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From the Marbles

Hot/Not: With new points, does Chase still offer mulligans? You bet.

Geoffrey Miller
From The Marbles

Take your seats, class, as we dive head first in to a sore subject for most writing-types like me: mathematics. What does Chicago do for us in terms of sorting out the Chase field? Have Denny Hamlin's championship already expired? That (and more!) in yet another rain-soaked Hot/Not.

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Offices across the country Monday afternoon featured cheers, moans and groans as the GEICO 400 came to a close at Chicagoland Speedway. The race, yet another featuring dreams realized and dreams dashed courtesy of fuel conservation, provided another reminder that all that seems once predictable in this sport is entirely not. Nowhere was that more evident than with Tony Stewart — 2011's chronic underachiever after a hot start — taking the checkered flag in the first race of a championship fight that he, just days before, said he wasn't a contender in.

400 miles in Chicago also produced some striking misfires for drivers like Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon — two names repeatedly listed as championship frontrunners after the Chase for the Sprint Cup field was set last week after Richmond. It was Busch, after all, who held the points lead coming to Chicago courtesy of his 2011 winning ways. And Gordon? It seemed like many were falling over themselves to say Four-Time had the best chance to become the next Five-Time. From Daytona in July to Richmond, in fact, Gordon earned 353 points — the most in the series.

But it was Busch (22nd at Chicago) and Gordon (24th) who sputtered the most in Chicago's final laps, each suffering notable losses in the point standings. Joining them were Matt Kenseth (21st) and Denny Hamlin (31st) in the back of the Chase point standings after race one of ten.

A strong start it was not for those four drivers, but should we consider their Chicago efforts to be their individual mulligan for this Chase? Were those recoverable finishes, or did the Chase field just complete a round of natural selection? Let's take a look at the numbers and judge them against what happened one year ago in the first Chase race in New Hampshire.

Last year's champion Johnson had quite the inauspicious start in Loudon, placing 25th in the final running order. Had NASCAR not changed the point system dramatically in 2011, we could compare position finish directly — apples to apples. However, the new point system is vastly different this year and much more of a punishment for finishing back in the pack. (Last season, the last-place driver earned a minimum of 17.4 percent of the winner's point take. In 2011, that number dropped to 2.1 percent.) {ysp:more}

In Loudon, Johnson took home 45.1 percent of Clint Bowyer's original point take (88 of 195). (Bowyer's car was found to be out of NASCAR spec after the race and the team was hit a massive 150-point penalty.) Second-place finisher Denny Hamlin then assumed the point lead, and Johnson's comparative points take to Hamlin was 51.7 percent. Adding Hamlin and Johnson's pre-Chase bonus points for regular season wins, Johnson left Loudon with 5,138 points to Hamlin's 5,230. It was a net difference of 92 points — or Johnson had 98.0 percent of Hamlin's total.

Turn that spotlight to 2011 in Chicago where Kevin Harvick now has the advantage over Kyle Busch (9th, -19), Kenseth (10th, -24), Gordon (11th, -25) and Hamlin (12th, -41). Hamlin, with the biggest hill to climb, is actually nearly identical to where Johnson was when he left New Hampshire last year. Hamlin's Chase point total is 98 percent of Harvick's with nine races left. The story is even better for Busch (99.1 percent of Harvick), Kenseth (98.8) and Gordon (98.8).

Simply, none of the four drivers in the back of the Chase are close to being written off yet based on historical measures. They especially aren't out of it, either, if the next nine races feature each Chase driver earning the same amount of points they earned in the nine races before this year's Chase.

In that scenario (obviously, with an extremely low likelihood of replicating) Gordon would actually come out on top, beating Brad Keselowski by 10 points. Ryan Newman would be third (-18), Jimmie Johnson fourth (-21) and Kyle Busch fifth (-33).

Again, do I expect that precise scenario to happen? Absolutely not. However, it does show that drivers who may or may not have used their Chase mulligan Monday at Chicago are far from done. We'll re-analyze next week at New Hampshire.

Now on to the judgemental section of Hot/Not...

HOT: Tony Stewart said he'd willingly call himself an idiot should he win the championship. He couldn't have started that trek much better.

NOT: Sure, I just said Hamlin is still has a darn good mathematical chance of returning to championship contention. However, that team seems to be far too inconsistent to make any sort of run. This season, Hamlin has piled together at least three top 10s just once. He's going to need a lot better than that to make a run at a ring.

HOT: Is Kevin Harvick, a.k.a. "The Closer", coming back? A win last week at Richmond, and then a second-place at Chicago seems to indicate so. Chasers, be warned.

NEUTRAL: Facing an uncertain future, Monday was respectable for Red Bull Racing. Kasey Kahne finished 12th and Brian Vickers 13th, giving the duo just the sixth race all season that both finished in the top 15.

NOT: ESPN whiffed on the final lap of the race, showing a scattered set of camera shots as the chaos of a fuel-mileage race came to the checkered flag. They could improve there, starting by holding a single camera angle while cars limped to the finish. Why not use some on-screen tracking graphics, too?

NEUTRAL: I realize the Chase presents all kinds of problems TV-wise for when it falls in the overall sports calendar. However, using the lights at Chicagoland instantly improved the energy and feel of a Sprint Cup race there. They 'ought to be used again.

HOT: NASCAR made the right call on Matt Kenseth's post-race penalty. The No. 17 indeed received assistance from J.J. Yeley — even though Kenseth didn't request it — and it did improve the No. 17's initial finishing position. That's a tough pill to swallow for Kenseth (he was credited for 21st) but he handled it well after the race. They'll live to fight another day.

On to (hopefully!) sunny New Hampshire...

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