NASCAR Discovers the North!: Sylvania 300 Preview
As the Geico 400 finally came to a close late Sunday night in Chicagoland, I reckon all NASCAR fans took a long sigh of relief. Finally, after a weekend of rain, controversy, and then even more controversy, fans could finally put it all in the rear view mirror and look ahead to the next part of the Chase; the Sylvania 300 in Loudon, New Hampshire. Everything was back to normal again; until in the middle of the week when the MWR scandal was reopened thanks to NAPA’s announcement they were leaving MWR, followed by speculation of whether Martin Truex Jr (the innocent man in the whole scandal that somehow lost everything while the guilty parties lost very little) would stay at MWR and if 5 Hour Energy would follow in NAPA’s footsteps. Never a dull moment in NASCAR huh? I just can’t wait till they make a movie about this whole thing, to which I prefer the title Spin: The Michael Waltrip Scandal; starring Matthew McConaughey as Clint Bowyer, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Martin Truex, Matt Damon as Ryan Newman, Neil Patrick Harris as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tom Cruise as Ty Norris, Jeff Gordon as himself, Darrell Waltrip as Michael Waltrip (he’s already a poor mans MW), with Val Kilmer as Brian France and Tom Selleck as Mike Helton.
But enough about my hopes and dreams; we have a column to get to! For this week, I’ll predict where the drivers will finish in contrast to their competitors, and rank them in order thirteen through one (yes, we added another driver in for those of you who don’t know). This will be the format going forward till the end of the Chase, although there may be some tweaks along the way if need be. Get it? Got it? Outstanding. On with the show!
Sylvania 300 from Loudon, New Hampshire preview!
13. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: One week into the Chase and it appears to be all over for Junior already, which would be shocking if this wasn’t the case every year. Can the 88 climb out of the hole? He’ll need a lot of good fortunate after a mediocre qualifying effort (17th, second lowest effort among Chase drivers), and his track record at Loudon (which includes no wins and four DNFs over his career) points towards a long day. At least this will give Junior time to focus on his favorite hobbies during a race; whistle blowing and watching to see if Clint Bowyer is spinning on purpose.
12. Greg Biffle: The good news; he’s not completely doomed like Junior is. The bad news; everything else, including his mediocre finish last week (16th, third lowest) and his so-so showings at Loudon the past three years. In the end, The Bif will need to use his solid qualifying spot (10th) and hope that some of his past form at this track (where he won in 2008) returns. Does he have the confidence to pull it out?
11. Joey Logano: If not for an engine failure last week, Logano likely would be much higher here, having performed well overall while he was running in Chicagoland. That said, the engine blew, and now the confidence of Logano, who is still only 23 and never been put in a situation like this before, will be put to the test this weekend. It doesn’t help that Logano’s never been great at his hometown track, where he has the worst average finish among Chase drivers (17.8) and his one bright spot (a win in 2009) was largely due to weather.
10. Kurt Busch: On the surface, things should be looking good for the Elder Busch, who had a great fourth place finish last week and followed it up by qualifying fourth at Loudon Friday. Even his pit crew showed signs of improvement last week for crying out loud! So why does Busch find himself so low on here? Simply put, he’s been awful on this track the past 6 races, with only one top ten and four straight finishes of 20th or worse. Some of that is definitely because of the lesser teams he’s been on, and Kurt has all the potential and skill at this track (he’s won here three times) to change his luck. Still, the bad fortune plus his crew’s iffy ability is definitely something that can prevent Busch from finishing better this weekend.
9. Carl Edwards: To say this race is potentially problematic for the 99 car is like saying Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will draw huge ratings when it premiers next week. In eighteen races at Loudon, Consistent Carl has yet to win a race, while finishing in the top ten only four times; not exactly the statistics you’d expect from a driver of this caliber. That would all be bad enough if Edwards hadn’t qualified the worse of all Chase drivers this weekend, coming in at an awful 26th place. I’m not giving up on Consistent Carl winning the Championship yet; he’s too good at the rest of these tracks to be written off. Just don’t expect to see any back flips at the end of this race unless you’ve just put on a wrestling DVD.
8. Clint Bowyer: Somehow, The Fixer managed to escape Chicagoland last week in one piece, as well as with a top ten finish and a leveling off of controversy thanks to NASCAR stepping in and screwing up far worse than Bowyer ever possibly could have. It’s like they always say; when things look down, you can always count on Mike Helton to come in and make himself look like a bigger buffoon than you could ever possibly be.
Will this week be as good for Bowyer? Hard to say; his history at the track suggests good things (one win to go along with several top tens), but his starting spot 16th suggests he’ll have a lot of work cut out for him. Either way, it’ll be fun to see if Junior can catch Bowyer doing something wrong again on the opening laps (Junior will be right behind Bowyer at the start) and if Bowyer will actually embrace The Fixer nickname and theme song. Seriously, how could a good old southern dude not enjoy a slow, ambient British pop-rock song like this?!
