWR 100 points instead of 50 would have accomplished that, while also benefiting Jeff Gordon, who was also affected by MWR's manipulation.  They sent a message saying "Don't do this again" but the punishment should have been more.  

Tow :  The penalties handed down to Michael Waltrip Racing were definitely harsh.  However, I believe that they made enough of an impact to the sport as a whole.  Looking back at the entire situation, I believe more could have been done to penalize the driver and individual team that actually started the controversy in the first place.  Yes, Clint Bowyer, I'm talking about you and your No. 15 5-Hour Energy team.  The driver who brought out the caution should have been the driver that was knocked out of the Chase, not the driver who drove his tail off and was guilty by association.  

Question 2

Do you think the Chase is a welcomed feature of the racing season nowadays or has it worn out its welcome to you as a NASCAR fan?  Why?

Kacar :  I think for the most part the Chase is a good thing. For one thing, if it wasn't for the Chase, last week's race at Richmond would have been a "ho hum" kind of race.  But it had all the drama of seeing who would make and miss the Chase.  It was pretty exciting. Too bad MWR tainted the race and the Chase.

Parrack :  Being a fan only since 2008, I haven't known anything different in the NASCAR season.  With that said, I don't feel like it has over stayed its welcome, as these issues from Richmond are just one "hiccup" in a several year run of the Chase.  It's certainly got everyone fired up! 

Brincks :  There's no doubt that the Chase makes the points battle more exciting, but I would rather see the racing as the focus, not points.  Because of the Chase, the driver in 13th place has to be conservative enough to not lose points through the mid-point of the season. Without the Chase, the driver in 13th place would be encouraged to simply race for wins because they weren't going to win the Championship anyway.  I liked the potential the Chase offered at the beginning, especially after the fantastic battle at Homestead in 2004.  However, since then, we've only seen one or two close battles at Homestead.  If the Chase can't even consistently create an exciting championship battle, it's pointless.  I'm 100% okay getting rid of the Chase, increasing the incentive for winning by a lot, and calling it good. 

Tow :  I think the Chase is both welcomed and frowned upon.  While this new format makes the last 10 races more exciting, it definitely has its moments.  Look at how many drivers have won the Championship throughout the last nine years since the Chase was installed; FOUR - Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, and Brad Keselowski.  I strongly believe that it's a continuous work in progress.  Throwing in two additional Wild Card spots surely has made a difference.  With the restrictor plate track already covered, NASCAR should switch up the track lineup and throw in Bristol and/or a road course.  If that happened, there is no question that the Chase would be an entirely phenomenal event. 

Question 3

Who do you see being crowned as this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion and who'll be the driver and team that just doesn't live up to expectations in the Chase?

Kacar :  My pick to win the title this year is Kyle Busch.  One of these years, he has to prove he can be a championship caliber driver in the Chase.  One thing that has me weary is I'm not too sure about the reliability of the Toyota engines.  I think Logano will be a disappointment during the Chase.  Yes, he has been on a roll lately, but this is the first time he has made the Chase.  To expect him to win the title the first time he is in the Chase is just too much to expect. 

Parrack :  I truly believe Carl Edwards is about to get on a hot streak and surprise everyone, he is my pick to win the championship.  I also think it would be ignorant of me to leave the 48 or 20 out as a threat, but neither team has done incredibly well over the course of the last few races.  So with that said, I look at Jimmie and Matt to be the biggest threats, but could also be the biggest letdowns. 

Brincks :  If Matt Kenseth can maintain his prowess on the mile and a half tracks in the Chase as he has had all season, I like his chances.  He'll have to minimize the bad days to hoist his second Cup, but I think he can do that.  I also think this will be the year that Kyle Busch finally has a great Chase, but he'll come up just short in Homestead.  On the flip side, I think Hendrick Motorsports as a whole will disappoint.  Kasey Kahne has been wildly inconsistent and Junior simply hasn't been very good.  Johnson has zero momentum on his side, but he'll still be a factor in the Chase.  He too, though, will come up short in the end. Joe Gibbs has a fantastic Chase while Hendrick looks to do better in 2014. 

Tow :  Hmm...I'm going to predict that this year's Sprint Cup Series Champion will be Matt Kenseth.  Going into the final 10 races of the season, the majority of the schedule consists of races held at 1-1.5 mile tracks.  So far this season, Kenseth and his No. 20 Home Depot/Dollar General Toyota Camry have been undeniably incredible at these particular "cookie cutter" tracks with three wins and a series-best average finish of 8.19.  If Kenseth and his team keep their ducks in a row and perform as consistently as they have throughout the last few months, there's no reason why they won't be the team hoisting up the Tiffany and Co. Championship Trophy at Homestead-Miami come November. 


Lastly #TeamTPF, who are you picking for Sunday's Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway?

Tow :  While Jeff Gordon has the stats at Chicagoland, I'm going to select my Championship pick, Matt Kenseth, as this weekend's race winner. See above and you'll know why.

Kacar :  Matt Kenseth is my pick to win the race at Chicagoland.  He has been the best car all year on the intermediate tracks. 

Brincks :  Kurt Busch.  The pressure to make the Chase is now off of him and his team. Anything they accomplish now will be icing on the cake.  I think he'll win at least one race in the Chase and I wouldn't rule out a surprise championship for the single-car team.  They'll kick off the Chase with a win and have shot at becoming the first single-car team champion since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.

Tiongson :  I'm going with Kevin Harvick, as he's a two-time winner here and he's flying under the radar.  That's just a good sneaky way for the No. 29 team to go ahead and grab a win while the field seems inundated by the news of the Chase controversies.

Parrack :  My pick to win this weekend is Brad Keselowski. With the pressure to back up his title now off his shoulders, I think he will be incredibly strong.  He is very good at Chicagoland and I expect to see him upfront all day on Sunday.

And there you have it folks!  Stay tuned throughout the Chase as #TeamTPF will cover all the action of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship from the arrival of the haulers at Chicagoland Speedway in September until the champion's swig of champagne at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.  The Podium Finish - your home for real voices heard and spoken by real racing enthusiasts!  Till next time, friends!