Race Capsule: Keselowski wins round one of Chase at Chicagoland
Flag to Flag: The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase for the Cup playoffs began at Chicagoland Speedway the way the regular season ended - with Brad Keselowski in Victory Lane. The No. 2 Ford started the MyAFibStory.com 400 25th, after rain washed out qualifying and set the field by the first practice's speeds. Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe got the car tuned in and got into the top 10 by the 2nd run of the race and used two-tire strategy to put the car inside the top 5. He took the lead on lap 107, two laps after a restart, and held it for 44 laps. A loose wheel on a pit stop under caution caused Keselowski to give up a position near the front and restart 16th just after the halfway point in the race. Stuck behind some lapped cars (had to start behind them after pitting again), Keselowski had trouble making up ground. But halfway through that run, he started picking off cars and eventually got up to the 3rd position. There he had the seat for a great battle between Kevin Harvick (finished 5th) and rookie Kyle Larson (3rd). Larson followed in the steps of Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray (9th), who led 32 laps early in the day, by passing Harvick and leading for a total of 20 laps late in the race. Larson seemed to have the deal sealed for his first-career Sprint Cup Series win, until Clint Bowyer (39th) hit the wall on lap 246. Larson lost the lead to Harvick on the restart and they jostled back and forth, swapping the lead three times in three laps before Keselowski caught them. With Harvick down low and Larson up high, Keselowski split the middle and then shot up and blocked Larson's lane, in one of the best passes of the season in the Sprint Cup season. He survived one more caution, after Danica Patrick (19th) got into boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s (17th) car and hit the wall, to lead the final laps and grab his series-leading 5th win of the season. Kyle Busch (7th) started on the pole and led the first 28 laps, then 18 a bit later, showing more strength than he has in recent weeks. He also dominated both the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series races Saturday, winning the latter. Jeff Gordon (2nd) also spent time out front, leading laps early, and passed Larson, who started from the back in a backup car, for 2nd after the rookie scraped the wall a little bit. Harvick led 79 laps, again showing plenty of speed. Stewart-Haas Racing arranged earlier in the week to swap his pit crew with that on Tony Stewart's No. 14 car, to give Harvick a faster crew for the Chase. It worked on all stops but one, when they, like Keselowski's team, left a wheel loose and cost Harvick track position by having to pit him a 2nd time. The top 10 were Keselowski, Gordon, Larson, Joey Logano (came from poor starting position like Keselowski to a decent finish, had debris on grille in closing laps, which sped up the car and blew his engine as they crossed the finish line), Harvick, Denny Hamlin (was quiet all day, but came back into the top 10), Ky. Busch, Kurt Busch (spun entering pit road under green on the first stop, but salvaged the day), McMurray, and Matt Kenseth (last year's Chicagoland winner, who also spun entering pits, but was solid top 10 car all day). The Chasers that finished outside the top 10 were Dale Earnhardt Jr. (11th - non-factor all day), Jimmie Johnson (12th - ran top 10 most of day, faded at end), Kasey Kahne (13th - two pit road speeding penalties left the No. 5 team digging most of the day), Ryan Newman (15th - scraped the wall, brought out a caution, pitted four times, still stayed on lead lap - but had a top 5 car before that), Carl Edwards (20th - fell from top 10 to lap down, cut tire and scraped wall late in the race), A.J. Allmendinger (22nd - started 16th and told team early in race car was too loose and they were "in trouble" - he was right), Greg Biffle (23rd - was garbage all day, lapped early), and Aric Almirola (41st - drove from outside the top 20 to almost the lead, when he blew an engine). Here are the four Chasers that are outside the top 12, which would not advance from the Challenger round to the Contender round - Newman (-1 point from 12th-place Edwards), Allmendinger (-5), Greg Biffle (-9), and Almirola (-23). The Chicagoland race had drama, lots of changes for position, several good comebacks, and a hair-raising pass for the lead. That's what racing on old pavement produces.
RaceTweet: Keselowski spoils the party for Larson and Harvick and starts Chase off right with win at Chicagoland.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Brad Keselowski - He led the 2nd-most laps and had to come from deep in the field twice to get there. He also already booked a trip for the Contender round of the Chase, since his win clinches him a berth. Check.
North Korean Missile Dud: Jimmie Johnson - Hey, guys, it's Chase time! You can stop being mediocre now. Johnson never was a race-deciding factor and finished 12th. But remember this, 12th or better is all one has to realistically finish to make the next round of the Chase. Sure, they want to win, but you have to think crew chief Chad Knaus is saving the good bullets for late in the Chase.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Martin Truex Jr. - Truex Jr. really isn't an underdog driver and Furniture Row Racing is not the prototypical underdog team. But the two have had a nearly fruitless 2014 in their first year together and Sunday seemed trending that way when Truex Jr. was down a lap early and running outside the top 20s. Some late cautions gave Truex Jr. another chance at life and with his car dialed in better, he used those late restarts to drive to 14th. That's not a bad run for a driver and team with only three top 10s in 27 races.