7. Kevin Harvick: Don’t let the ranking fool you; Harvick has just as good a chance at winning this race as the guys in front of him, thanks to his good effort last week and solid qualifying effort Friday (he’ll be starting 8th). He’ll have to be more consistent this weekend then he has in the past at Loudon, but he’s won here before (surprisingly in dominant fashion) and there’s no reason he can’t again. Once again though, it would help if Mrs. Harvick put the fire suit back on for this race, seeing as Harvick hasn’t won here since she had it on.
6. Kyle Busch: You’d think that a second place finish in the first race of the Chase would be a huge confidence boost for both the driver and his team. So how come Kyle Busch’s second place performance last week felt more like a setback than a step forward? No doubt the younger Busch has the ability to recover from giving away last week’s win, but the fact that he’s never shown the mental toughness to do so leads me to believe that we’ll see one of those head scratching “should’ve done better” performances this week. That, and the fact that Kyle has only one top ten finish (which to be fair, was second place earlier this year) at Loudon in the past five races there.
5. Ryan Newman: While not great at Chicagoland, Newman finished well enough in 10th place to hang in there just a tad longer, and then followed it up with an unbelievable seventh pole at Loudon this past Friday. And while Newman has always been a tad bit better qualifier than a driver, he has been very good at Loudon, winning three times and having a whopping fifteen top tens. He may not win this race this week, but I would be shocked to see Newman fall out of the top ten at any point in this race.
4. Kasey Kahne: Like Newman, was able to hang in there last week in Chicagoland (finishing 12th) then followed it up with an outstanding qualifying effort on Friday (2nd). And while Kahne has had his ups and downs at Loudon, he’s been really good the past two years, with two top fives and one win. In short, this weekend is there for Kahne to take, and no one will be more dangerous in the Chase going forward than him if he can pull out a victory this Sunday.
3. Jimmie Johnson: The only person surprised by this ranking is Mike Helton; he would’ve had Jimmie Johnson beyond number one in his rankings.All joking aside, J.J. has been awesome at Loudon, posting a career average finish there of 9.4 (best among Chase contenders) along with three wins and sixteen top tens. Add to the fact that he’s Jimmie Johnson, and there’s no doubt why he finds himself so high here. He won’t win the race, thanks to his 11th starting spot (a really surprising average qualifying run for Johnson) and his not surprisingly mediocre crew, but he will most certainly contend.
2. Matt Kenseth: Yup, this is me eating a ton of crow here. Last week, I predicted that Kenseth would be a bust in the Chase thanks to his longtime struggles once getting in, only to watch him lead the most laps at Chicagoland in route to a victory in the first Chase. This is what I get for referring to Kenseth as The Sleeper. Hey, it’s not my fault he’s not the most interesting racer in the world (we can’t all be Brad Keselowski or Tony Stewart now).
So what will Kenseth do for an encore? Well, despite the fact that he’s never won at Loudon, I’m giving him a good chance this weekend. He has the momentum, he once again qualified well (9th), he's reached a milestone this weekend with his 500 start (drivers always do well when reaching milestones it seems) and there’s just no way I’m going to bet against him right now. The only questions now are this; did I just try to reverse jinx Kenseth, and does a reverse jinx work if you mention it out loud? I’ll let you be the judge.
1. Jeff Gordon: Trust me, I’m as shocked as you are, especially since Gordon was added to the Chase only in the twilight of last weekend thanks to the France Family and Mike Helton showing the world how not to run a sports entity. Don’t get me wrong, Gordon didn’t deserve what happened to him and we can’t fault him for the powers that be of NASCAR being morons; that said, he was fortunate to get into the Chase as is and hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire the past few years once in the Chase. I frankly expected Gordon to fall in with Junior in competing for thirteenth place.
And yet, the four time Champion managed to snag a very solid 6th place finish in Chicagoland, then followed it up by qualifying 3rd on Friday. And oh yea, no one loves Loudon more than Gordon does; in 37 career races (holy cow!), he has three wins, sixteen top fives and twenty two top tens for an average finish of 10.5. That’s astounding, and even more astounding when you realize Gordon has continued to do well at this track despite his decline, finishing no worse than 10th in the last four races. Take all of that into consideration, and there’s no way I can pick against Jeff Gordon this weekend.
Race Winner: Jeff Gordon (he’ll finish the best of the Chase contenders, and doesn’t have enough competition from non Chase drivers at the top to be challenged. How in the world did we get here?)
Predicted Points Leader: Matt Kenseth (a top five finish will be more than enough to hold that top position)
Predicted Points Standings:
1. Matt Kenseth
2. Jimmie Johnson
3. Jeff Gordon
4. Kyle Busch
5. Kevin Harvick
6. Ryan Newman
7. Carl Edwards
8. Kasey Kahne
9. Kurt Busch
10. Clint Bowyer
11. Joey Logano
12. Greg Biffle
13. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
There you have it guys. Till next week!