Track Talk: A Preview of the 400

Cue up the Jim Mora sound clip about playoffs because in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, yes, we have reached that point of the season.  It’s hard to believe but over 26 weeks ago, it was Daytona Speedweeks and the drivers and teams arrived at the track donning fresh 2015 colors and gear.

Today, it’s more than just Race 27 of the year.  For 16 drivers and teams, it’s about the first race of the Chase and the opening race to the kickoff round of the title fight known as “The Challenger Round of 16.”  Sure, nobody will win the war but the battle could either be won or lost starting with today’s 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.

Throughout the race weekend, drivers have noted how the 1.5-mile track feels more bumpy than it has in the past. While that might be the case as well as the fact that drivers and teams have focused more on aerodynamics than shock packages, there’s no doubt that turns 3 and 4 will throw some of the title contenders off.  Just ask Jimmie Johnson, six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, and he’ll likely point out his close call during opening practice on Friday.

This won’t be an easy kickoff race but it’s certainly a track that lends itself to good side-by-side racing and a bit of a cadence in the middle portion.  Of course, for those who have a car that’s plenty capable of winning today’s race, it’ll be about having a great start and keeping themselves towards the front of the field in clean air.

However, that’s just half of the story.  There’s also the many battles on pit road that will most likely take place and play a deciding hand for the victory.  Like every other race, pit crews will play a huge part for their team’s shot to hoist the trophy and punch their ticket into “The Contender Round of 12.”  For those not in the Chase, they can be the Boston Red Sox, playing spoilers for the win as they also have to fight just as hard on the track in the final 10 races.

Jim Mora endorses the concept of The Chase!

Jim Mora endorses the concept of The Chase!

As for the TPF Track Talk team of Ashley Hobbs, Ashley Hull, Katie Copple, Kim Melton, and Patrick Staropoli, it’s about focusing on the playoffs for our run at the title.  This year, it’s more than just about a great championship for his opinion-editorial/weekly feature, but for the lucky season winner, it’s about scoring a prize which will be announced in the Homestead-Miami Speedway edition of this feature.  Without further ado and because it’s playoffs, playoffs, are you kidding me, playoffs, let’s talk about the four Trending Topics right now!

Trending Topics by Rob Tiongson

Question 1
This is a pretty huge Robot Masters list for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

This is a pretty huge Robot Masters list for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

In the first 26 races, we’ve seen 11 different winners and 5 drivers and teams race their way into the Chase by points.  Might we see a similar situation to last year’s Chase with a few dominant racers accompanied by those who got into the finals with consistency?

Melton :  I think we will see a similar situation. A few of those dominant racers will be compiled of Joe Gibbs cars, because lets face it, JGR is on fire this season. Will we see a Joe Gibbs driver win the championship? Not so fast, young padawan. Drivers like Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano have impressive numbers this season. Harvick has had 18 top five finishes and Logano has had 16 top fives. I am very excited to see how everything plays out.

Copple :  Isn’t that how it usually works? I think we will see early on who the final four will most likely be. You have your favorites who are strong when the Chase comes, like Johnson and Harvick, but who knows, this could be anyone’s game.

Hull :  I think we could see that again this year, especially with the tracks we have coming up, plus a certain organization’s dominance these last 11 races. We could see drivers like Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick,and Matt Kenseth be more dominant in these next few races. But we will see what the future holds. This is only the second year of this chase format, so we will see how it will work this year.

Question 2
Jimmie Johnson surely hates turning 20 for a second time.

Jimmie Johnson surely hates turning 20 for a second time.

Jimmie Johnson will continue to drive the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet through 2017. Firstly, how big is this extension for the six-time Cup champion and do you think that Johnson is mulling a similar path with his career like Jeff Gordon has with retirement not too far ahead?

Melton :  I feel like I have been waiting for decades to hear this news! I am not surprised and I don’t think this is a very big deal to Mr. Six-Time. Everyone says it and I will join in – Jimmie Johnson is Hendrick’s “golden boy.” People love to hate him, but even more love to love him. The fan base that follows Jimmie Johnson is huge. He has modeled for GAP, he has his fantastic Sunoco ad, and he has an extremely successful foundation that has contributed over $7,000,000 to various organizations. Sure, he has been having a rough season, but let’s not forget..dude has won six championships, five of those consecutively. I have been wondering when the retirement talk will come into play. Keep in mind, Jimmie Johnson grew up racing dirt. It would be interesting to see if he ever decides to take part in that again.

Either way, I think Jimmie is comfortable where he’s at. Hendrick has been great for him and I can’t see him going anywhere else. I think we will see Jimmie stick with Hendrick for as long as he’s in NASCAR.

Copple :  Was anyone worried about Johnson not getting resigned by Hendrick Motorsports? No? Me either. Johnson goes with HMS like cookies go with milk. Can’t have one without the other. Johnson and the 48 team will be with that organization until he retires which I don’t see coming any time soon. Johnson is still consistently competing for championships. Until he isn’t doing that anymore, he will be on that track every weekend.

Hull :  I think it is a big thing because he still is young enough to go out there and win one more before he hangs it up. For his age, he is extremely fit, and even though he has been struggling some this year, his talent hasn’t waned. I still think that he has many more years before he officially retires. And with Chad Knaus on his side, he has no signs of slowing down.

Question 3
Go Danica?

Go Danica?

Richmond’s spring race may move into a Sunday afternoon time slot. Do you think NASCAR needs to get back to early start times for their races to allow more flexibility for the drivers, teams, press, and fans in a 3 day weekend as opposed to a 2 day setup?

