It’s a first among many in Joliet Il. as Matt Kenseth takes the pole for the first chase race of the 2011 season, and the first chase race ever held at Chicagoland Speedway.Ã‚Â The winner will be the first to win a chase race at the 1.5 mile track and most likely the first to leave the track with the points lead in the chase.Ã‚Â Kenseth showed the rest of the field how it is supposed to be done by running a lap at 183.243 mph (29.469 seconds), besting Paul Menard’s speed of 183.125 mph and staying out of reach of the rest of the field.
A quick look at the track from the grandstands shows large sweeping corners and wide straight aways reveals what looks to be an easy place to get around and even easier to pass.Ã‚Â Kenseth tells a different story however of how the feel of the track changes once you catch up to traffic.
“The track is really wide, so there’s a lot of grooves to pass out there, but I still think [track position] is going to be important,” Kenseth said. “There were a few times in practice yesterday when I ran up on some cars, and it was more difficult to get around them than I expected.
“I think starting up front is nice, having a good pit stall. Hopefully, you can get a good start and get a bonus point [for leading a lap] and try to keep up with the track a little better. We’ve been qualifying a lot better, if you throw Richmond out, but we’ve been slipping a little at the end of the race but we qualified in the top five or six every week — which is unusual for us. We ran up in the top five almost the whole time in those races, too. We just didn’t keep up with our adjustments like we needed to on pit road and keeping up with the track and all that stuff. I’m really happy to be on the pole, but it’s just a starting position, and we’ve got to work really hard on the race, keeping up with our adjustments and that type of thing.”
“I feel like we have a team and equipment and an organization that’s capable of winning a championship if we do everything right.”
A lot of speculation about the track being the first of 5 intermediate tracks means that Chicagoland will be the litmus test for the chase.Ã‚Â With 4 other 1.5 mile tracks in the chase will we see just how well the drivers will run for half of the races in the chase?
“I think it’ll be an important race, because it’ll not only show you how good you are or how bad you are, it’ll show you who your competition may or may not be, and it could have a big impact on people’s confidence,” said Carl Edwards.
“If you have a bad race here, it’s going to be tough.”
“I think things are different now than they were last week and the guys in the Chase know that,” Edwards said. “Last week was last week. We were fighting for three points. The guy that won was going to get three points. Other than that, the guys in the Chase weren’t racing for the same thing that they are racing for now.”
“Right now, everybody realizes that there are huge implications to anything that goes on. I think you will see, at least for the beginning of the Chase, pretty polite drivers and a lot more give and take. That’s self-preservation, and I think that is natural.”
Kevin Harvick seemed to agree when asked if Chicago will be a predictor to how the rest of the chase will run.
“The easy answer would be, ‘Yes,’ ” Harvick said, “but I think a lot of the guys would tell you [that] you can go to what your best track is, and you can go to what your worst track is — and we’ve won at some of what we thought our worst tracks were.
“It’s so easy to be off at any given race track nowadays because there are so many competitive cars. You just never know. It should be a good sign, but it could just be somebody making a small mistake in setting the splitter angle, so you just never know.”
Jimmie Johnson, the Current and 5 time champion, feels like Chicago was and excellent addition to the chase and that the speeds shown during the practice times are an excellent indicator of how the race is going to play out.
“When I saw the schedule last year when it was released, I felt comfortable about this track being moved into the Chase. It’s obviously much different than what we’ve experienced over the last four or five months with the temperatures,” Johnson said. “There is a lot of grip on the track. I’m not sure how it’s going to play into our efforts Saturday for qualifying, but [Friday’s practices] hopefully were a good chance for us to get a feel for the race.”
But how does Johnson feel about being the defending champion and not being the odds on favorite?
“I want to be that guy,” said Johnson, who turns 36 Saturday. “I wanted to lead the points coming into the postseason. We worked hard to put ourselves in a position for that, and with what went on at Richmond, it just didn’t happen. But I want that target on my team and on my back at all times. There is an advantage you can gain by dominating, and by setting the mark and by having everybody chase you. That’s good momentum. I wish we had that on our side. We don’t right now. We’re running well, we’re running in the top five. But we’ve got to go out in the Chase and kind of set a statement and get back in our ways.”
Confidence has never been Johnson’s problem, he walks tall in the garage areas with the ease of someone who has faced this pressure before and defied the odds to beat it.Ã‚Â Others however don’t seems quite as sure of themselves or their equipment as you would expect, especially from another past champion. Tony Stewart is a prime example of this.Ã‚Â Being a 2 time champion himself one would expect that the pressure wouldn’t rattle him too much, but coming through a winless season so far, it appears the frustration is taking it’s toll.
“For sure this is the least amount of confidence we’ve had going into [a Chase],” Stewart said. “But at the same time, you look at it and go, ‘Well, we’re not expected to do anything with the way we ran this year, so anything we got out of it is going to be a bonus.’
“It doesn’t mean we’re out of it by any means. We’ve had two really good weeks in a row and we’ve got two tracks in a row coming up here that are good for us.”
Stewart’s opinion on how much of a predictor this race will be was evident as he warned not to make too much of whatever happens in this first race in the Chase.
“It’s easy to sit here and say it’s important to get off to a good start,” he said. “But you don’t know what’s going to happen for 10 weeks. Week 1 and Week 10 have the same importance.
“This Chase is like poker. It’s not like just playing the cards you’ve got. You’re playing against everybody else at the table. If the best Chase guy runs 15th and everybody else runs worse than that, then it’s not so important to run well in this first race. But you pretty much know that’s not going to be the case — and that you’re going to have to have 10 pretty good weeks to get this done.”