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Starting Chase In Midwest Seems To Be Good Move

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 17 2011

Jeff Gordon's car is pushed through the garages at Chicagoland Speedway. The Chase is starting in unfamiliar territory this year. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

JOLIET, Ill. – Fans will see very, very few “caution: moose crossing” signs on the roads leading into this weekend’s Sprint Cup race. Local menus featuring “fresh lobster” should be eyed with healthy skepticism this weekend.

But this is indeed Week 27 in Cup. This is mid-September and this is the opening weekend for the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. It just doesn’t look or feel like it because for the first time since NASCAR introduced the playoff system in 2004, the Chase will begin in the Midwest instead of New England.

And a couple of days into the Geico 400 weekend, the move to start the 10-race, 12-driver Chase in the Chicago area seems to be a good one.

There does seem to be a bit more buzz around the Chase-opener than there was in recent years at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. We’ll all find out on Sunday if the move is a hit with fans, but there is more media at Chicagoland than there was in Loudon.

There seems to be more television and radio coverage from Chicago media outlets than there has been at past Chicagoland races.

And in the garages at Chicagoland, the prevailing opinion on the moves seems to be: Good.

Good for a couple of reasons.

Good, first, because it allows NASCAR to kick off its playoffs in a huge market. NASCAR held a press day in downtown Chicago – which is 30 miles from the track – and it was well attended and, according to some drivers, good for the sport.

“I think that yesterday’s media and what we have been through the last day or so,” five-time champion Jimmie Johnson said Friday, “I think Chicago has embraced our sport and kicking off the Chase. I thought the media stuff yesterday was successful and such good momentum to carry into the Chase for our sport.”

Others like starting the Chase at Chicagoland simply because it offers a refreshing change of pace.

“I’m excited,” Kevin Harvick, who has two victories at Chicagoland, said. “I love change (kicking off the Chase at a new venue). I think we should change it up every year. Chicago is a great city. There’s a lot going on Chicago this weekend as we go there to start the Chase and I’m looking forward to it.”

Then there were drivers who like the change because they think it will benefit them in their quest to win this year’s championship.

“Yeah, I like starting here,” Chase driver Matt Kenseth of Roush Fenway Racing said. “In the past it has been one of our stronger tracks which doesn’t really mean anything for this weekend but it is nice to be here in Chicago and come to a different venue. I thought it was cool to do all the media stuff yesterday in the same city we are racing at and to kick off the Chase here. I am excited to get in the car here in a little bit.”

Chicagoland is a 1.5-mile tri-oval. That is, it is the kind of track which dominates the Chase schedule.

Some Chase teams and drivers like starting the playoff at Chicagoland because it could help them down the line when the series hits intermediate tracks like those in Kansas, Texas, Charlotte and, finally, Homestead.

A quick start at the Chicagoland intermediate could be great for momentum and confidence for the Chasers.

Ryan Newman indicated his Stewart Haas Racing team will view Sunday’s race as something of a Chase barometer.

“I group the 1.5-mile and 2-mile race tracks together,” he said. “From an intermediate standpoint, we are much better than we were last year. I feel that we’re a little bit better than we were the year before. And not that we were horrible there, it’s just our short track program has been so good at Stewart-Haas Racing. Martinsville, Phoenix, Richmond, and places like that; Loudon, that’s the benchmark that we set for ourselves to be able to do that at other tracks.

“I don’t think our average is as good on intermediates as it is on short tracks this year, but it’s much, much better. And obviously that’s a core group of the races in the Chase and something that we knew, if you look at the entire season, it’s the backbone of the entire season as well. We knew we needed to work on that. I think our crew and everybody has done a really good job of pitching in and helping out to be more competitive at those tracks.”

But not everybody seems to be thrilled to be opening the Chase here.

Tony Stewart is a two-time winner at Chicagoland. He has eight top-10 finishes in 10 starts at the place. He has led 396 laps (best among all drivers) and has an averaged finish of 9.5 (second best among Chasers) at Chicago.

That is, he has a lot of reason to like the track. But he also says Chicagoland comes with some built-in problems – for drivers and for fans who like exciting races. It is just not a real racy track, Stewart said.

“It hasn’t evolved,” Stewart said. “It is still the same place, that is the bad part about it is, it is still a cookie cutter track, that shape is still the same. It is the same for everybody and we all just deal with it and try to figure out how to be fastest around it.”

Asked if Chicagoland has the potential to get better, Stewart was blunt.

“Not unless you change the shape of it and make it to where you gotta lift and gotta brake,” he said. “You can’t build round race tracks and expect guys to pass and race when guys don’t have to get out of the gas enough, when you are running almost the same speed through the corners as you are down the straight-a-ways it is hard to have that difference to make passes.”

Love the move to start the Chase away from New Hampshire and into the Midwest, or hate it, the Chase starts Sunday in Joliet, Ill. and the best thing to do is just deal with it.

For drivers: “I think everybody wants to make a statement early,” Jeff Gordon said. “You do everything you can.  I don’t want that to get in the way of our focus of what we need to do to come out of here with a win or with a strong finish.  You’ve got to go do your job.  Focus on your car, your team and get the most out of it.  If that’s a win, great.  If that’s a fifth-place, great.  Even if we come out of here with not a good finish then we have to manage ourselves and make sure we come back strong or if we do well, try not to get over excited.  To me, 10 weeks is a lot of racing.  More than a lot of people think.”

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 17 2011
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