Only four races of the 10-race Chase have gone off the board, and it seems that after each checkered flag the points leader board undergoes a complete makeover. All it takes is just a slight mistake either on the track or pit road for a driver’s spot in the standings to take a hit.
Fortunately for the drivers, the first four races at Chicago, New Hampshire, Dover and Kansas were at tracks that don’t usually have a say in the final outcome. The worst that these tracks can do to a driver and crew chief is to turn the race into a fuel mileage event and when that happens the best car usually has a hard time winning. Nothing against those tracks, but so far the drivers haven’t had to worry too much about racing the track when the green flag waved, but that is about to change.
The series goes back to Charlotte this weekend for a night race and with the just completed Kansas race still fresh in the memory of every driver, this race could seem like the second half of Kansas as the two race tracks are very similar. The nighttime start does add some more excitement to the event, but don’t expect the track to have a say in who takes the checkered flag and which drivers are able to gain some points on the leader.
Waiting after Charlotte are backto back stops at Talladega and Martinsville. These two tracks have always been considered the wild card tracks on the Chase schedule as the sight of bent sheet metal is as common as a Busch brother losing his cool during a race.
NASCAR officials have recently announced three changes for the Talladega race in an effort to break up the two-car packs that dominated there back in the spring. The restrictor plates that are used only at Talladega and Daytona will be increased by 1/64 of an inch that will make the opening 57/64 of an inch. That doesn’t sound like much, but it should be enough to push the cars past the 200 miles per hour barrier and give the drivers more power when making a pass.
While that rule change is as technical as you can get in the rulebook, the other change has to do with the rear bumper, or what you can now not put on that bumper. In the spring crews were lubricating their rear bumpers to keep them from getting hung up with the cars that were hooked up to them in the two-car tandems. Crews used everything from grease to cooking oil spray to make sure the two cars didn’t get hung up, but no foreign substance can now be applied.
The last change concerns the setting of the pressure relief valve. This is an area that the sanctioning body tinkered with before the spring race in an attempt to break up the two-car packs by forcing the cars to break away from each other so the rear car could get air to the radiator, but the amount of change wasn’t enough. This time the pressure will be dropped eight pounds per square inch in hopes of forcing the cars to swap positions to keep the water temperatures down.
Crew chiefs now believe that the change could force the two-car tandems to switch positions after as little as a half lap and no more than a lap. That along with the additional 7-10 horsepower should see more individual passing instead of the passing that took place with one car glued to the rear bumper of another car.
Now if a car can make it through Talladega with a clean bumper, the following weekend at Martinsville a driver will be trying to just keep the rear bumper on the car as beating and banging is common at the half-mile Virginia track. The is the one track that is left on the schedule where a driver’s fortunes are as much in the hands of the rest of the field as in his own.
Martinsville’s narrow paper-clip layout is the blueprint for a day full of wrecks and near misses. Qualifying is everything as starting up front gives you a chance to miss some of the early wrecks, but it may be that qualifying is made all the more important because it can give you a better pit selection that can help with track position later in the race.
A top-10 finish there is sometimes more about surviving than driving your wax to a good finish. It’s the one track left that can quickly take a driver out of the Chase hunt and not because of his own undoing.
Race Preview Event: Bank America 500 Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway (1.5-mile tri-oval, 24 degrees of banking in the turns) Date: Oct. 15, 7:30 p.m. TV: ABC Radio: PRN Defending Champion: Jamie McMurray