Five things to watch at Chicagoland


JOLIET, Ill. – Since its inception 11 years ago, the Chase for the Sprint Cup has faced an enduring question though format changes, field expansions and fluctuations in tallying points.

Can a Sprint Cup team flip a switch and elevate its performance over the final 10 races of the season?

But as the playoffs begin today at Chicagoland Speedway, the concept actually could be posed in reverse.

Can a team revert to its early season and surge to the championship?

With NASCAR electing to use rules it used for the first four months of the season over the final 10 races of the season, it casts some doubt on how indicative recent results are in forecasting title contenders.

Joe Gibbs Racing has eight wins in the past 11 races, and its most consistent rival has been Team Penske (two wins by Joey Logano during that stretch). The organizations’ summer success coincided with two months of tinkering with car regulations. NASCAR experimented with low downforce and high drag approaches in hopes of improving the racing.

The initiative met with mixed results on quality (thumbs up on low downforce, thumbs down on high drag), but the impact was undeniable on the finishing order. JGR swept the four races (Kentucky, Indianapolis, Michigan and Darlington) with the new rules.

Meanwhile, Chevrolet drivers haven’t triumphed in the nine races since the July 11 debut of low downforce at Kentucky – after winning 11 of the first 17 races this season (including four victories by Jimmie Johnson, who enters the playoffs as the top seed).

Chicagoland marks the return of the package that brought the most success in 2015 for Hendrick Motorsports, and it’s also the first of the Chase’s five 1.5-mile tracks – where the Chevys of Hendrick and Stewart-Haas Racing won the first four races this year.

There already have been signs this weekend of an uptick in speed for the Chevrolets. Defending series champion Kevin Harvick paced Friday’s lone practice (with the reward of a pole position when qualifying was rained out), and Martin Truex Jr. (who had 14 top 10s in the first 15 races but three in the ensuing 11 races) was fastest in two sessions Saturday.

But Chevy drivers have tried to downplay the suggestion that they will benefit as the rules remain static through the Nov. 22 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“I don’t think that’s going to matter,” Jeff Gordon said. “When I look at the races Jimmie won, they did a great job executing. I think Atlanta they were pretty quick. The other ones, they did a great job as a team. I don’t think it’s because we were outpacing the competition. I think the rules are not going to change things.”

Johnson didn’t exactly back into his wins, though. He led 92 laps at Atlanta and 128 at Texas.

The six-time series champion deflected a question about his strength with this weekend’s rules, noting he prefers lower downforce and tabbing others as favorites such as JGR and Harvick.

“No doubt the Gibbs lineup, those guys have speed in cars and be a real threat,” Johnson said. “There’s no way around it. But the champ still should have the respect. Until someone takes it from (Harvick), it’s (his) championship to win.”

Indeed, Harvick has been the lone Chevy driver to embrace the notion that he is primed to excel in the playoffs – though not necessarily because of the technical specifications.

“I think it’s all about having the experience,” he said. “It’s really not about having the fastest car at this particular point. It’s about having experience to go out and handle the emotions of 10 weeks. I think as you go into these 10 weeks, you have to put it all together, and there’s a lot more than racing to handle.”

Other storylines to watch at Chicagoland:

–Regardless of whether there is another controversy over the leader jumping the green flag, restarts will remain a major focus because NASCAR has repositioned one of its pit cameras and an official to keep a closer eye.

–Since being reassigned as the Chase opener, Chicagoland has been tough on engines. Last year, Aric Almirola’s title bid ended with a breakdown in the opener, and engine woes at Chicagoland effectively quashed the title bids of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano in 2013.

Denny Hamlin will start 29th – lowest of the 16 Chase drivers – after a poor effort in Friday practice (though he rounded with the second-fastest speed in Saturday’s first session), and Clint Bowyer (26th) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (19th) also will be starting deep in the pack.

–It’s not known for being a track that emphasizes fuel mileage, but strategy plays often seem crucial over 400 miles at Chicagoland. With six first-time crew chiefs in the playoffs, it bears watching whether a team eliminates its championship bid with a tactical error.

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Alex Bowman confident as he returns to racing from back injury


CONCORD, N.C. — Alex Bowman watched the rain-filled skies over Charlotte Motor Speedway Saturday with more than a touch of disappointment.

