2011 Chase For The Sprint Cup Filled With Brickyard 400 Champions
Sunday, September 18, 2011
Although reigning Brickyard 400 champion Paul Menard did not make the cut for NASCAR’s “Chase for the Championship,” this year’s title-contending contingent is dominated by Brickyard 400 winners.
Start off with four-time Brickyard 400 winner and four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who starts the Chase third in the standings with three victories – the most wins for Gordon in a season since 2007. Throw in five-time Cup champion and three-time Brickyard 400 winner Jimmie Johnson, and that gives Hendrick Motorsports two drivers with seven Brickyard 400s and a whopping nine Cup titles between them.
Kevin Harvick won the Brickyard 400 in 2003 and starts the Chase second in the standings based on his season high-tying four wins. He has the same amount of points as Kyle Busch, but Busch gets the advantage of the tie-breaker based on more second-place finishes.
And two-time Brickyard 400 winner and two-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart begins his quest for a third Cup championship as he starts 10th in the Chase. The driver who lives in nearby Columbus, Ind., was able to get both of his entries at Stewart-Haas Racing into the 12-driver, 10-race playoff that will determine this season’s Cup champion. Ryan Newman of South Bend, Ind., is the other driver on the team that made the Chase and begins in eighth place, with one victory this season.
The Chase begins with Sunday’s race at Chicagoland Speedway. It’s the first time since the Chase format was introduced in 2004 that the opening race will not be held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. That race falls to second in the Chase lineup.
Four-time Brickyard 400 winner Gordon can’t wait to crank ‘em up and begin his “Drive for Five” Cup championships.
“I'm really excited about our race team right now,” Gordon said. “I look back at our season, all the changes that were made with basically me going to a whole different team and getting to know these guys, getting an opportunity to work with them and learning how to communicate and how to get more competitive week in and week out. We had some great things happening at the beginning. We won the Phoenix race, but we struggled, as well, and we were way back in points at one time, 16th; 17th in points. To come all the way back up to third in the regular season, but to win three races, to run the way we have and just gain the momentum, this team could not be more pumped and excited about getting this Chase started, and Chicago is a great track for us. So look forward to the next 10 weeks.”
With NASCAR’s new simplified points system, Gordon weighed in on how the smaller margin of points awarded per race will impact the Chase.
“Just call me simple or something, but I’ll be honest, I haven’t thought about it,” Gordon said. “To me I try to get the best finish I can. I know that it pays the most points to win. If you can lead the most laps, it pays bonus point for that. I have not changed anything that I have done so far and until we get through maybe one or two Chase formats with the new points system I don’t see how – I’m not going to be able to change anything its whether or not Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) and how he calls the races and how that might change things. It’s easier because you’ve got one point between the positions but the positions still mean the same as they did before in my opinion.”
With one race victory this season, Johnson begins the Chase sixth in the standings but no team understands the concept of what it takes in the Chase better than the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports.
He begins his quest for a sixth straight championship when the Chase starts on Sunday.
“I think it's going to be a great Chase for the fans, exciting ones for the drivers this year,” he said. “I think it's real difficult to pick a clear favorite. You look at the momentum that each driver has. Really, there's probably seven or eight drivers that have had momentum at some point that are getting warm at the right time. Competition is competition, and there have been plenty of rivalries. Maybe it hasn't been to this level, but racing Jeff Gordon racing Mark Martin, racing Carl Edwards, the '06 deal, Kevin Harvick and I had a little rub going and I had some issues that I had to deal with. So I've been through a lot of it.
“The bottom line is we can race out there without running into each other, and that's where it goes.”
Johnson enters the Chase embroiled in a feud with Penske Racing driver Kurt Busch. The two drivers tangled on several occasions earlier this season, but it reached a peak when Johnson and Busch were both involved in two incidents with each other last Saturday night in the Chase cutoff race at Richmond.
Busch called Johnson a “five-time chump” after the race.
“Unfortunately, we have had a history over the years,” Johnson said of his relationship with Busch. “We spoke a few minutes ago up on the stage, and I certainly hope it's behind us. I have no intentions to run people over. The incidents that have happened have been accidental in the past when he (Busch) was in the 2 car. He knows that, and moving forward, I'm just not going to let people run our race car over. There's been a lot of contact going on, and that's why I retaliated tonight. It was a good time to do it.
“Moving forward, I think we've raced together the last two weeks, three weeks and been just fine on the racetrack. We can do it. It can be done. We had eight, nine years before that where everything was fine. It's possible, and I think it's in both of our best interests to get it behind us and go forward.”
Although Harvick won the Brickyard 400 in 2003 and the Daytona 500 in 2007, he has never won the Cup title. He came close last year when he was part of a three-driver battle for the championship entering the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but Johnson ultimately prevailed with his fifth-straight Cup title.
“We feel like we’ve got some good cars lined up for the Chase,” Harvick said. “It’s really going to come down to who makes the least mistakes. There are a lot of cars that can win. A lot of cars that can be competitive. It’s going to be who makes the least amount of mistakes and capitalizes the most on the days that you are off. Getting wins -- that's what it’s all about in these first 26. We learned that last year, we didn't win enough races in the Chase and we didn't think we did a very good job of that in the last 10. It's all about the last 10 races and we've got a little momentum now.”
Crew chief Gil Martin helped orchestrate a dramatic turnaround after a miserable performance by the time at Bristol at the end of August.
“We started off the season really well,” Martin said. “We had good consistency, good runs, and we were able to put together good runs all day long. But during the middle of the summer, to be quite frank, we've run like crap. We got off our game trying to do some things to just win races because I think after we won the three races and kind of thought we were locked into the Chase, we kind of got off our game some trying some things that probably we shouldn't have.
“I think that taught us a valuable lesson through the summer and going into Atlanta we had a huge team meeting on a Sunday after Bristol because we had such a horrendous Bristol race for the whole company, and I think that we had a great meeting and the whole company came together, and we've learned a lot about ourselves, I think, in the last month. But to go to Atlanta and run like we did and com