NASCAR Minute: What to expect week 1 of the Chase

Frank and Curtis sit down to talk NASCAR, Gateway and the College Football game held at Bristol.

CHICAGO — For all the talk about NASCAR’s playoffs starting this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, the theme of the first round is less apparent: Don’t screw up.

At some point in the 10-week Chase for the Sprint Cup, teams will have to bring intensity, top speed and flawless execution. This is not that point.

After all, 16 drivers in the 40-car lineup will be part of the playoff when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 (yes, the actual name) takes the green flag Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network). So drivers don’t need to have an incredible performance in a round where 12 of them move on after three races.

They just need to avoid disaster.

“The first segment, you’ve got almost half the field in this,” Tony Stewart said Thursday during Chase Media Day. “So you’re not going to win a championship in this first segment, but you can sure take yourself out (of) an opportunity to win it. Just don’t make mistakes and be solid.”

It’s an obvious strategy, right? Well, not if you ask one of Stewart’s own drivers.

Kevin Harvick, who has finished first and second in the two previous years of the current Chase format, disagrees with his team owner and others who share that philosophy. Harvick said there’s no better time than right now for a team to put forth maximum effort in an attempt to win the championship.

“You aren’t just going to ramp it up as you get to the last round or Homestead,” he said. “Everybody is going to come with their best stuff this weekend. It’s a different level in order to win the championship. Taking the approach of cruising through the first round might work for those guys — I don’t know — but I don’t think that’s exactly where our team is going to sit.”

There’s no right answer yet, because it’s only the third attempt at this format. After the first year, the conventional wisdom was a 15th-place average finish in Round 1 would be good enough. But then Jamie McMurray got eliminated last year with an average finish of 11th, which may have changed some thinking.

“I would have taken that before the Chase started and (thought) it would guarantee yourself into the next round,” McMurray said.

But you’d have to think that it would in most years. The only problem is there’s no way to prove it until more years of the Chase create the data.

In the meantime, most of the Chase drivers say they don’t need to follow the Harvick model of going all out just yet. It might be enough to just avoid the type of bad day Jimmie Johnson had last year when a $5 part broke and he was eliminated at Dover International Speedway.

“We kind of look at this round as, ‘Don’t make any mistakes,’ ” defending champion Kyle Busch said. “Just keep preparing yourself, keep getting ready for how the pressure will continue to rise and the races will get a little more and more pressure packed.”

If a team does excel right away, though, there are certainly benefits. Denny Hamlin won the Chicagoland race to open last year’s Chase, then had “almost two weeks to relax and prepare for the next round.”

Sounds nice at a time of year when everyone else is feeling stressed, right?

But Hamlin conceded a Round 1 win wasn’t necessary and said it was important not to press. For example: The pit crew could afford a pit stop that was a half-second slower than it would need to be at Homestead, while a driver needs to have a good restart but not a great one, he said.

“Just do what you need to do to go out there and get a good, solid day if it’s not your day to win,” Hamlin said.

So why the difference of opinion between Harvick and the other drivers? Stewart said if a team has the speed like Harvick’s No. 4 car does, “they’re fast enough to set that standard.”

“I take a different approach,” Stewart said. “I take it like Talladega: I want to be there at the end. I’m not worried about leading laps and all that.”


That type of talk has given hope to underdogs like Chris Buescher, who isn’t favored to advance deep into the playoff but might be able to get out of the first round on consistency alone.

“You really just need to be smooth throughout all of it and make sure you’re there after Dover,” Buescher said.

Harvick, though, sounded like he wasn’t convinced by the approach taken by other drivers.

“People talk about just cruising through the first round,” he said. “I got news for you — there’s no plan. You’re going to have to deal with something that’s going to be unexpected, and it’s at a different level than it is during the regular season.”

Follow Gluck on Twitter @jeff_gluck


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