By Brant James
September 20, 2011
Chicago Grades
Recapping Monday's GEICO 400 from Chicagoland Speedway, the opening race of the Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship.
Kevin Harvick
Driver: Apparently Harvick is one of the better fuel conservational specialists in NASCAR, vaulting to second place in the final laps after milking enough mileage from his from last pit stop. A win last week at Richmond and the runner-up finish at the Chase opener have him in the points lead. The guy can flip a switch.

Team: Crew chief Gil Martin unleashed Harvick to make a run for the leaders in the final laps, a courageous call undoubtedly assisted by his faith in his driver's fuel skills. He also did well calming Harvick mid-race when he was irate over alleged gamesmanship on pit road by Kurt Busch's team.
Tony Stewart
Driver: The two-time series champion won his first race of the season at an opportune time. Given his struggles for much of the season, there is no assurance he is suddenly a championship contender, but he certainly adds a layer to the Chase that seemingly wasn't there before.

Team: Crew chief Darian Grubb had seen a Chase-opening win at New Hampshire run dry with Stewart's tank at the finish last season, but he was able to help his driver nurse the No. 14 Chevrolet to a potentially huge win on Monday.
Carl Edwards
Driver: A solid start and a solid finish allowed Edwards to navigate some mid-race issues and finish fourth.

Team: Edwards had claimed recently that his pre-Chase dip in performance had been a result of crew chief Bob Osborne exploring some setup options for the Chase. Edwards' finish on Monday was more like the Edwards of old.
Kurt Busch
Driver: The talented and temperamental former champion required a mid-race counseling session from crew chief Steve Addington, but rallied to finish sixth.

Team: Busch was irate over a recurring problem with the No. 22 Dodge not being properly improved throughout races. It makes him furious and has been the source of several of his salty radio rants. It's a problem Addington will have to address, one way or another, for the rest of the season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Driver: The car was fast. The driver seemed happy. The driver finished well. Nothing striking there until the driver's name is inserted into the equation. Earnhardt Jr. seemed encouraged by a third-place finish and although far from forecasting a first title, he does seem to expect the good results to continue.

Team: Crew chief Steve Letarte has his driver in a comfort zone and the trick is staying there like early in the season, when a victory seemed very possible.
Brad Keselowski
Driver: NASCAR's fascinating variable continued to push on Monday, finishing sixth and moving to sixth in points, just 14 points behind Harvick.

Team: Crew chief Paul Wolfe was thinking alternate pit strategies late in the race, but a series of cautions changed his plans. The crew chief, too, seems determined to press in his first Chase.
Ryan Newman
Driver: One of eight Chase drivers to finish in the top 10 (8th), Newman fared better than many who reached the white flag on vapors. He took the white flag fourth and held on.

Team: Newman started from fourth position, never dropped lower than eighth, led 18 laps and came away encouraged. "What I learned today was that we have a better mile-and-a-half program than I thought we did," he said. "That's huge."
Jimmie Johnson
Driver: The five-time series champion cued the sense of foreboding among those not anxious to see extended history-making, leading 39 laps and putting himself in position to contend for a win on Monday until he was forced to conserve fuel. He didn't conserve enough, expiring his tank on the final lap and coasting to 10th place.

Team: Crew chief Chad Knaus had given Johnson a potentially race-winning No. 48 Chevrolet, which makes the result disappointing but encouraging for the final 1.5-mile tracks left this season. Johnson has never considered himself an expert fuel-conserver, but the team nearly made it work.
Kyle Busch
Driver: His points lead evaporated quickly on Monday, long before he ran out of fuel at the finish and labored to a 22nd-place finish. At least Busch has experience with Chase-opener adversity, having finished 38th at Loudon, N.H., in 2006 and 34th in 2008 after a bolt came loose on a sway bar. Trouble is, he never recovered from those bouts of misfortune. If the new, mature Busch is driving the No. 18 Toyota, he'll show up to the second Chase race -- ironically, in New Hampshire -- ready to chisel away at his mountain of woe.

Team: Crew chief Dave Rogers not only needs to address the mechanical mystery that scuttled his driver on Monday, but make sure he is emotionally and mentally on station. This will be a busy nine weeks.
Matt Kenseth
Driver: He began the race as the pole-sitter for just the sixth time in 427 Sprint Cup races and led 46 laps. He was ultimately forced to cede positions late in the race despite running third as he attempted to conserve fuel.

Team: It didn't work. A helpful little push from J.J. Yeley on the final lap led to a NASCAR penalty, which dropped Kenseth to 21st. Lost points are always rueful, but Kenseth and crew chief Jimmy Fennig's quick success on a 1.5-mile track has to be encouraging.
Jeff Gordon
Driver: A popular and defensible pick to win a fifth Sprint Cup title, or at least exert great pressure on Johnson (his Hendrick Motorsports teammate), Gordon languished from the outset of the race on Monday, losing positions first because of a mishap with Jamie McMurray's pit crew and then because of a severely compromised tire. He had rallied into the top 15 and was pressing for more when he was among several cars to run out of fuel on the final lap.

Team: Crew chief Alan Gustafson appeared to have improved the No. 24 Chevrolet for a late run and made a key call in changing a corded tire that might have soon led to a crash. The plummet in points is disheartening, but at least the team has readily available reasons for the unexpectedly poor finish.
Denny Hamlin
Driver: A costly tire problem worsened a race-long raft of problems for the 2010 series runner-up. Hamlin, whose entry into the Chase wasn't secure until the final regular-season race, needed an early burst in the Chase to become a viable suitor for the title again this season. He didn't get it, finishing 31st. Now 41 points off Harvick's lead, he has much work, but much time to recover. Focus and grit will be key.

Team: Hamlin won eight races to lead the series in 2010 -- and had six by this point in the season -- but myriad issues, from engines to setups, have hindered him. The synchronous machine that was Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford is not the same a year after missing what could have been a one-time chance at a title.

You May Like