For 16 Sprint Cup drivers, the time is here: ready, set, Chase


JOLIET, Ill. — If Sunday’s 400 plays out the way folks in the garage were talking Sunday morning, there’s going to be at least a few surprises both in the course of the race and potentially in the outcome in the opening event of the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup:

* Paul Menard, who was atop the speed charts in one of two Saturday practice sessions, could be a darkhorse to win at Chicagoland. He’s never won there, but he and teammates Ryan Newman (who starts on the outside pole) and Austin Dillon have shown speed all weekend.

* Kyle Busch is going for a second straight win, having taken the checkered flag in Saturday night’s Camping World Truck Series. It’ll be interesting to see if Busch will still carry a chip on his shoulders from failing to win yesterday’s Nationwide Series race after dominating the majority of it. Busch was hoping to win all three weekend races, a feat that has only been done once before in NASCAR history — in August 2010 at Bristol by, who else, Kyle Busch.

* Jeff Gordon, who led the points standings for most of the first 26 weeks, appears to be the sentimental favorite not only today but also for the overall Chase. Gordon has been chasing his fifth career Sprint Cup title since his fourth and last one in 2001, but his “Drive For Five” this year seems to be as close as he’s ever been to finally realizing that goal.

* Jimmie Johnson is looking for a strong start in his own bid to win the championship. Johnson is both the defending Sprint Cup champ, having won last year’s title, as well as a six-time Cup champ. If he wins the title this year, Johnson will tie NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for most championships by a driver (seven).

* Much attention will be focused on the three drivers who made the Chase, yet failed to earn a win in the first 26 races: Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle.

* Carl Edwards hopes to finish what he started in 2011, when he tied for the championship, only to lose it on the first tie-breaker to Tony Stewart based on wins (five wins for Stewart to just one for Edwards). Edwards also has added incentive in that he’d like to win his first Cup championship in his final season at Roush Fenway Racing, and to reward team owner Jack Roush for discovering Edwards and bringing him to the Sprint Cup Series.

* Crew chief Darian Grubb returns to the top of the pit box for Denny Hamlin. Grubb has missed the last six races after being suspended by NASCAR following the Brickyard 400 for rules violations.

* Tony Stewart is still seeking his first win of the season. Many of his fans are wondering if he can do in this year’s Chase what he did the last time he missed the Chase in 2006: He won three of the 10 Chase events.

* Is Joey Logano finally ready to win the championship that so many — including team owner Roger Penske and Joe Gibbs, and former NASCAR driver Mark Martin — have long predicted of Logano?

* How will drivers who earned a berth in the Chase but have had only fair seasons otherwise fare, including Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger?

* How will Danica Patrick fare? She surprised a lot of people by being fifth-fastest in Saturday’s final Sprint Cup practice?

* Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. be able to realize his season-long goal of not only winning his first career Sprint Cup championship, but also winning it for crew chief Steve Letarte, who has also never won a Cup crown? Earnhardt has great incentive: not only is he turning 40 on Oct. 10, Letarte will be leaving at season’s end to join NBC Sports as an analyst on 2015 NASCAR telecasts. This is arguably Earnhardt’s best chance for a championship in his career.

There’s lots of different scenarios that may potentially play out Sunday, some good and some bad. Let’s get this show on the road.

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Ford Mustang GT3 test has Austin Cindric dreaming of Daytona: ‘I want to drive that car’

Cindric Ford GT3 test
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Austin Cindric wasn’t the “mystery” test driver behind the wheel of the new Ford Mustang GT3 at Sebring International Raceway, but the Team Penske driver desperately wanted to be.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, an amateur sports car driver himself, made the big reveal via a Tuesday tweet that provided the first video evidence of the GT3 Mustang on track.

“I’ve watched the video in question about a million times,” Cindric said Wednesday during a Ford Performance Zoom news conference to promote NASCAR’s first road course weekend of the season at Circuit of the Americas. “Definitely exciting times for sure. I want to drive that car. It suits my experience level and also the relationships that I have.”

Ford will enter the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship next season with its GT3 Mustang, entering a two-car factory effort (that will be managed by Multimatic) in GTD Pro and making customer cars available in the GT Daytona category.

That increases the likelihood of seeing more NASCAR drivers crossing over to IMSA. Cindric has been the only full-time Cup driver in the Rolex 24 at Daytona the past two years, but Ford Performance global director Mark Rushbrook has said the GT3 Mustang will provide more opportunities.

Ford has used its GT4 Mustang as a NASCAR driver development tool in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge with Harrison Burton and Zane Smith combining to win the season opener at Daytona International Speedway in January.

“We’re excited about the Next Gen car and the new architecture there and the similarities between that car and GT3 and even GT4 cars,” Rushbrook said at the announcement of the Ford GT3 program in January 2022 at Daytona. “We think it’s a great opportunity and to do be able to do that in a 24-hour race and get NASCAR drivers even more time is something we need to consider taking advantage of that opportunity.”

Given his sports car background, Cindric probably still would be in the Rolex 24 regardless. He has eight IMSA starts since the 2017 season opener at Daytona, racing a Lexus RCF GT3 and Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the GT category. The 2022 Daytona 500 winner made his second LMP2 start this year with Rick Ware Racing.

But Cindric’s preference naturally would be in a Ford, particularly with sports car racing enjoying convergence and crossovers in both GT and prototype racing.

“It’s an exciting time in GT racing, just as it is now for prototype racing with a lot of new regulations and manufacturers building new GT3 cars,” he said. “And also the opportunity with WEC (the World Endurance Championship) and Le Mans and how that all lines up for that category of car. It’s definitely an exciting time. I want to be as much of a part of that as possible.”

Though those odds seemingly will increase with multiple Ford entries in the Rolex 24 field next year, Cindric said NASCAR drivers still have to put in the networking to land rides as he has in recent years.

“Now how (the GT3 Mustang) relates to specifically NASCAR drivers and how often they want to be in the Rolex, could it be an influence? Absolutely, as far as the tie-in with the manufacturer,” Cindric said. “But the challenge and the drive and the logistics of getting an opportunity for a race like the Rolex 24 will be just as challenging as it always is to find your one-off ride for the race. At least from my experience, that’s what I still anticipate.”

It turned out the “mystery” test driver wasn’t from NASCAR (Farley revealed the driver to be 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Joey Hand after a fan asked whether it was Joey Logano).

But Cindric believes there could be more Cup drivers — and perhaps himself — behind the wheel of Mustang GT3s in the future.

“There’s definitely more of a pathway than I think there would be before as far as Ford drivers are concerned,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to drive that thing. It’s obviously a great looking car. That’s the first box you’ve got to check. And it’s cool (to have) a guy like Jim Farley, no doubt he’s a racer just as much as he is steering the ship for Ford. It’s cool to see he’s just as excited as the rest of us about it.”