Championship Observations Following First Round of Playoffs

RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 10: (Back row L-R) Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Dodge, Kurt Busch, driver of the #22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge, Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Toyota, Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's/Power of Pride Chevrolet, Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, (front row L-R) Kevin Harvick, driver of the #29 Budweiser Chevrolet, Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Kellogg's/Cheez-it Ford, Ryan Newman, driver of the #39 U.S. Army-9/11 Chevrolet, Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Amp Energy/National Guard Chevrolet, Matt Kenseth, driver of the #17 Ollie's Bargain Outlet Ford, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, pose after clinching spots in the "Chase for the Sprint Cup" following the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Wonderful Pistachios 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 10, 2011 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Tony Stewart picked a good time to win his first race of the season while fuel mileage turned the Chase standings inside out.

Stewart and the rest of the leaders came in with 50 laps to go with the understanding that they would be 2-3 laps short. Stewart made the fuel last, breaking a 32-race winless streak and extending his consecutive seasons with a win streak to 13. The driver of the Stewart-Haas no. 14 had been locked out of Victory Lane since October.

But it was Kevin Harvick who made the loudest Chase noise, finishing second and taking a commanding seven-point championship lead at Chicagoland. Dale Earnhardt Jr. also stretched the fuel, coming out on the right side of it for once, finishing third and is now trailing Harvick by only 13 points (fifth place) going into New Hampshire.

Several Chase favorites struggled and came out on the wrong side of the fuel gamble with Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin all finishing in the bottom half of the official results.

Granted it's just the first race of 10 but we'll spend the rest of this post reviewing the Geico 400 on a Chase driver-by-driver basis. The quotes were collected by SBN's Jeff Gluck and can be found here.

Keep reading after the fold.

 

Kevin Harvick (Leader) - Kevin Harvick came out of the Geico 400 smelling like a bed of roses. He kept the car with enough fuel until after the checkered flag dropped and finished second. He extended his lead to seven points after entering the Chase tied with Kyle Busch (see below). Harvick was a steady top five for the duration of the race and is now in a position where he may not need a race victory to maintain the championship lead. A steady dose of top 5s and no DNFs could seal the deal.

"I'm just happy that we finished second, to be honest with you. There's still a lot of question marks for us coming into the Chase on the mile‑and‑a‑half stuff. But the call was solid all weekend. ... During the year it was all about trying to win races. Now it's about accumulating points."

Tony Stewart (Second, Minus Seven from First) - The big winner in today's race turned out to be the big winner himself, Tony Stewart. Smoke instantly went from a Chase afterthought and longshot to realistic favorite all in one race. Stewart had performances like this peppered in-between his long drought, making the ability to trend this run all the more important. Considering the problems of Gordon, Johnson, Kenseth and Kyle Busch, Smoke instantly eliminated the difference between himself and them in one swoop.

"We've had a miserable year. But the last three weeks have really started coming into it. ... I don't think either one of us (crew chief Darian Grubb and Stewart) thought we had as good a car as we thought we needed to win today. But it didn't take long in the race to figure out we were pretty solid."

Carl Edwards (Third, Minus 13 from First) - Carl Edwards looked like a legitimate championship threat on Monday, leading laps, conserving fuel and finishing fourth. Edwards' strong finish moved him up two sports to third in the championship standings. Bob Osbourne won the crew chief of the race award and consistently kept Edwards tight and fast. If Edwards can survive New Hampshire, one of his weaker tracks, he may enter the second-third of the season as the championship favorite.

"It was a really good day at the beginning and we showed a lot of speed and then we struggled a little bit, but came back with great fuel mileage at the end and that was huge for us. It allowed us to jump up to fourth and really get good position. That was a nice finish for us in this first race and something we can definitely build on as we head to Loudon."

Kurt Busch (Fourth, Minus 11 from First) - Despite another meltdown directed toward crew chief Steve Addington, Kurt Busch nursed his car and his fuel-mileage to a sixth-place finish. The Penske Dodge struggled to keep up with changing track conditions and Busch struggled to comprehend why. Busch must focus and receive faster cars if he's going to remain a contender. That said, sixth-place ad just 11 points out of first isn't a bad start for the 2004 Chase champion.

"It was a good points day for our Shell/Pennzoil Dodge. We had speed in the car early, but just didn't keep up with the track. We were a top-10 car all day. We led a bunch of laps early. We just struggled with making adjustments as the race went on."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Fifth, Minus 13 from First) - After being bit by the fuel-mileage bug at Darlington, Earnhardt Jr. had a gamble go his way, finishing the Geico 400 in third. With so many Chase favorites having bad finishes, Junior's podium effectively erased the difference between their wins and his lack thereof. Earnhardt ran from 10-15th during the duration of the race and will have to do better if he expects to stave off the race-winning drivers trapped behind him.

