Saturday Night in Charlotte: Bank of America 500 Preview
It only took three weeks, but in the words of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, “FINALLY…” things got interesting in the Chase at Kansas, thanks to the Chase leaders showing themselves to be human after all and the rest of the field (mostly) finally realizing that they needed to make up some ground. Hell, they almost got too interesting when Jimmie Johnson had an engine issue, only to be saved by the race ending. If there had been five more laps instead of two, you would’ve seen Mike Helton and ESPN erupt into a panic so big you would’ve thought the words “Waltrip”, “intentional spin”, “What do you mean Junior ran out of fuel?” and "soda cookies" were involved.
Alas, that imagine now exists only in my memory, and we are moving on to Charlotte Motor Speedway, home of the Coca-Cola 600 in May (the best race all season in my opinion) and the last stop before Talladega, where dreams begin and dream all at the same time. So you could say that this is an important race for all involved, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some drivers take some big swings this week in hopes of positioning themselves well for next weekend. In short, expect the unexpected. ON WITH THE SHOW!
Bank of America 500 Preview
13. Ryan Newman: To quote Kemo from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Ryan Newman’s chances are "like The Sopranos; it’s over." Yes, after a dismal finish last week at Kansas, the People’s Champion is done, barring a miracle run at a track where he’s failed to finish five times. All that’s left is the thought of what might’ve been if the title had come down to him and Bowyer (I picture a montage of skyrocketing ratings and Mike Helton pacing frantically like a movie villain whose been caught) and what will happen next year for Newman at RCR?
12. Kyle Busch: And you all thought I was crazy for picking Kyle Busch to flop last weekend at Kansas. As it turns out, last week wasn’t just a flop, it was a Poseidon like flip for the younger Busch, who now has gone from the top three of the Chase to fifth, with some serious ‘here we go again’ vibes radiating. I’m calling it now; this is a make or break weekend for Kyle here at Charlotte (a place where he has never won), and I get the feeling we are going to see the break.
11. Clint Bowyer: A year ago, Bowyer won this very race and looked to be becoming one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers and a potential chase dark horse. A year later, he’s now one of the most disliked drivers in the sport, has me going on about how he should adopt Coldplay’s “Fix You” as his theme song (I’m not giving up on it yet dammit!) and is now close to the outside looking in as far as the Chase. Can he repeat his performance from last year? He’ll have to if he doesn’t want to fall out of the running altogether.
10. Carl Edwards: Yup, I’m giving up on Consistent Carl; he’s just too far down in the standings and has been more consistently average than consistently good in this Chase. At least he’s lived up to his name though. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him pull out a good finish this weekend (he has an average finish of 11.9 at Charlotte after all), but as he’s failed to really impress the first four races in, I don’t see any reason to believe differently now.
9. Greg Biffle: I’m not sure I’ve heard The Bif’s name called once during any of the Chase races thus far, and yet the man somehow manages a top ten almost any race and still has an outside chance of being a contender. With everyone else performing at a high level though, Biffle needs to be getting wins, and despite a good qualifying run (he’ll start 3rd), he’s heading to a track where he has never won.
8. Kurt Busch: Not only did the Elder Busch prove me wrong in Kansas by not stinking up the joint, he was dynamite, scoring a hard fought second place finish. Say what you will about Kurt, but he certainly appears to have a mental toughness that his brother doesn’t, and has been able to fight off everything from bad starting positions to poor pit crews week after week here in the Chase. Now let’s see if he can do it again at another track where he hasn’t been the best (average finish of 19.1).
7. Jeff Gordon: Is it safe to say that Gordon is a more talked about version of Greg Biffle? Somehow, someway, Gordon continues to surprise in the Chase, as he scored another good finish last week at Kansas to move himself up to 4th in points, where he is a serious contender despite the fact that he only made the Chase due to a Brian France ruling. Even better, he scored the pole this weekend at a track where he has 6 career victories, tied for most among Chase drivers. And yet, I don’t have a good feeling this weekend for the Rainbow Warrior, mostly because he hasn’t been nearly as good at Charlotte as he used to be, as well as also having a whopping ten DNFs at this track (he once had a streak of four consecutive races here with a DNF). Combine all of that, and he’s staying here in 7th where I feel most comfortable.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Remember a few weeks ago when it looked like Junior was going to dissolve into the background after his engine failed him at Chicagoland? Since then, three straight top tens, four straight awesome qualifying runs (he’ll start in the top ten again this weekend in 8th), and you could make the argument that Junior has been one of the three most impressive drivers in the Chase thus far. I mean, who the hell saw this coming other than Mike Helton in his deepest dreams?
