The opening races of the Chase for the Sprint Cup are sometimes just as important as the closing ones. Getting off to a good start could do a driver well when it comes to being in contention throughout the final ten races. Chicagoland and New Hampshire may seem as the races with the least amount of championship implications in the Chase, but whoever hoists the trophy at Homestead will disagree. Each of the final ten events matter and through two in 2013, storylines are beginning to develop.
Matt Kenseth is off to a rocking start and will likely be the one to beat in the coming weeks. His two wins will propel him far in the championship hunt and likely keep him towards the top of the standings for the next few weeks. Only Greg Biffle in 2008 and Tony Stewart in 2011 have won the first two Chase races. The Chase results for each vary with Stewart going on to take home the trophy while Biffle finished third, 217 points back of the champion, Jimmie Johnson. Kenseth will follow one of those paths in the playoffs and whichever one it is will be determined over the next eight weeks.
Kenseth is the big Chase story so far, but digging down deeper into the first two events leaves a few notable drivers. I have my eye on Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson. Each now have two solid runs under their belts which could be important as Homestead approaches. Wins don’t always matter, but consistently being up front tends to lead to bigger things down the road.
A pair of second place finishes are almost as good as wins for Kyle Busch. Two great races will keep him in the hunt and knowing how to be and stay up front is vital information as the season winds down. Busch didn’t necessarily have to move Kenseth out of the way for a New Hampshire victory since that likely wouldn’t have been beneficial to either teammate. He settled for second and his judgment call not to go all out for the win may pay off down the road. His Chase start can be considered just as good as Kenseth’s and seeing who can keep it up will be the determining factor on who got the better jump out of the gate.
One of the clean-cut championship favorites was Jimmie Johnson and through two races, he has shown why. Being all flashy doesn’t mean you’re the one to beat. Kenseth may be the brightest contender so far with two wins, but Johnson is breathing down his neck with his quiet, yet sufficient performances. Johnson knows he doesn’t need to win Chase races to be crowned king, but he does know consistency goes a long way. Kenseth’s start isn’t necessarily a bad one, but keeping it up will be his next challenge to overcome. If he can’t do it, watch out for five-time and Chad Knaus to be right there.
Deciding on what to take away from the first two Chase races is a tough call. There are the obvious answers such as a dominant Matt Kenseth or even a struggling Kasey Kahne, but you need to look at the finer print. What have mostly gone unnoticed are the momentum-building runs by Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. Keeping an eye on consistency isn’t always easy, but it does tell the story of the champion. Looking past the race winner into the other top finishers is the most telling when it comes to sorting out the Chase contenders.
Attention to detail is everything. Searching for that after Chicagoland and New Hampshire will turn out to be the most revealing when it comes to the championship picture. We may not know exactly who will celebrate in Homestead right now, but the answer is in the finishes so far in this Chase season.
By Jason Schultz