September 16, 2012

Auto Racing: Chase starts, Johnson's on pole

The Associated Press

JOLIET, Ill. - Uh oh.

TODAY'S NASCAR SPRINT CUP RACE

WHAT: Geico 400

WHEN: 2 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Chicagoland Speedway (oval, 1.5 miles), Joliet, Ill.

DISTANCE: 400.5 miles, 267 laps

TELEVISION: ESPN, 1 p.m.

LAST YEAR: Tony Stewart won the rain-delayed Chase opener en route to his third season title, conserving fuel and holding off Kevin Harvick. Winless in the regular season, Stewart finished with a Chase-record five victories.

LAST WEEK: Clint Bowyer won at Richmond, and Jeff Gordon rallied to finish second and take the final spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

FAST FACTS: Denny Hamlin, the series leader with four victories, tops the reset Chase standings. ... Tony Stewart also won at the track in 2004 and 2007. ... Danica Patrick is making her sixth series start.

NEXT RACE: Sylvania 300, Sept. 23, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Loudon, N.H.

Driver standings

1. Denny Hamlin 2,012

2. Jimmie Johnson 2,009

3. Tony Stewart 2,009

4. Brad Keselowski 2,009

5. Greg Biffle 2,006

6. Clint Bowyer 2,006

7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2,003

8. Matt Kenseth 2,003

9. Kevin Harvick 2,000

10. Martin Truex Jr. 2,000

11. Kasey Kahne 2,000

12. Jeff Gordon 2,000

13. Kyle Busch 774

14. Carl Edwards 747

15. Marcos Ambrose 735

16. Ryan Newman 734

17. Paul Menard 731

18. Joey Logano 678

19. Jeff Burton 647

20. Jamie McMurray 640

What kind of message does it send when the driver who has won five of the last six Sprint Cup Series championships begins this year's Chase starting from the pole?

To Jimmie Johnson's competitors, probably not a hopeful one.

Johnson used a lap at 182.865 mph to win the pole for Sunday's Geico 400, his second pole of the season and 27th of his career.

Since the advent of the Chase for the Cup in 2004, Johnson has won 20 races in the Chase and in six of those he started from the pole.

A victory in Sunday's race at Chicagoland Speedway would be especially important for two other reasons - it's the hometown of Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, and Chicagoland is one of the five tracks currently in the Cup series on which Johnson does not own a victory.

"It's too early in the Chase to be over-the-top excited or get all down-and-out if we didn't qualify like we wanted to today, but qualifying well makes the race so much easier," said Johnson, who starts the Chase as the No. 2 seed, three points behind top-seed Denny Hamlin.

"You know your pit stall is going to be right and track position at the start of the race will be in your favor. It's not a must to win the race or the championship, but it makes life so much easier.

"This is just what we need for Sunday."

Johnson set a NASCAR record by winning five consecutive championships between 2006 and 2010. His streak was ended last season by Tony Stewart, who edged Carl Edwards in a tiebreaker.

Johnson begins this season's Chase in a much better position than a year ago. He already has three victories (and nine bonus points) where last season he had a single victory (and three bonus points).

Simply finishing ahead of Hamlin in Sunday's race would go a long way toward moving Johnson into the series points lead.

"I was was certain a Chase driver was going to win the pole. I think that's how it's going to be throughout the Chase," Johnson said. 

INDYCAR: Will Power, in his third attempt at winning the IndyCar championship, again had his chances spoiled by a wreck.

The Australian lost control of his car 55 laps into the season finale and spun hard into the outside wall at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

It's the third consecutive year Power has gone into the finale with the title on the line and had an incident snatch away his chances.

He brushed the wall at Homestead in 2011 and lost the title by five points to Dario Franchitti. Last year, his points lead was gobbled up when another car hit him on pit road in the penultimate race, and he was involved in the 15-car accident that killed Dan Wheldon in the finale.

Power broke his back in that accident in Las Vegas.

"Man, depressing," Power said after leaving the care center. "I wish I could care less."

NATIONWIDE: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. took a big step toward a second consecutive NASCAR Nationwide Series title.

Meanwhile, Elliott Sadler may have come across a problem that could hurt his efforts to win his first.

Stenhouse passed Kyle Busch with 21 of 200 laps remaining and held on to win the Dollar General 300 at Chicagoland Speedway, his fifth win of the season and second in the last three races.

The win, combined with Sadler's eighth-place finish, leaves Stenhouse with a nine-point lead in the series standings with seven races left.

"We just never gave up," Stenhouse said in Victory Lane. "At the end, the (car) was the best it ever was.

"I stalled it there in the pits earlier, but (crew chief) Mike Kelley and the team just did a great job all day. It was an all-around team effort."

Following a late caution, Sadler actually took the lead during pit stops on Lap 169 and led the way on the restart on Lap 172.

Busch quickly got around Sadler for the lead as Sadler's No. 2 Chevrolet developed a loose condition.

It was during the race -- unknown to Sadler at the time -- that ESPN caught a radio transmission involving Sadler's teammate at Richard Childress Racing, Austin Dillon, that may foretell problems ahead.

Twice Dillon's crew chief, Danny Stockman, was heard telling his driver emphatically, "You do not help the No. 2 car."

 

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