Race: Geico 400
Date: Sunday September 15, 2013
Track: Chicagoland Speedway
Time: 2 pm ET
by Virginia Vroom, NASCAR Handicapper, Predictem.com
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What a finish to the regular season! With the last caution being caused by a spin out by Clint Bowyer, many folks were weary of the cause. Martin Truex Jr. was sitting just outside of a wild card spot at the time and Jeff Gordon was within a couple of points of racing his way into the Chase. When Bowyer spun out, it was an opportunity to give Truex a shot that he may not have had all while making it more difficult for Gordon to get into the Chase because of his restart position. If you’ll rewind to last year, you’ll remember that Gordon essentially cost Bowyer the championship. Funny that Bowyer just happened to spin on the last lap, unassisted, giving his teammate a shot in the Chase and also knocking out someone who he has somewhat of a vendetta against!
Well, that sure didn’t last long for Bowyer. NASCAR came out on Monday with its biggest penalties in NASCAR history. The general manager for Michael Waltrip racing has been indefinitely suspended. In addition, the organization was fined $300,000 with crew chiefs for all 3 MWR cars on probation through December 31st of this year. Finally, each MWR team was docked 50 owner and 50 championship points. That was HUGE for the team. With those 50 points, Martin Truex Jr. was knocked out of the championship running. What people also may not know is that Brian Vickers’ team had a role to play as well. Radio communication shows that Vickers crew chief told him to pit with 4 laps to go. He insinuated that there was a tire going down despite Vickers initial astonishment. When it seemed clear that Vickers didn’t understand what they were trying to do, Vickers’ crew chief told him that they needed that one point. That one point gained was enough to get Truex in the Chase at that point. Bowyer’s spin preceded the Vickers’ communication. Prior to Bowyer spinning, radio communication indicated that the team was manipulating Bowyer’s state of poison oak to justify him “itching” his arm to cause the spin out.
After all is said and done, it was very clear that this entire organization went out of their way to manipulate the outcome of the race. As much as I am a fan of MWR, I am very disappointed in this type of behavior. This is the stuff that ruins the integrity of the sport. NASCAR is known for its rivalries, hard racing, and overall fairness across the board. This type of incident tarnishes a sport that remains relatively clean amidst the scandals of other major league teams. I do think that NASCAR ultimately made the right decision. Ryan Newman earned the 2nd wild card seed in the Chase because of the incident. Although it wasn’t how he wanted to get in, Newman really did earn that spot being that he didn’t manipulate anything to put himself in that position.
This weekend begins the race to the Sprint Cup Championship. Despite the controversy that has ensued since Richmond, this weekend will hopefully breathe new air into this chapter of the season and let these drivers focus on the rest of the year. This weekend, we are heading to Chicagoland. This is usually a very fun race for both fans and drivers. Unlike Richmond, Chicagoland is an intermediate track. What makes it unique is its tri-oval shape. This track has a 2400 frontstretch and a 1700 foot backstretch. The turns have 18 degree banking with the tri-oval boasting 11 degrees. The backstretch has nominal banking of 5 degrees.
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This is one of those tracks without a whole lot of history. Its inception into NASCAR Sprint Cup was back in 2001, with Kevin Harvick taking the first 2 wins. Last year’s winner and defending champ is Brad Keselowski. Other winners include Tony Stewart with 3 wins, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, and Kyle Busch. Dale Jr., Mark Martin, and David Reutimann have also seen victory lane. One of the biggest factors at this track are the tires. The varied banking throughout the track along with its unique shape and speed create a lot of wear. I think that we are going to see some pit strategy play a large role in this race as we have in the last several weeks. We will likely see 2, 3, or even 4 different strategies running at the same time. Another factor starting this week is the different strategies between the Chase drivers versus the non-Chase drivers. We are going to have to consider that the non-Chase drivers are simply going for wins at this point. There’s really nothing else to lose. Drivers like Jeff Gordon, who missed the Chase, have a lot to prove in terms of still being competitive despite not running for the championship, and he is going to do this by pulling out wins for the rest of the year. The Chase drivers, on the other hand, are going to have to keep their heads straight because they can’t be quite as risky. They have to consider what is going to give them the best points day, sometimes, regardless of wins.
If we look at all of these factors, including those past winners, I would put my money on Matt Kenseth. As the driver with the best average finish on these intermediate tracks this year and with a nice start in the Chase, Kenseth is going to be the one to beat. Although he doesn’t have a win here yet, this will be a good opportunity for him to continue his dominance of the intermediates while also solidifying his position in the Chase. Here are your potential winners this weekend:
My Pick to Win: Matt Kenseth
Middle of the Road Pick: Brad Keselowski
Dark Horse Prediction: Marcos Ambrose
Ambrose is often overlooked. He’s finished 4 of the last 5 races in the top 15. Overall, he runs well on the intermediates, so keep your eyes peeled for another strong finish from this team this weekend. As for Keselowski, as previously mentioned, he is the defending winner of this race. He also does well on this style of track and is looking to make a push for wins since he is another driver that ended up outside of the Chase.
Here are your final 12 drivers that are going for the Sprint Cup Championship:
1. Matt Kenseth
2. Jimmie Johnson
3. Kyle Busch
4. Kevin Harvick
5. Carl Edwards
6. Joey Logano
7. Greg Biffle
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
9. Kurt Busch
10. Clint Bowyer
11. Kasey Kahne
12. Ryan Newman
You will notice that these points are much different than what we’ve seen throughout the regular season. The positions are reset using the drivers’ wins and also their points at the end of the regular season. Kenseth is ahead of Johnson because of his wins. Look for the start of the Chase to be an eventful one. The drivers are going to be figuring out exactly what strategy works for their team to get them to the front. Remember that we have 2 different groups now. Some of these guys are going to be hard to beat because wins are the most important thing to them! Stay tuned for some exciting racing this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway!