Midwestern drivers look to start Chase strong close to home

Midwestern drivers look to start Chase strong close to home
September 12, 2013, 4:30 pm
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Jerry Bonkowski

When NASCAR's 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs kick off with Sunday's Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, there will likely be some extra cheers for two of the 12 drivers in the Chase field.

Points leader and former Cup champ Matt Kenseth hails from Cambridge, Wis., a quick front-stretch burnout from the state capitol of Madison, while Ryan Newman has proven that there's more to South Bend, Ind., than just Notre Dame football. They both will have large contingents of family and friends that will be in attendance for Sunday's race.

Newman and Kenseth are part of an even larger contingent of NASCAR drivers, crew chiefs and officials from within a roughly 150-mile radius of Chicago.

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Chad Knaus, crew chief for five-time Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson, hails from Rockford, as does Sprint Cup series director John Darby (a former drummer who, in his younger days, used to jam with fellow musicians who went on to become rock superstars Cheap Trick).

Just up the road from Rockford is Roscoe, where Danica Patrick grew up. FOX TV NASCAR announcer Mike Joy is from Chicago, and legendary driver Fred Lorenzen — for whom there is a push to have him enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame — is from west suburban Elmhurst. And Drew Blickensderfer, crew chief for Marcos Ambrose, hails from tiny Mount Zion downstate.

Newman isn't the only Cup driver from the Hoosier state. His boss, Tony Stewart, hails from Columbus, Ind., about 50 miles south of Indianapolis. Another Cup driver, David Stremme, grew up in South Bend, as well. And let's not forget Jeff Gordon who, though he was born in California, was raised in Pittsboro, just outside Indianapolis.

Kenseth isn't the only one from Wisconsin. Fellow driver Paul Menard hails from Eau Claire, while Johnny Sauter and several other racers from the Sauter family are from tiny Necedah. Jimmy Fennig, crew chief for Carl Edwards (and who led Kurt Busch to a Cup crown in 2004), hails from suburban Milwaukee.

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Kenseth comes into Sunday's playoff-opener having earned the No. 1 seed in the Chase by virtue of winning a series-high five races in the first 26 races — otherwise known as NASCAR's "regular season" — in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing after more than 15 years with Roush Fenway Racing.

The typically low-key Kenseth is approaching the Chase in the same fashion.

"It's not the first time we've come in No. 1, we were also the top seed in 2006," said Kenseth, who ultimately finished second in the Chase that year to Jimmie Johnson, who would go on to win five consecutive Cup crowns from 2006-2010.

"I feel good about our performance this year, it's probably as good as 2006," Kenseth said. "But, a lot of things have to go right in 10 races. Ten races is a lot of racing. You can't have problems. A lot of things have to go right to have a shot at the championship."

Like 2006, Kenseth is the chased in the Chase, rather than the chaser, so to speak. Being the top seed — even though his lead ranges from only three points to 15 points over his other 11 Chase challengers — gives Kenseth a measure of confidence.

"I like being seeded No. 1, obviously," he said. "I really like my team and what they've done this year and how fast our race cars have been. So, I feel good about that, but anything can happen.

"These 11 other teams and drivers are really, really good and many of them are capable of putting together a good couple of months here and getting the hot hand and being hard to beat."

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Newman, on the other hand, had a much more difficult path to make the Chase field. After falling short in last Saturday's final Chase qualifying race at Richmond, Newman indirectly became involved in one of the biggest scandals to hit the sport in NASCAR's 65-year history.

Michael Waltrip Racing attempted to manipulate the finish of the race to assure driver Martin Truex Jr. made the Chase. And indeed Truex did so before NASCAR disqualified him two days later when evidence arose showing that several MWR officials conspired to game the points system to their advantage and to secure a place in the Chase for Truex.

End result: MWR was hit with a number of penalties, including a record $300,000 fine, as well as Truex being DQ'd from the Chase as a result of the actions of others within the team and not necessarily his own.

What made the situation even more obtuse is that Newman was leading Saturday's race with seven laps to go when MWR driver Clint Bowyer spun, bringing out a yellow caution flag. Newman had a poor pit stop, came out in fifth place and finished the race in third, not enough to get him into the Chase.

Newman criticized his pit crew after the race for its slowness, when it appeared he would not make the playoffs.

But now that he's in the Chase, Newman has a lot to race for. First, he's the sole Chase representative for Stewart-Haas Racing, which he'll be leaving at season's end, moving to Richard Childress Racing in 2014. Newman would love to add his first Sprint Cup title to July's Brickyard 400 win in his home state.

And Newman's pit crew isn't holding any grudge over his post-Richmond comments.

"We've talked about bad pit stops several times this year," Newman said. "Yeah, it's tough. If I would have the car into the fence on the last restart, I would expect them to say the same thing about me. I think they knew that they didn't have the greatest pit stop in the world. It wasn't a horrible pit stop, it kept us in the game, but we came in first and came out third of the guys that took four tires. I don't think there's any hard feelings."

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If anything, Newman's calling out his pit crew might actually become a rallying cry going forward in the Chase.

"Emotionally, we have more to fight for, but it doesn't change our perspective on what our ultimate goal is," Newman said. "We're there to win every race, no different than what any other driver sitting here is going to tell you. We're not going to win every race, no driver has ever won all 10 races. What (Tony) Stewart did in 2011 was a feat amazing in itself (won five of the 10 Chase races en route to his third career Cup championship)."

Newman also gave credit to NASCAR officials for righting what an outpouring of fan criticism perceived as a wrong at Richmond.

"So many drivers were involved, I saw there was no 100 percent right answer, but it's extremely important for our sport for NASCAR to take a stand on a situation that had some very compelling evidence," Newman said. "I commend NASCAR for that. They were in a tough position. I know I came out better than where I was, which obviously I'm happy about it. ... I'm glad for the integrity of our sport that a decision was made and it was made for the right reasons."