Frankly, Junior has been so impressive thus far that I’m willing to bet this continues, despite the fact that he comes into Charlotte sporting the worst average finish of any driver in the Chase (though to be fair, he should have a victory here if not for an unfortunate fuel mileage situation two years ago). The real question now is how far can Junior go, and how much is that engine failure to start the Chase going to come back to haunt him?
5. Matt Kenseth: The cracks finally shown through for Kenseth last week at Kansas, where he was merely okay and only managed to hold the points lead because of Jimmie Johnson’s own issues and Kyle Busch remembering that he is in fact Kyle Busch. He’ll head into Saturday night behind both of those men, qualifying 20th (worse among Chase drivers), while also having to figure out how to reverse his recent trend of not being able to close the deal recently at Charlotte (he’s lead laps three of his last five races here, but has only one top five). This will be the first big test for Kenseth thus far in the Chase, and while he won’t do poorly, he also won’t do as well as you believe.
4. Jimmie Johnson: Guess who else isn’t going to do as well as you might think this week? I know, logic suggests that J.J. will be a dominate force at a track where he’s been outstanding (he’s tied with Gordon for most wins at 6) and where he once again qualified well (4th). Here’s the problem though; Johnson has been awful at Charlotte recently, scoring only one top five in his last five races while averaging a dismal 25.6 finish. There’s also the fact that he got incredibly lucky last weekend at Kansas when his engine blew up with only two laps left, allowing J.J. to escape with little damage. Luck has a way of working both ways there, so don’t be surprised if Five Time has a rough time this Saturday. Excuse me now while I run away from the angry mob of ESPN anchors.
3. Kasey Kahne: The only reason Kahne is as low as he is here is because he’s not the hottest driver going in. Beyond that, Charlotte is Kahne’s track; he has 4 career wins here and has finished in the top ten in the last four races, including a 2nd place finish at the Coca-Cola 600 earlier this year. Regardless of whether he’s got momentum or not, Kahne always runs well here, and I expect no different from him this weekend.
2. Kevin Harvick: Finally, FINALLY, Firesuit showed up and dominated a race last week, taking the pole at Kansas and going on to lead the most laps on route to victory. As exciting as Harvick’s last minute victories have been known to be, it was refreshing to see him come in and actually set the pace, something he’s had trouble doing the past several years. Perhaps the best news now is that he’s heading to Charlotte, where he has two wins (including the 600 earlier this year), and is starting on the front row right next to Jeff Gordon. Beware of the Firesuit everyone.
1. Joey Logano: Surprise ending kids! I was shocked to find out that the driver with the best average finish at Charlotte turned out to be Logano, who in only nine races here has a top ten in all but three of them, and has never failed to finish a race (the only driver among Chase contenders not to do so). Yes, some of that is due to his lack of experience, but Logano also comes into the race white hot, with two straight top fives at two tracks where he’s never exactly been great. With something to prove, a qualifying position that while not great is good enough (12th) and Talledega looming, look for Logano to make a move in this race, and surprise everyone by coming through the back door.
Projected Winner: Joey Logano (the biggest upset in the Chase occurs this Saturday night)
Projected Points Leader: Matt Kenseth (he’ll finish well enough that Kevin Harvick won’t catch him. Barely.)
Projected Points Standings:
1. Matt Kenseth
2. Kevin Harvick
3. Jimmie Johnson
4. Jeff Gordon
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr
6. Greg Biffle
7. Kurt Busch
8. Kyle Busch
9. Joey Logano
10. Clint Bowyer
11. Kasey Kahne
12. Carl Edwards
13. Ryan Newman
Next week Dega! Till then!