As weather threatened to cancel Saturday night’s scheduled NASCAR Cup Series practice at the speedway, Bowman saw his chances to testing his car — and his body — dissolving in the raindrops. NASCAR ultimately cancelled practice and qualifying because of rain.

MORE: Wet weather cancels Charlotte Cup practice, qualifying

Bowman suffered a fractured vertebra in a sprint car accident last month and has missed three Cup races while he recovers. Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, the season’s longest race, is scheduled to mark his return to the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet.

“It would have been really nice to kickstart that with practice today,” Bowman said. “I haven’t raced or competitively driven a race car in a month. I’m trying to understand where my rusty areas are going to be and where I’m still good.”

Bowman ran 200 laps in a test season at North Wilkesboro Speedway this week, but, of course, that doesn’t compare with the faster speeds and tougher G-forces he’ll experience over 400 laps Sunday at CMS.

Bowman admitted that he is still experiencing pain from the back injury — his car flipped several times — and that he expects some pain during the race. But he said he is confident he’ll be OK and that the longer race distance won’t be an issue.

“I broke my back a month ago, and there’s definitely things that come along with that for a long time,” he said. “I have some discomfort here and there and there are things I do that don’t feel good. That’s just part of it. It’s stuff I’ll have to deal with. But, for the most part, I’m back to normal.

“I’m easing back into being in the gym. I’m trying to be smart with things. If I twist the wrong way, sometimes it hurts. In the race car at the end of a six-hour race, I’m probably not going to be the best.”

The sprint car crash interrupted what had been a fine seasonal start for Bowman. Although winless, he had three top fives and six top 10s in the first 10 races.

“I’m excited to be back,” Bowman said. “Hopefully, we can pick up where we left off and be strong right out of the gate.”

He said he hopes to return to short-track racing but not in the near future.

“Someday I want to get back in a sprint car or midget,” he said. “I felt like we were just getting rolling in a sprint car. That night we were pretty fast. Definitely a bummer there. That’s something I really want to conquer and be competitive at in the World of Outlaws or High Limits races. Somebody I’ll get back to that. It’s probably smart if I give my day job a little alone time for a bit.”




Charlotte NASCAR Cup Series starting lineup: Rain cancels qualifying


CONCORD, N.C. — William Byron and Kevin Harvick will start Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series 600-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the front row after wet weather cancelled Saturday night qualifying.

Rain pelted the CMS area much of the day Saturday, and NASCAR announced at 3:45 p.m. that Cup practice and qualifying, scheduled for Saturday night, had been cancelled.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to cockpit

The starting field was set by the NASCAR rulebook.

Following Byron and Harvick in the starting top 10 will be Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The elimination of the practice session was particularly problematic for Alex Bowman, scheduled to return to racing Sunday after missing three weeks with a back injury, and Jimmie Johnson, who will be starting only his third race this year. Johnson will start 37th — last in the field.

Charlotte Cup starting lineup

Wet weather cancels Charlotte Cup Series practice, qualifying


CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR Cup Series drivers will start the longest race of the season with no practice or qualifying.

Wet weather and predictions of more to come led NASCAR to cancel Saturday night’s Cup Series practice and qualifying in mid-afternoon. The field for Sunday’s 600-mile race was set by the NASCAR rulebook, placing William Byron and Kevin Harvick on the front row for the  scheduled 6 p.m. start.

MORE: Charlotte Cup starting lineup

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to cockpit

Weather also could be an issue Sunday as more rain is predicted for the speedway area.

Drivers were scheduled to practice at 7 p.m. Saturday. That session was to be followed by qualifying at 7:45 p.m. The cancellations were announced at 3:45 p.m.

The time-trial cancellation marked the first time in 64 years that qualifying has been canceled for the 600.

Charlotte Xfinity race postponed to Monday by weather


CONCORD, N.C. — Persistent rain forced the postponement of Saturday’s scheduled 300-mile NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway to Monday.

The race is scheduled to start at noon ET. It will be televised by FS1 and broadcast by the Performance Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Driver introductions and other pre-race activities were held at the track Saturday, but rain that had dampened the track in the morning hours returned. After several attempts at drying the track, the race was postponed after heavier rain returned in mid-afternoon.

Justin Allgaier will start the race from the pole position.