Melton :  There is really nothing better than night racing and let’s face it – Richmond does it best! Fans really love their night racing so it would be a little sad to see it move to a Sunday afternoon. It seems to me that it would be more convenient for everyone to have everything take place in two days, rather than all the way into Sunday. It gives everyone the opportunity to get home earlier, or to the next track quicker. I think that Richmond should stay like it has been. Clearly they are doing something right when you see the packed stands like we did on Saturday night.

Copple :  Mixing it up is always fun. Fans are going to come to the races whether they are night races or afternoon races. It won’t matter to the die hard NASCAR fan. But changing some day races to night races and vise versa wouldn’t hurt competition any.

Hull :  This is kind of a difficult question because I think that either way, someone is going to complain about it. But I did go to the spring Richmond race and it was very enjoyable. The weather may be better then, and since the race had been rained out this spring, it would be better to have it on Sunday anyway. It may help the teams and give them more time to have a better setup.

Question 4
We love our race tracks like the opposite of our days.

We love our race tracks like the opposite of our days.

Which of the regular season races stood out to you as a personal favorite and one that you consider as a prelude to what’s in store for this year’s Chase? 

Melton :  My favorite race this season was the Axalta 400 at Pocono. Words cannot describe the emotion I felt as Martin Truex Jr won his first race in nearly two years. That man is truly dedicated to what he does. It would have been easy for him to take a break from racing after learning about Sherry’s diagnosis, yet he still fought on. Oh, and lets not forget Sherry, who is an absolute inspiration to me and many other people. The way she has supported Martin in racing, even during the hardest moments of her life truly shows her strength. The Furniture Row team deserved that win more than anyone and I am so happy that it finally happened for them.

As far as a prelude to what’s in store for this year’s Chase, easily the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond. Why I chose this race? Two words – Jeff Gordon. This was one of Gordon’s best performances that we’ve seen this season. It was almost as if a switch was flipped. This performance is exactly what the 24 team needed to boost their confidence. I truly believe that we will see even more from that team in races to come.

Copple :  I always have to go to the short track races for these questions as Bristol and Darlington are always favorites. But you have to look at the plate tracks too as Talladega is in the Chase and it’s always a race where any driver has a chance to take the flag. I don’t know if any particular race is a hint at what is to come because you have to look at the whole season.

Hull :  My number one favorite race during the regular season was definitely the Kentucky race with the reduced aero package. It was one of the most exciting races I had watched in years. Sadly, NASCAR isn’t going to implement any kind aero programs during the Chase, so I am unsure if that would be a prelude to any kind of Chase race, other than maybe Texas or Charlotte, which are similar sizes to Kentucky. I hope that NASCAR considers that aero package in future races because it’s exciting to watch!

Gotta love the playoffs!  Now like we did in last year’s Track Talk Chase features, we’ll not only pick a race winner, but we’ll also pick the four unlucky drivers who’ll be eliminated after each round of The Chase.  For each correct pick, the panelist will a point and if they correctly choose the bottom four drivers, that panelist earns five points.
Yes, we are in the points giving business here on TPF.  Before getting to race winning picks and the bottom four for the Challenger Round, let’s look at the reset TPF Track Talk points standings after Race 26 at Henrico County, VA!
1) Ashley Hull – 2012 points (4 wins)
2) Rob Tiongson – 2012 points (4 wins)
3) Kim Melton – 2009 points (3 wins)
4) Courtney Clement – 2009 points (3 wins)
5) Ashley Hobbs – 2006 points (2 wins)
6) Jessica Tow – 2003 points (1 win) 
7) Jessica Bushee – 2000 points
8) Katie Copple – 2000 points
9) Patrick Staropoli – 2000 points
It’s a pretty close fight for the championship race!  Now let’s reveal our bottom four drivers at the end of the Challenger Round of 16!

Hull :  Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard, and Ryan Newman

Tiongson :  Paul Menard, Clint Bowyer, Jamie McMurray, and Kurt Busch

Melton :  Paul Menard, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, and Jamie McMurray

Hobbs :  Paul Menard, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, and Jamie McMurray

Copple :  Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray, Martin Truex Jr., and Clint Bowyer

Staropoli :  Jamie McMurray, Jeff Gordon, Paul Menard, and Clint Bowyer

Most excellent, y’all!  Alright, friends – let’s reveal our race picks for today’s 400 at Chicagoland Speedway!
And let's reveal those race picks for Chicagoland!

And let’s reveal those race picks for Chicagoland!

Hull :  Going with Joey Logano!

Hobbs :  I’ma use up my Joey Logano pick!

Tiongson :  Why not start the Chase with Matt Kenseth, one of the strongest racers in the Chase?  Gotta like the 2003 Cup champ’s chances to go all the way this season and he starts off his postseason with a big dub-ya at Chicagoland

Melton :  My race pick for Chicagoland is going to be Kevin Harvick. The “hapster” has a couple of wins at this track and has had a very consistent season. I think he has a great chance of taking the checkered flag this weekend and securing a spot into the Contender round.

Copple :  Jeff Gordon is my pick.

Staropoli :  Kyle Busch shall win today’s race!

There you have it, race fans! The Track Talk crew has spoken and given their thoughts on today’s 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.  How about you?  What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into today’s race and who is your favorite to win?
Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now! Thanks as always to the TPF team.  The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors and do not reflect on any organizations that we are affiliated with outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.
Rob Tiongson

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes.

From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat.

Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Communications at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's just as happy to be a Texan.

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