Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rating the GEICO 400: 2 Stars **

Brad Keselowski stole the Jimmie Johnson show Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway to win the first race in the 2012 Chase and take the lead in the points standings. Keselowski and Johnson both had impressive performances, but the race still gets a 2 Star Rating.
Johnson made Chicagoland Speedway his playground for the first half of the race and left the entire rest of the field in his dust. If races didn’t have cautions or pit stops, Johnson would’ve lapped the field. Unfortunately for him, races do require pits stops, and that’s when Keselowski and the #2 team pounced.
Johnson made his final pit stop on lap 229, and Keselowski, who was more than one second behind, followed a lap later. Incredibly, the #2 team pulled off a feat similar to the June race at Michigan and Keselowski passed Johnson for the lead after the round of stops.
Johnson could never catch Keselowski, and the Blue Deuce sailed to victory in the Windy City.
This win will instantly make people talk about him being a favorite to win the championship even though he was considered a darkhorse pick at best up until Sunday afternoon.
Either way, it’s too early to know with any certainty what’s going to happen in the next nine races. Clint Bowyer has performed well at the beginning of the Chase in past years but never made it to Homestead with a real chance at the trophy, and Johnson has finished as bad as 39th in the first race and still come back to win.
That’s the route Jeff Gordon will have to take to win this year’s championship. Just a week after he shockingly snuck his way into the Chase through the second wild-card spot, his throttle stuck going into Turn 1 on lap 188 and destroyed his car. He got back out to make laps but finished 35th and is already 47 points, basically a full race, out of the lead.
The non-Johnson favorite heading into Sunday was Denny Hamlin. He was running inside the top 10 but ran out of fuel on the final lap and finished 16th. That drops him to fourth in the points standings, but he is only 15 points out of the lead. He just can’t have another similar mistake. Chicago turned into his mulligan race.
Other than Chase implications, Sunday’s race didn’t offer much. We had a couple of always-dramatic debris cautions and Casey Mears blew a tire. Otherwise, Keselowski and Johnson dominated the day, combining to lead 248 of the 267 laps.
So, next week the Sprint Cup Series takes the Chase to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for 300 miles of “rolling the center.” This race, and Dover and Talladega to follow, will be a chance for the drivers who don’t dominate on 1.5-mile tracks to try and stash enough points to remain in the hunt down the stretch.
Tony Stewart ran well at Chicago, and he has been really good of late at New Hampshire, with three top-fives in his last five races at the track.
New Hampshire is also provides a chance for closer racing than we saw at Chicago. It is incredibly difficult to pass, which opens the opportunity for good battles for position.
In any case, have a great week, everybody.

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