Winning NASCAR'S Chase a tall order for lame duck drivers
The figurative dark cloud that had been hanging over NASCAR all week following the controversy at Richmond International Raceway showed up in literal form at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday as persistent rain forced a total of 6-½ hours worth of delays. It was weather fit for a duck. Or, in the case of this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, a lame duck.
Three of the 12 -- oh, right, 13 -- drivers in this year's Chase are changing teams after this season, and Stewart-Haas Racing is involved with all three. It was known before the season began that Kevin Harvick would be leaving Richard Childress Racing for Stewart-Haas in 2014, and then last month it was announced that Kurt Busch was bailing on the single-car Furniture Row Racing operation after only one season to join SHR as well. Meanwhile, Ryan Newman is going in the opposite direction, moving from Stewart-Haas to Childress Racing next year.
At the moment, however, all three drivers are still with their current teams, and all three have legitimate shots at winning the championship after posting top-10 finishes in Sunday's opener of the 10-race Chase. Harvick is in fourth place in the standings, 15 points behind leader Matt Kenseth. Busch sits 23 points out of the lead in sixth place. Newman is tied for eighth, a mere 28 points off the pace. Those are all manageable deficits with nine more races to go.
While it is not completely unprecedented for a driver to win a championship and then change teams for the following season, it is a scenario that hasn't happened in more than 50 years. Buck Baker won the 1956 title driving for Carl Kiekhaefer, and then opened the 1957 season with Hugh Babb. Baker wound up leaving Babb midway through the season to form his own team, and went on to win the '57 championship as well.
It was common during the early decades of NASCAR for drivers to change teams numerous times throughout their careers. But even then, car owners simply did not let championship drivers get away, at least not immediately. Ned Jarrett drove for nine different owners (including himself) during his 13-year career in the 1950s and '60s. But when he won the title with B.G. Holloway in 1961, Holloway made sure that Jarrett was back racing for him the following season. Likewise, after capturing the 1965 championship for Bondy Long, Jarrett started the 1966 season driving for Long once again.
What makes it especially difficult for a lame-duck driver to win the championship these days is the fact that team changes are announced several months before the end of the season. So the unity required for a team to compete at a championship level simply isn't there in full. Newman, for example, absolutely ripped his pit crew after a slow stop near the end of the Richmond race helped cost him a victory (and, at that moment, a spot in the Chase -- NASCAR later reinstated him as part of its reaction to Michael Waltrip Racing's attempt to manipulate the outcome), stating, "We needed a championship-contending pit crew, and we didn't have that tonight." It is unlikely Newman would have been so publicly vocal if he was planning to work with that same crew next season. Now he is trying to win a championship with a team that might not be behind him 100 percent. And 95-percent support simply won't get it done in the Chase.
Busch also must be considered a championship long shot, partly because there has to be some harsh feelings around Furniture Row Racing because he is leaving the team so quickly, especially after the organization was willing to hire him at a time when he had become a pariah within the sport. Of course, realistically, it seems unlikely that FRR has the resources to win the title against the big boys at Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports.
That leaves Harvick, who might actually be able to perform the ultimate grand exit of winning a championship on his way out the door. One advantage for Harvick is that the team has known for nearly a full year that this will be his final season at RCR, so there has been plenty of time to accept that reality and focus solely on 2013. In fact, Harvick insisted before the season began that his lame-duck status would not be a detriment.
"These guys (on the team) couldn't care less about what's going to happen next year. They just want to win races," Harvick said back in January. "That's where I'm at, too. The bottom line is we're all getting paid to do a job and represent these [sponsors] to do the best job we can."
When Harvick was asked whether there were any hurt feelings on the team about his decision, he replied, "We don't talk about feelings. We talk about performance. We talk about race cars, the way things need to be on the track and trying to figure out what we need to do to win races. That's really all we talk about, because that's really what it's all about."
1. Matt Kenseth (2nd previously) -- Kenseth might finally have put his inconsistency issues in the rear-view mirror. He has two victories, a sixth-place finish and a 12th in the past four races. He has won six times this year, which is not only a career-best, it equals his victory total over the past three seasons combined.
2. Kyle Busch (1st) -- Busch appears poised to make a serious run at the championship for the first time in his otherwise stellar career. He was one good restart away from winning at Chicago, and next up is New Hampshire, where he finished second in July.
3. Kurt Busch (3rd) -- The elder Busch continued his remarkable run with a fourth-place showing at Chicago, giving him five top-five finishes and six top-10s over the past seven races. Simply making the Chase was a successful season for Furniture Row Racing, but now Busch is going for more.
4. Kevin Harvick (7th) -- After a mid-summer slump, Harvick has picked up the pace with four finishes of 11th or better over the past five races, including two top-fives. The team's biggest problem right now is in qualifying. Amazingly, Harvick has not started in the top-10 for 13 consecutive races, though he has eight top-10 finishes during that span.
5. Jimmie Johnson (8th) -- After what had to have been the worst four-race stretch of his career, Johnson got back on track with a fifth-place showing at Chicagoland. Still, his team had issues throughout the race, and it remains difficult to call the five-time champ the current Chase favorite.
6. Jeff Gordon (unranked) -- Gordon is becoming the ultimate Lucky Dog. First, he was handed the 13th spot in the Chase, something that has never existed before, and then he was on the receiving end of several fortunate breaks at Chicago that enabled him to come back from a lap down to finish sixth.
7. Carl Edwards (5th) -- The regular-season points champion began the Chase with an uneventful 11th-place run. Even though he won the previous week at Richmond, Edwards has struggled lately, with only four top-10 finishes in the past 11 races.
8. Clint Bowyer (unranked) -- The most hated man in the history of NASCAR (sarcasm intended) drove to a quiet ninth-place finish. Maybe fans eventually will return to viewing Bowyer as the quality driver he is, and not as the personification of all that is unjust.
9. Ryan Newman (9th) -- After receiving a Chase spot in place of Martin Truex Jr., Newman needs to perform better than Truex down the stretch. He did so at Chicago, finishing 10th while Truex came in 18th.
10. Kasey Kahne (6th) -- Kahne didn't have a bad race at Chicago, finishing 12th. His problem is that nine Chase drivers finished better than that. Still, he remains a legitimate contender for the championship, which is more than can be said of Dale Earnhardt Jr. (again) and Joey Logano.