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Gordon can't make any more mistakes
Everyone hated the fact we all had to wait an extra day to get the Chicagoland race in, but honestly, it was worth the wait. The first race in the 2011 Chase gave us all a few surprises — some nice, some not-so-nice.
There were some things that were pretty predictable. In talking to the drivers and the teams, they were glad NASCAR waited until Monday. It allowed them to get the full race in, where had they tried to get it in on Sunday, it might have gotten to the halfway point and then been called.
This is the Chase — our version of the playoffs. These twelve teams vying to be our 2011 champion deserve to get every lap in of every race when possible. It was a good decision by NASCAR to delay the race.
A lot was made of the fact that Chicago is one of five 1.5-mile tracks in the Chase. What those teams learned on Monday will probably help them at Kansas and Homestead. However, the only things Chicago has in common with the remaining two tracks — Charlotte and Texas is simply they are 1.5-mile tracks. Those other two tracks have way more banking than Chicago and are so much faster.
The biggest surprise from Monday's race — and it wasn't a pleasant one — was Jeff Gordon. He was carrying so much momentum into the Chase. I don't think anyone expected things to change the way they did Monday for Jeff. Unfortunately, Gordon and his team were off from the drop of the green flag and never truly recovered.
Now Jeff and the team find themselves 25 points behind after the first race. They can overcome it, but the reality is he has already used his one and only mulligan in the Chase. He cannot afford to have a single problem the rest of the way, plus, he is going to have to win or finish very high up in each of the remaining nine races.
On the other side of the coin, one of the pleasant surprises would have to be Dale Earnhardt Jr. Let's face it, that was his first top-5 finish in weeks. Hey, I maintain if you are going to do it, then do it in the first race of the Chase. What was even more impressive was how they worked on the car all race long. When the race started, they weren't that good. They kept after it, they communicated and they brought home a great finish. That's what it takes. You hear us say it all the time but it is true — championship teams make a good day from what looks to be a bad day and make a great day from what only looks to be a good day.
Naturally, the most pleasant surprise from Chicago has to be Tony Stewart. Here is a guy that had to fight and claw just to make the Chase. He went winless in the first 26 races this season. Now he gets his first win of the year and you can't start a Chase run off any better than that. It also marks 13 consecutive seasons of winning at least one race a year, which is by far the longest streak by any current driver.
I view it as a statement race for not only his competitors, but actually more so for him personally and his team. It is so important to start the Chase off in the right direction. Positive momentum is so vitally important. Sure, all ten races pay the same amount of points, but I think getting out of the gate on a high note sets the tone for the rest of the Chase.
The drivers who finished well still have that one mulligan tucked in their back pocket, should they stumble in the last nine events. The same can't be said for Gordon, Kyle Busch or especially Denny Hamlin. Unfortunately, I don't believe Hamlin is going to be a player in this year's Chase.
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