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Ingram: Fast And Good At Chicagoland

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, July 12 2010

Dale Earnhardt Jr. got best wishes from Leonard Wood prior to the start of Saturday night's race in Joliet. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:

The Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway on Saturday night was a little like a baseball game. Some guys hit and some guys missed when it came to the chassis set-up.

According to Kenny Francis, crew chief for Kasey Kahne, that’s the way it is these days with the COT. If you’re in the window when you unload off the truck, you can massage the chassis to make it faster or to adapt it to changing conditions such as racing from daylight into the night. If you’re not in the window, best of luck on catching up during the short practice sessions or once the green flag falls.

As race finishes go, Chicagoland was superb, because a deserving driver and team hit the right combination to come from behind once the sun went down to claim a unique victory. Last year, David Reutimann and Michael Waltrip Racing won their first race in a rain-shortened event in Charlotte when the team had nothing to lose by staying out of the pits with its Toyota Camry. This time, the 40-year-old driver and MWR hit for the cycle by out-dueling Jeff Gordon and getting the job done in the pits under green with the pressure on.

For teams, the problem at Chicagoland concerned not knowing if you were really in the window until the conditions began to change the evening of the race. Crew chiefs could have thrown the entire battle wagon at the handling problems that had some drivers not deleting expletives. But absent being close with the combination of shocks, springs and aero package from the outset, the crew chiefs were playing catch-up for future races by exploring new options.

Whether this makes for bad racing is in the eye of the beholder. There was enough ebb and flow at the front to hold one’s attention without yellow flags to bunch the field. It was a fast 400-mile race, averaging 145 miles an hour due to a record low of four cautions. Absent a green-white-checkered finish, the outcome was a surprise (i.e. suspect) to only those who thought of nice guy Reutimann as too old or just unable to find a ride with a better team.

As for NASCAR racing in general, this is it for the Sprint Cup. The sanctioning body doesn’t intend to do any more adjusting to the COT and believes teams have enough talent and tools to handle how it goes from here.

The side-by-side action is most intense in fifth through 15th among those fighting to get some clean air or into the mosh pit at the front for the double-file re-starts. If your guy is in that mess, one would hope it holds your attention. Other than that, the action at the front will have long stretches of the guy in clean air breaking away, like early leader Jimmie Johnson.

But at least there was ebb and flow in Chicago, especially after Johnson miscalculated his rear brake bias prior to an early pit stop. Jamie McMurray led the fray, Gordon moved up, Reutimann came on strong and a Ford, this one driven by Carl Edwards, was closing hard in second at the finish. Not that they’re on an equal plane, but the performance of MWR and Roush Racing at Chicagoland seemed to underscore that a wider variety of teams are hitting on what makes the COT go as well as a lot of teams missing set-ups.

(The Ford FR9 engine seems to be, ahem, pulling out of the austerity measures imposed by Ford during the Great Recession and a subsequent shortage of parts and pieces. But that’s a story for another time.)

As I’ve written before, the best NASCAR and its fans can hope for under the modern day aerodynamics on any of the speedways outside of Daytona and Talladega is a variety of contenders from one race to the next. The guys everybody knows are good who couldn’t find their fanny with either hand on Saturday in Chicagoland returning to the front again at Indianapolis. And so on.

It’s the format of the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship that is now in the line of discussion at the inner sanctums of NASCAR. If the final (rather dull) round of the much anticipated World Cup on Sunday was any indication, not to mention a plethora of Super Bowls that have failed to live up to their Roman numerals, it’s difficult for any sport to guarantee an exciting finish to a season.

OK. Cut out, say, six of the 12 contenders and re-set the field with five races to go during the Chase. Make the Chase more like a gradual elimination similar to other sports leagues. The title is likely to be decided in the final race under that format. But there’s no guarantee of reprising an incredible finish like the one in the first Chase in 2004.

As for four-time champ Johnson, he continues to be one helluva race car driver. He doesn’t have a big advantage with the COT anymore, especially since the switch from the wing to a spoiler, but he does have five victories this season. At Chicagoland, Johnson’s goof at the pit entry demonstrated that all them boys are close to being on a knife’s edge when it comes to any of the tracks with the least bit of speed.

Quote of the week: “Kasey (Kahne) is a hell of a guy. He is a very good race car driver and (crew chief) Kenny Francis is very good at what he does. That (Richard Petty Motorsports) team has been helping us and this week they helped us quite a bit and it paid off. Right up until the driver intros I was talking to Kasey about his car. He is a very even-keeled guy that has given me a lot of help. The parts and the help from Kenny Francis are probably what made the difference for us tonight.”

– Roush Racing driver Carl Edwards on why his Roush Racing Ford was closing in on leader David Reutimann at race’s end in Chicagoland.

See ya…at the races!

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, July 12 2010
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