NASCAR Chase Week 8: Texas Racing Power Rankings
Even the racing is bigger in Texas. This weekend the Lone Star state will be the center of the motorsports universe. In Austin, the Formula 1 series rolls into the 3.427-mile Circuit of the Americas for the third running of the U.S. Grand Prix, while just a three-hour drive north in Fort Worth NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup snakes through Texas Motor Speedway’s 1.5-mile quad oval for the AAA Texas 500. Both races are scheduled for 3 p.m. Eastern starts (tune in to NBC for the F1 race; ESPN, as ever, for NASCAR), and both could have profound effects on their respective championship pictures. So, if you don’t already know how to operate the picture-in-picture setting on your TV, contact your local cable provider now.
The British Formula 1 ace—who at last month's Russian Grand Prix in Sochi claimed his ninth victory in 16 starts—is on course for his best season, but he hasn’t lacked for bumps along the way. The biggest is easily his rift with German teammate Nico Rosberg, a clash that harkens to the internecine tension between Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna that made F1 so compelling a quarter century ago. In fact, Hamilton’s contention that his Mercedes garagemate is favored by team bosses and coddled by the sport’s brass rings eerily similar to the charges that Senna leveled against Prost back in the day. But then again, Hamilton would feel that way. He and Rosberg are not only 1-2 in the standings with only 17 points between them, but they’ve been either first or second in nine races. If that’s not the order of finish again this week in Austin, I’ll yield my music playlist to Hamilton’s girlfriend, former Pussycat Doll leader Nicole Scherzinger, for a whole week. I won’t even cheat. Audio only.
Their three-round, back-of-the-pack game of bumper tag at Martinsville encapsulated the frustration-borne excitement of short-track racing. First, Kahne spun out and drove through Vickers while jockeying for road room on Turn 4 of lap 160. (Kahne, by way of a half-my-bad, would later explain that he was trying to save himself from being swallowed by race leader Jeff Gordon.) Then Vickers paid Kahne back on lap 221, blasting him into the wall in Turn 1 so hard that the No. 5 team had to bring Kahne’s Chevy SS in for a repair job that needed more than 30 laps to complete. On lap 253, Kahne landed one more shot on Vickers in Turn 2 that spun him out again. The back-and-forth might’ve persisted if NASCAR officials hadn’t gotten on the radio and told them to knock it off. And while Kahne and Vickers did as ordered—and finished 40th and 27th, respectively—who expects them to stay on their best behavior in Fort Worth? Especially Vickers. Not only has he never won at Texas, he couldn’t be a bigger long shot to steal a victory there since he became the youngest pole sitter in a Cup event there, back in 2006. If his hopes of triumphing are dimmed early, dashing Kahne's—whose fifth-place showing at Texas last year was his second best result since a win there in the spring of ‘06—might be satisfaction enough.
After 29 tries Earnhardt finally claimed a facsimile of the grandfather clock that lorded over his childhood home—one of six antiques his father scored on the ole .5-mile paper clip way back when. But there’s an irony to Junior’s achievement, and it’s all in the timing. Had NASCAR’s big man on campus been a bit steadier a round earlier, his Martinsville triumph would be more than cathartic. It would be a golden ticket to a title showdown at Homestead. Instead, he’ll have to settle for playing spoiler, and Texas is as good a stage as any for him to explore that role. Although his last win in cowboy country was more than 6-½ months ago, Earnhardt is only a year removed from his last podium appearance, a P2. A repeat performance could turn his erstwhile Chase rivals into real drama kings entering the penultimate race of the season at Phoenix.
Last week was the rare unremarkable one for the rookie of the year favorite, who coasted to a 30th-place effort after starting 14 spots higher. But Larson should return to a groove now that he’s back to racing at his preferred distance—1.5 miles. In his last four races on tracks that size, he boasts an average finish 2.75; in the spring race at Texas, he was fifth. It’s a trend that suggests the kid Cup racer could be nearer than ever to notching his first career win in the bigs.
Matt the Brat struck again at Martinsville—or, so claims Kevin Harvick. The two were racing hard for sixth-place about midway through the race when the rear brakes on Kenseth’s No. 20 Chevy locked up going into Turn 1 and sent his rig into a tailspin. Harvick’s car, which was just ahead of Kenseth’s on the outside groove, was twirled into the wall as a consequence. While Harvick was set back by significant damage and a lengthy repair that caused him to finish 33rd, Kenseth was able to continue racing with minor dents and scratches to his car and placed a respectable sixth. On paper Kenseth’s rally comfortablly positions him to race for a second series title at Homestead. But on the track at Texas, Kenseth will have to keep a lookout for Harvick, who has made denying Kenseth a championship second among his priorities to winning one himself. The fact that Kenseth later took responsibility for the accident doesn’t seem like it will matter.