"I just knew we were going to get a good finish if we didn't run out of fuel. I was happy where we were. I thought we had really improved throughout the day. And, yeah, it felt a lot similar to how we ran earlier in the year where we would use strategy to improve our finishing position."

Brad Keselowski (Sixth, Minus 14 from First) - Brad Keselowski continued his improbable run to a first Sprint Cup Championship by taking advantage of those who ran out of fuel. Just like Kansas, Keselowski made the fuel last and finished in fifth. Keselowski struggled with the handling early, losing a lap, and even had an uncharacteristic spat with crew chief Paul Wolf. Keselowski's Penske Racing pit crew continued making adjustments and regained a lap before making up the bulk of his positions by conserving fuel. With a strong finish, Keselowski announced to the world that he's in the Chase to win it rather than just learn in his first attempt.

"We hung in there and battled and battled all day. We tried some different strategy, got moved to the back, but kept plugging away and got fifth out of it. Our fuel mileage was awesome. It was a good first step for us in the Chase."

Ryan Newman (Seventh, Minus 14 from First) - Ryan Newman ran out of fuel (noticing a theme?) on the final lap but ultimately coasted to the finish in eighth. Newman led at halfway on a tire gamble and had an otherwise solid but unspectacular day. Newman finished about where he would have expected and looks to repeat at New Hampshire where he last won in the summer.

"Our fuel mileage wasn't what it needed to be, but in the end, we got a top-10 out of it. Ran out (of fuel) coming off of Turn 2. It was kind of a crazy deal, but we were still able to capitalize."

Jimmie Johnson (Eighth, Minus 16 from First) - The five-time and defending Sprint Cup Series champion opened the pursuit of a sixth-straight title leading several laps but ultimately experiencing the same fuel-mileage issues as many of his peers, running out of gas and finishing tenth. Johnson rarely opens the Chase with a lightning performace and today's result shouldn't be indicative of what this team is capable of.  Johnson looked like a contender before the race turned into a fuel-mileage affair and should threaten to win over the remainder of the season. Don't count out team 48 until they are mathematically eliminated.

"From my driving style, I've never been all that good with fuel mileage. You've certainly seen me run out at other times. Not what we wanted. We certainly had a great race car and it's just too bad. We ran out coming to the white flag."

Kyle Busch (Ninth, Minus 19 from First) - Entering this year's Chase, the biggest concern for Kyle Busch was starting the Chase with a positive result. The trend of failing to do so continued on Monday afternoon with Busch being yet another contender running out of fuel during the closing laps. The bad finish has to be considered a mulligan for the top-seeded Busch who essentially used up his four-win (12-point) cushion in one race. New Hampshire hasn't been especially kind to Busch, adding additional concern to the reeling championship favorite.

"We had a good car today and kept fighting back all day long. But once we hit that debris, it made the car really loose and I was doing the best I can. I still hoped we could finish in the top 10. I saved as much fuel as I could, but I guess it just wasn't enough and we ran out with two to go. Just a really disappointing day."

Matt Kenseth (Tenth, Minus 23 from First) - You have to wonder how differently things might have turned out if Matt Kenseth hadn't received a late-race push across the finish line from J.J. Yeley after running out of fuel on the final lap. That's not allowed in NASCAR and Kenseth was penalized a lap falling from fifth to 22nd in the final order. One has to wonder if Kenseth could have made it to the finish without assistance as it was a difference of 18 points.  As it stands, Kenseth, like many others will have to play catch-up at New Hampshire to have any real shot at the championship.

"It is really frustrating to be a race car driver and they drop the green on the last run of the day when you are supposed to put on a show for the fans and you have to run half-throttle and can't floor it or you will run out of gas."

Jeff Gordon (11th, Minus 24 from First) - Running out of fuel on the last lap and finishing 22nd, essentially used up Gordon's three-win (12 point) cushion. Gordon ran mid-pack for most of the day and finished about where he deserved. It's never good to start the Chase on a sour note but 24 points is not impossible to come back from, especially for a team that's capable of leading laps in bulk and winning several races. But make no mistake, the 24 was knocked down. Will they be able to answer the bell at New Hampshire, where they had a win-capable car get lost in the shuffle by electrical issues?

"It was just one of those days. You know, we had a right-front (tire) tear apart. We actually got the car halfway decent there at the end. Then it came down to saving fuel and we obviously didn't save enough fuel."

Denny Hamlin (12th, Minus 41 from First) - Denny Hamlin began the Chase at a disadvantaged and ended the Geico 400 in the cellar. Hamlin had a multitude of problems culminating in a cut that trapped Hamlin several laps down for most of the race. Hamlin said before the race that he has no expectations and will just try to have fun over the last ten races. That notion likely ended halfway through Monday's race. It may be early but Hamlin's championship hopes are finished.

Denny Hamlin did not answer questions after the race.

This likely will not become a weekly feature as I want to see how trends develop over a two-to-three week period before I make any more observations.

Discuss.

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