It was a case of mistaken identity.
If you thought the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup preview took place on Thursday at The Murphy in downtown Chicago, you’re not alone.
After all, there were banners on the walls, TV and radio crews, national, regional and local reporters—and, of course, the 16 Chase drivers clad in their colorful firesuits.
As they always do on such occasions, drivers answered questions optimistically. Those entering the Chase with obvious strength explained why their excellent performances would continue.
Those who qualified for the Chase by the thinnest of margins explained why their fortunes were about to improve.
But make no mistake. That annual ritual wasn’t the real Chase preview.
The real Chase preview took place on Sunday, in the first race of NASCAR’s playoff.
The MyAFibStory.com 400 was a crystal ball that provided a clear vision of Nov. 16, 2014, the date of the final Chase race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The drivers likely to be competing for the title under NASCAR’s new Chase format were the same drivers running up front and leading laps on Sunday.
Admittedly, on Thursday afternoon, Kyle Busch singled out the No. 2 of Brad Keselowski, the No. 4 of Kevin Harvick and the No. 24 of Jeff Gordon as the strongest cars entering the Chase. But it wasn’t until Sunday that the reality hit home with the force of a wrecking ball.
It wasn’t until Sunday that what happened at Chicagoland Speedway either affirmed or silenced Thursday’s happy talk.
What Sunday’s race told us was that, barring calamity, Keselowski, Harvick and Gordon (the first, second and fifth-place finishers at Chicagoland) will be three of the four drivers who survive elimination and qualify for the final race.
What Sunday’s race told us was that six-time champion Jimmie Johnson is likely to be in a dogfight for the final spot at Homestead with the likes of Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin.
At Chicagoland, Johnson continued to run where he has been running—in the top 10 for most of the race, but without the speed to challenge the frontrunners for the victory. Johnson finished 12th and didn’t lead a lap.
The performance of the No. 48 team two weeks from now at Dover, Johnson’s personal playground, will be telling.
What Sunday’s race told us was that the Joe Gibbs Racing cars are on the upswing, but they still can’t answer “Yes” to the question “Are we there yet?”
Hamlin ran sixth. Kyle Busch started on the pole (based on practice speed because of a rainout of time trials), led 46 laps and finished seventh. Kenseth survived a spin on pit road to run 10th.
That’s the third time this season all three JGR drivers have finished in the top 10 in the same race. The first time didn’t come until the 19th race of the year, at New Hampshire, which hosts the second event of the Chase next Sunday.
What Sunday’s race told us is that the handling issues of the Roush Fenway Racing cars have not abated and that Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle may be hard-pressed to advance beyond the first elimination round.
Biffle narrowly made the Chase at Richmond with an ill-handling car. If possible, the No. 16 Ford he drove at Chicagoland was worse, as his 23rd-place finish attests. Edwards started third but soon drifted back through the field, finishing 20th.
If the RFR teams hope to be players in the Chase, they have much work to do and very little time to do it.
What Sunday’s race told us is that, after a mid-season lull, non-Chase driver Kyle Larson is ready to win a Sprint Cup race, and his breakthrough victory will probably come at one of the intermediate tracks in the Chase. That has the potential to complicate the equation for Chase drivers trying to advance to the next round by winning.
What Sunday’s race told us was that, if you have to pick a favorite to win it all this year, his name is Keselowski. His race-winning move, splitting the cars of Harvick and Larson off Turn 2, was vintage Kyle Busch.
The resilience of Keselowski and his entire No. 2 Team Penske outfit was vintage Jimmie Johnson. Twice Keselowski drove from the back to the front, the second time after front tire changer Hunter Masling had the maturity and courage to admit he hadn’t gotten his lug nuts tight.
Keselowski returned to pit road on Lap 183 of 267 to correct the problem, restarted behind a blockade of lapped cars and still found the right balance between patience and aggression that enabled him to drive back to the lead in time to win the race.
If Keselowski’s victory at Richmond a week earlier made a statement, Sunday’s win at Chicagoland provided the exclamation point.
And it told us that, after the reality check of missing the Chase last year, Keselowski is ready to win another title—and has the hunger to match.