It’s one thing to vow revenge against Harvick. But, come on, how seriously can Harvick pursue it while he’s racing for a must-win during the next two weeks on tracks where he has already weathered near misses earlier this year? In the spring race at Texas he might well have come away with a checkered flag if his engine hadn't given out early on while he was running second. As entertaining as another a Kahne-Vickers style grudge match would be to us onlookers, one would hope that Harvick sees the bigger picture. He has far more time to pay Kenseth back for that shot than he does to win a championship—assuming he’ll even still be mad at Kenseth if he manages to add the one bullet point that’s still missing from his Hall of Fame resume.
Last week was the first truly tough outing in a while for Edwards, who was shuffled down from an 11th-place start to a 20th-place result. And yet he has to feel good going into Texas. Among active drivers, only Jimmie Johnson has as many wins there (three) as Edwards does. Another victory—which he appeared to be headed for until April showers froze the grid and his fifth-place positioning washed out into a 14th-place finish when the race was concluded the following Monday—would not only put Edwards closer than he’s ever been to winning the first series championship of his decorated career. It would further reinforce how committed he is to ending his decade-long association with Roush Fenway Racing even as he has one foot out the door and pointed toward the Gibbs race shop.
At Martinsville, Hamlin was charted toward his first victory in the Chase until he lost his lead on a late yellow-flag pit stop. It was the most pronounced demerit against a No. 11 crew that has been sterling of late and last Sunday delivered the third fastest servicing turnaround of the day (43.9 seconds on average). Hamlin nonetheless hung on for eighth place, which gives him plenty of life as the Chase heads into one of his stronger Cup venues. Although he has only notched one top-10 at Texas in his last six outings, he swept both races in 2010. An effort half that good this week could potentially carry the Gibbs pilot even farther than that sweep did in 2010, when he rolled in behind Jimmie Johnson atop the year-end standings.
The 2014 wins leader, who is barely two weeks removed from his Travis Ishikawa job at Talladega, will now be forced to summon some more of his crunch time magic to keep his championship hopes alive. He’ll have his work cut out for him at the next two tracks, where he’s never won a Cup race. The closest Keselowski has come at Texas was second place two years ago. Still, he does have this going for him: The most recent first-place finisher in Fort Worth drove a Penske car. It was Joey Logano.
The longer Newman goes without a win, the more intriguing a prospective champion he becomes. NASCAR, after all, worked so hard to add excitement to a style of racing that is not nearly as en vogue in America as it was a decade ago. It places greater emphasis on wins during the regular-season and the playoffs, which now unfold round-by-round instead of race-by-race. But Earnhardt’s triumph at Martinsville last weekend means at least two Chasers will earn their shot to race for the Cup in the series finale at Homestead based on points. Newman seemingly cracked this code before anyone, which is fitting given that he’s the only driver in the field with an engineering degree from Purdue. Instead of going for the checkered flag at a greater risk of calamity, Newman has taken the much safer route of racing for high grid positioning instead. His streak of five top-10s, including an incident-free third-place effort at Martinsville, is the most admirable body of work of any driver not named Logano. Surely Newman can keep that going at Texas, where he has been a top-10 racer in two of the last three races. And if he ultimately came out on top at Homestead? It would rank right up there with the NSA breach and the celebrity nude selfie rush among the greatest hacking jobs of our young century.
Props to owner Rick Hendrick for not playing F1 boss and ordering Junior to yield his advantage on the Martinsville race’s last restart as a bailout for Gordon. The four-time series champion was in control of the grid for most of the first half until he was busted for speeding on pit lane, his first such citation in two years. Then after expertly weaving his way back to the front, Gordon had another chance to retake the lead, but his protracted tangle with pacesetter Clint Bowyer for the low line around the track opened the door for Earnhardt to seize control of the grid. Gordon would roll in just behind him in second—a payoff isn’t as good as clinching a spot at Homestead, and yet isn’t as bad as it seems. For one, it came with more prize money ($169,671 for Gordon compared to Junior’s $155,125 take-home) and it vaulted Gordon into the top spot in the Chase bracket. With his car, his crew, and his skill behind the wheel, Gordon is more than capable of punching his Homestead ticket at Texas (where he finished second back in the spring) or playing a more patient, high-placement game like Newman.
Last week at Martinsville he scored his 16th top-5 of the season by racing not just hard but clean—an approach that saved him from the wrath of Danica Patrick, who might still be clinging to a small grudge against Logano after he wrecked her at Charlotte three weeks ago. This week at Texas, Logano should be even stronger. His last five results there include a fifth, a third and first in the race earlier this spring. Given how capable Logano is of tying Keselowski’s series-leading six wins this Sunday—and, by extension, clinching the first spot in the Chase’s final four—you might want to consider dressing up for Halloween in a Pennzoil red-and-gold tracksuit with matching baseball cap and Pumas. Right now, there is no scarier racer in all of motorsports.