Overreactions and observations from Chase round one at Chicago
One of the things we live for in sports media is taking singular events and spinning them into earth-shattering events with the potential to impact a team's entire season. Sometimes, those events do exactly that; ask Pete Rose how his last season as a manager worked out. Other times, the events are rendered irrelevant within the week, only for a whole new set of overblown concerns to present themselves. Below are a few of the overreactions and observations from the past weekend at Chicagoland Speedway and NASCAR's Chase race #1.
The Outlaw can't win the Chase because he'll shoot himself in the foot
The Overreaction: You have to wonder at this point. Kurt Busch just can't seem to help himself. Running a respectable ninth place coming into the first round of pit stops, Busch came out of turn four far too hot and spun the car approaching pit lane. He collected the orange commitment cone in the process, turning a difficult situation into a disastrous one. By the time he finished his pass-through penalty for hitting the cone, Busch was in 32nd place and a lap down to the leaders.
The Observation: Despite what you hear from the announcers, it's still a long Chase. Teams still need to put together the best nine race stretch of the season to make it to Homestead. And despite the ground lost, a win at one of the other two races makes the whole thing irrelevant. Busch has Hendrick horsepower and a past champion's skill- which really ought to be enough to make the next round, where the points will be reset again. Oh, and that lap he lost? Busch made it up before the halfway point and ended up with an eighth place finish.
Just what the heck is in those airguns?
The Overreaction: Once again, Denny Hamlin's pit crew worked their voodoo magic on the field and gave the #11 car a huge advantage on the field. The mysterious air guns that first made headlines before the Chase were once again on display at Chicago. On his first green flag stop, Hamlin's crew changed four tires and gassed it up in 11.2 seconds, worth an extra four spots on the track. Over the course of the Chase, a pit crew that dominant may well mean the difference between making it to Homestead and falling well short.
The Observation: No kidding! Hamlin does indeed get a huge gain every time the cars come down pit road. Those gains are one of the reasons I picked Hamlin to make it all the way to Homestead for a shot at the title. Unless NASCAR discovers something illegal about the guns (or the other teams figure out how to replicate the speed), the #11 car will continue to have a larger margin for error than any of their competitors. Still, an advantage is not the same as a guarantee; the #11 team may have outdone the field on pit road but they watched several cars pass them repeatedly over the course of the race.
Pit road errors will be the end of your Chase!
The Overreaction: On the opposite side of the street from Hamlin was Kevin Harvick. He's been vocal in his displeasure with his pit crew all season long. In an attempt to boost his Chase chances (and placate the guy behind the wheel), Stewart Haas Racing switched the pit crews of Harvick and Tony Stewart this week. What happened? The new crew promptly outdid the old crew by leaving a lugnut loose on a mid-race pitstop, forcing the #4 car back down pit road for a second stop, putting the team at the end of the lead lap. He was hardly alone as Brad Keselowski had a similar issue, pitting due to a loose wheel.
The Observation: So much for that theory. Keselowski made an amazing pass for the lead in the final 20 laps, splitting the difference between Kyle Larson and Harvick through the corner. And Harvick himself lost plenty of track position with his own second stop. But speed on the track (something both teams have had all year long) overcame pit problems as Kes won and Harvick drove his Jimmy Johns Chevrolet from the back to the front easily, finishing fifth. All the mistake ultimately did was add to the degree of difficulty. It may not be something they want to get in a habit of but it was hardly an insurmountable obstacle Sunday afternoon.
Their Chase is over!
The Overreaction: Several Chasers had issues Sunday afternoon as announcers kept reminding us that teams could not afford the “big mistake” that would put them out of the race. It was such a mantra before the race that we heard it from the lips of Aric Almirola after his engine expired. You could see it on his face; he genuinely believes that his blown engine will make it impossible for the #43 team to win a championship.
The Observation: Oh how quickly we forget. The new Chase format does place an emphasis on timely top five finishes for those who fail to win a race. Almirola will certainly be forced to strategize a little differently in the next two races. But remember that Dale Earnhardt Jr. blew an engine at Chicago a year ago, sending him to the bottom of the Chase standings. Yet if the 2014 system had been in play last year, who would have been the points champion? That's right, Dale Earnhardt Jr. If the #43 team is able to show the kind of speed over the next two weeks that they had this week, Almirola will have an excellent chance to advance.
There's no way a non-Chaser wins at Chicago
The Overreaction: In the week building up to Chicago's Chase opener, one stat was bandied about early and often. “No non-Chase driver has ever won the Chase opener in Chicago” they said. It seemed equally unlikely considering that at 16 cars, the Chase field is bigger than its ever been. Moreover, those 16 cars included every race-winning driver this season plus additional qualifiers based on highest points finish.
The Observation: Yes, a Chase driver did ultimately win the race with Brad Keselowski landing in victory lane. But it was hardly the foregone conclusion that many made prior to the green flag. Both Earnhardt Ganassi Racing entries made strong bids for the win on Sunday. Jamie McMurray was strong early on and led 32 laps while teammate Kyle Larson led 20 of his own and was a factor nearly all the way to the checkered flag. Non-Chase teams know that if they want to get their sponsors on TV they'll need to be near the front and some have the speed to do it.
What happens next week? Stay tuned; NASCAR's Chase moves to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for 300 miles on the one mile flat track.