Ghost Driver: Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Still in midst of the best or second-best season of his career, Earnhardt Jr. has been out of the limelight on the racetrack of late, cashing in another vanilla finish of 11th Sunday, leading zero laps. But, just like with Johnson, Earnhardt Jr. is likely just biding his time to make a late Chase run. Interesting how even in this new playoff system, drivers and teams can "play it safe". His crew chief Steve Letarte told myself and PRN's Mark Garrow as much in the garage at Atlanta two weeks ago - the goal is to finish high enough to keep advancing rounds and then go all-in at Homestead in the finale.
You Don't Have to Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Kurt Busch - He spun entering the pits on the first set of stops after lap 40 and hit the commitment cone, so he had to re-pit. That put the No. 41 Chevy down a lap to about 33rd in a race that had a green flag feel to it. He and crew chief Daniel Knost didn't give up and took the free pass on the lap 100 caution to drive back onto the lead lap. From then on, Busch steadily gained positions and finished 7th. Busch told his crew after the spin it was his fault for dialing in too much rear brake bias on the car. He could have blown a fuse and checked out for the day. He didn't - and likely saved his Chase.
Wheel of Misfortune: Aric Almirola - Almirola was having one of the best races of his career, having driven from outside the top 20 to inside the top 5. Many eyes were on the famous Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43, as Almirola found speed in the high line and passed six-time champ Jimmie Johnson. He appeared destined for one of his best-career finishes, but his engine blew just after a pit stop - where he had just taken the lead. He finished 41st and has a daunting 23 points to make up on 12th-place Carl Edwards to advance to the Contender Chase round. The good news is, if he does, the points go back to even and the deficit is erased.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: The future of the 9 car - Richard Petty Motorsports had a weekend of promise squashed when Aric Almirola's engine blew. The weekend started with distraction, however, as RPM announced that Ambrose would not return to the No. 9 Ford in 2015, a seat he has held for four seasons. Ambrose will return to his home country of Australia to race in his home series, V8 Supercars, for a team that will be affiliated with Team Penske. Silly Season lovers are licking their chops at likely the only quality ride available and the prospect of who might join RPM. But there's one problem. DeWalt/Stanley Tools, which sponsors that car for nearly the full season, is rumored to be joining Joe Gibbs Racing and Carl Edwards on the No. 19 Toyota in the races that sponsor Arris won't cover and Matt Kenseth on the No. 20 in some of the races Dollar General won't cover. So that leaves RPM with a mostly unfunded entry and not that much time to figure things out. Now, realistically, the team has probably known these things for a long time and just has chosen now to let the cat out of the bag. But let's just say that they find a few sponsors to keep the 9 on the track - who drives it? These things are hard to predict, but here are some names: Sam Hornish Jr. (a return to Ford, as his 2015 plans are in the air, was rumored to be in the run for Wood Brothers ride before Ryan Blaney signed); David Ragan (at still only 28-years-old and with two Cup wins, has been rumored to be making some traction with some bigger teams - particularly this one - for possibly a better ride. He told Motorsport.com this weekend he is interested in the ride, but was non-commital on anything firm for his future); rookie Ryan Truex (having a rough rookie season for BK Racing, but was RPM development driver early in 2013). You can also lump in the wealth of young drivers with underfunded teams that make up the Rookie class: Justin Allgaier, Cole Whitt, and Alex Bowman. And there's Parker Kligerman, a rookie contender whose Swan Racing team closed its doors back in the Spring. Then there is always the possibility that a driver with a backing sponsor, like RPM's NNS driver Dakoda Armstrong (who has struggled mightily this year), could come along and take the ride. There are also the Chase Elliott fans that are saying that Hendrick Motorsports should secure the rights to that No. 9 from RPM, for Elliott to have in Sprint Cup one day. If RPM can keep the No. 9 team on the track, seeing who they choose to drive it will be interesting to say the least.
Georgia On My Mind: The Peach State gang in the Sprint Cup Series did what they do best - finish races and improve on their starting positions. Ragan started 39th and finished 31st and Sorenson started 36th and finished 29th. Small battles won are what these small race teams can hang their hats on. Chase Elliott only lost one from his now-18-point lead over teammate Regan Smith in Saturday's Nationwide Series race, placing 10th. Cup drivers Kevin Harvick (Elliott's teammate) and Kyle Busch dominated the event, with Harvick using a two-tire stop to win the race. Ryan Sieg had a solid race and finished on the lead lap in 20th. The Camping World Truck Series race was rained out Friday and instead ran Saturday night, with Kyle Busch dominating the field and winning. John Wes Townley finished 15th. Let's give a nod to Senoia's Bubba Pollard, who passed John Hunter Nemechek with under 20 laps to go to win the PPG Top Gun Sealants 100 Pro Late Model race at Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Georgia. Pollard has been tearing up the south's short tracks for years, but Nemechek was the pole-sitter and led most of the race. They have waged some hard fought battles at GMP this season, with Pollard winning twice, but they always raced clean. Harrison Burton finished 3rd, in another impressive run for that 13-year-old at GMP.
Next: The Sprint Cup Series takes Chase round two to New Hampshire Motor Speedway at 2:15 p.m. on PRN on Sunday. The Nationwide Series runs Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Kentucky Speedway on PRN (and I'm proud to say I'll be helping the PRN team at Kentucky).