Questions to ponder as the Chase begins – finally

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Clint Bowyer’s fateful spin with seven laps to go last Saturday night at Richmond began one of the most tumultuous weeks in the history of NASCAR.

And as the sanctioning body scrambled to restore credibility in the eyes of its fans – twice altering its post-season field in the span of five days – surely there was a moment where everyone involved surveyed it all and inwardly sighed.

“Sunday can’t come soon enough.”

Well, folks, Sunday is here. And so is a Chase that, before it has officially begun, is already unlike any other we’ve seen in its 10-year run as the Sprint Cup Series’ post-season system.

The first battleground: The 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway, the kind of bread-and-butter intermediate track that makes up the majority of the Chase schedule. What we see today outside the Windy City could very well show who will have the edge this fall and who’s gonna have to dig a little deeper.

As NASCAR’s big stretch run to the championship begins today, questions are plentiful about a Chase that feels very tough to predict:

    • After a stellar regular season with five victories (three of which came on those all-important 1.5-mile ovals), can top seed Matt Kenseth cap off what has been his most competitive season to date with a second Cup title – and his first in the Chase format?
    • Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 crew hit the skids heading into the Chase with four straight finishes of 28th or worse. Can one of the sport’s most dominant squads find their groove again when it counts?
    • Kyle Busch has been very strong this year, racking up both wins and consistently high results. Could he be the one that delivers the biggest push for Kenseth, his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, in the Chase? And if so, what kind of effects would it have on the JGR team as we get closer to the Homestead finale?
    • Kurt Busch has already pulled off a major feat by getting the small Furniture Row Racing team into the Chase. But while he’s got the talent and the pace to make an impact, will his pit crew ultimately help or hurt his chances?
    • The Ford camp seems to have picked up the pace, as evidenced by Carl Edwards’ victory last Saturday at Richmond. But will it be enough to enable Edwards, Greg Biffle and Joey Logano to overcome their Chevy and Toyota rivals?
    • There’s been nothing “lame duck” about Kevin Harvick’s final campaign with Richard Childress Racing, but can he get R.C. his first Cup title since 1994 (Dale Earnhardt, Sr.) before going off to Stewart-Haas Racing?
    • Prior to Richmond, Logano had been the hottest driver in the garage. But last Saturday was far from his finest hour on the track, and he’s been part of this week’s mayhem. Will that distraction help derail his drive for a title in his first Chase?
    • Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Ryan Newman have had their ups and downs this regular season, and not many are picking them as legitimate title contenders. Can they find the consistency that hasn’t always been there for them in 2013?
    • Now in the playoffs as a 13th Chaser, Jeff Gordon maintains that a fire has been lit under him and the No. 24 team. But he too has been admittedly iffy at times. That said, will he be so inspired by being in the Chase that he’ll have a proper say in its outcome?
    • Finally, there’s Bowyer, the one that started the whole firestorm but is still in the mix for a championship even after the penalties against Michael Waltrip Racing. His question is the same as Logano’s: Will the controversy prove to wear him down? Another valid query: What kind of unholy rage will the NASCAR diehards unleash if Bowyer does do well?

MRTI: Barber Motorsports Park Preview

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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After a month break, the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires is back in action this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, with two of its series tacking the 2.38-mile road course in Birmingham, Alabama.

Both the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires have double-headers this weekend, with Pro Mazda returning to Barber after not running there last year.

The season-opening weekend in St. Petersburg was a tale of two completely different stories, with two different winners – Pato O’Ward and Santi Urrutia – and more than a fair bit of chaos for Indy Lights, while Pro Mazda saw Rinus Veekay sweep the weekend.

Talking points for both series heading into Barber are below.

Indy Lights

Santi Urrutia heads to Barber leading the Indy Lights championship on the strength of finishes of second and first in St. Petersburg. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Santi Urrutia displayed great patience at St. Petersburg, finishing second in Race 1 and winning Race 2 after rivals like O’Ward and Colton Herta faltered. However, Barber has not been one of his better tracks, with finishes of 11th, 15th, and 13th in three of his four Indy Lights starts. Yet, he did win Race 2 at Barber 2016, so he has had success there before, and he will be one of the favorites heading into the weekend.
  • Pato O’Ward looks poised to be a title contender in 2018 and will look to avenge a somewhat disappointing outing at St. Petersburg. O’Ward had the speed to sweep the weekend, winning Race 1 handily and dominating Race 2, but a mistake late in the race saw him overshoot Turn 4 and briefly stall before he could rejoin, relegating him to seventh. If O’Ward can show the pace he showed at St. Pete, he might end up being the man to beat.
  • Colton Herta will look to rebound from a St. Pete weekend in which he flashed the speed that caught everyone’s attention last year, but also committed the same mistakes that ultimately prevented him from taking a championship. After finishing third in Race 1, Herta crashed while chasing then leader O’Ward in Race 2. Herta won Race 2 at Barber last year, and getting another win this weekend, along with staying mistake free, would go a long way to erasing his problems from St. Pete.
  • Aaron Telitz is also looking to rebound after a down weekend, as his St. Petersburg weekend lasted all of two corners across both races – he won the Pole for Race 1, but crashed in Race 2 qualifying, and the Belardi Auto Racing team could not repair the car to allow him to race. After the team borrowed a chassis from Carlin for Race 2, Telitz get collected with Juncos Racing’s Victor Franzoni right off the start, and he crashed again, this time in Turn 2. Telitz finished on the podium at Barber in 2016, the year he won the Pro Mazda championship, and he’ll look for more of the same this weekend.

Pro Mazda

Rinus VeeKay swept the Pro Mazda weekend in St. Petersburg. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Rinus Veekay had a perfect weekend to open the Pro Mazda season. The Juncos Racing driver outdueled Exclusive Autosport’s Parker Thompson for the Race 1 victory, and then ran away with Race 2 to complete the weekend sweep. Veekay was expected to be a title contender after moving up to Pro Mazda in 2018, and if he can repeat his St. Pete performance, then he may leave Barber as the heavy favorite in the championship.
  • Not to be forgotten, Parker Thompson sits second in the Pro Mazda title chase, and looks to avenge losing out to Veekay in St. Pete Race 1, and then fading somewhat to finish fifth in Race 2. Thompson was the only driver to regularly challenge Veekay and Oliver Askew in the 2017 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda season, and he and Exclusive Autosport have adapted nicely to the new Tatuus PM-18. If they can show the same form at Barber, and then finish the job with at least one trip to Victory Lane, then it could set the stage for another titanic Pro Mazda championship fight.
  • Last year’s USF2000 champion Oliver Askew had a quiet weekend in St. Pete, finishing fifth and sixth in the two races. He swept the Barber races in USF2000 last year, and will need a similar performance to vault himself forward from his current place of sixth in the standings.
  • Carlos Cunha and David Malukas head to Barber third and fourth in the championship after solid St. Pete weekends – Cunha had finishes of fourth and third, while Malukas had finishes of seventh and second. Neither was necessarily looked at as a title combatant entering 2018, but repeat performances in Barber could vault them into title contention.

A full weekend schedule, including the Mazda Road to Indy sessions, can be viewed here.

**Note: NBCSN will broadcast Sunday’s Indy Lights race (Race 2 from the weekend) on Monday, April 23.**

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