Fuel & Tires: Chase for the Sprint Cup field set, IndyCar title race, Alex Zanardi

 

Eric Risberg

This weekend marks the first race in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup as well as the IndyCar season finale and F1's return to Singapore.

CHASE FIELD SET AS NASCAR HEADS TO CHICAGO

Following Saturday's race at Richmond International Raceway, the Chase for the Sprint Cup field is set. There were really no surprises as the three winless drivers that would have been in on points prior to last weekend didn't have anything horrible happen and made the Chase field.

Denny Hamlin took his third win of the season (also his third win at his home track) while fellow Chase participants Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top three.

Ryan Newman, who was penalized for failing a post-race inspection at Darlington two weeks ago, was involved in a wreck and finished 28th. Newman did not make the Chase, but made some headlines by completely ripping into Tony Stewart, whom Newman felt wrecked him on purpose.

Needless to say, NASCAR planned to make sure that the two would talk (perhaps to hug it out?) before this weekend's race. It would not be surprising at all for something else to happen between these two before the end of the season, but with Stewart on his farewell tour, he may just ignore Newman.

Heading into Sunday's race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, here's what the Chase field looks like:

1. Kyle Busch, 2012 points

2. Brad Keselowski, 2012

3. Denny Hamlin, 2009

4. Kevin Harvick, 2006

5. Carl Edwards, 2006

6. Martin Truex Jr., 2006

7. Matt Kenseth, 2006

8. Jimmie Johnson, 2006

9. Joey Logano, 2003

10. Kyle Larson, 2003

11. Tony Stewart, 2003

12. Kurt Busch, 2003

13. Chris Buescher, 2003

14. Chase Elliott, 2000

15. Austin Dillon, 2000

16. Jamie McMurray, 2000

These sixteen drivers are the only ones in the (usually) 40-car field that will have a chance to win the championship at the conclusion of the next ten races. As I documented last week, the Chase works like this:

—Sixteen drivers have three races (Chicago, New Hampshire and Dover) to try and advance to a round of twelve drivers.

—Those twelve drivers have three races (Charlotte, Kansas, Talladega) to try and advance to a round of eight drivers.

—Those eight drivers have three races (Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix) to try and advance to a round of four drivers.

—Those four drivers will compete for the championship at the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

A win in any of the first nine Chase races will automatically advance the driver to the next round.

Who has the best chance to win this weekend? Well, Stewart has won at Chicagoland three times while Harvick and Keselowski each have two wins there. Hamlin is the defending race winner, but I'd love to see Kenseth win for a second time there since it's as close to a home track as he gets.

Coverage of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 starts at 1:30 p.m. Sunday on NBC Sports Network.

As for the other top two NASCAR series that are also at Chicagoland this weekend, coverage of the Xfinity Series in the Drive for Safety 300 starts at 2:30 p.m. Saturday on NBC while coverage of the Camping World Truck Series in the American Ethanol E15 225 starts at 7:30 p.m. Friday on Fox Sports 1.

TITLE TO BE DECIDED AT INDYCAR FINALE

It all comes down to Sunday's race at Sonoma Raceway for the 2016 title in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Two teammates will slug it out on the 2.2-mile road course located in northern California to see who wins the Astor Cup.

All eyes will be on Team Penske's Simon Pagenaud and Will Power, with Pagenaud heading into the race with a 43-point lead over Power. Pagenaud held the upper hand through the first five races of the season, taking three wins and two second-place finishes. After neither driver finished the Indianapolis 500 in the way they had wanted (Power finished tenth; Pagenaud 19th), there was a definite momentum shift.

Power, the 2014 series champ, came alive the second half of the season and reeled off seven top-ten finishes in eight races, including four wins. If not for a crash at Watkins Glen a couple of weeks ago that relegated Power to a 20th-place finish, things could have been a lot tighter.

Considering eight out of 15 races this season have been won by either Pagenaud or Power, it seems only fitting that one of them will come home as the new series champion. Power will be more than up to the challenge, but my money is on Pagenaud. He doesn't seem to get flustered easily and only has to finish fourth or better to take the title, no matter where Power finishes.

However, Juan Pablo Montoya came into last year's season finale race leading Scott Dixon by 47 points. By the finish, Montoya and Dixon were tied in points but Dixon won the title based on his three wins during the season versus Montoya's two wins. So, anything can happen.

Speaking of Montoya and Dixon, this is the last IndyCar race with Target as the primary sponsor for Chip Ganassi's team. Montoya won the CART title in 1999 driving the Target car while Dixon has won four titles for the Target team. Other champions who drove the Target colors include Jimmy Vassser (1996), Alex Zanardi (1997-1998) and Dario Franchitti (2009-2011) for a total of 11 IndyCar championships.

Montoya, Dixon and Franchitti also combined to win four Indianapolis 500 races between 2000 and 2012. It'll be sad to say goodbye to Target, who joined Ganassi's team in 1990. Considering my first IndyCar race was in 1991, Target has always been involved in the series from my point of view.

Coverage of the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma starts at 5:30 p.m. Sunday on NBC Sports Network.

ZANARDI WINS GOLD AGAIN

Fifteen years ago today, while the world was still reeling from the events of 9/11, the racing world was reeling for a different reason. One of the scariest crashes in auto racing history occurred during CART's American Memorial race at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz in Germany.

Alex Zanardi lost control of his car leaving the pits and was struck broadside in a horrific crash that took both of his legs. Zanardi was airlifted from the track in “extremely” critical condition and had lost 75% of his blood volume. He was even given his last rites.

Fast-forward to this week's Paralympic Games in Rio where Zanardi on Wednesday won another gold medal in hand-cycling. He also took home a silver medal in the hand-cycling road race today, the fifteenth anniversary of his near-fatal crash. Zanardi previously won two Paralympic gold medals and one silver medal in London in 2012 and also won the New York City Marathon in his hand-cycling class in 2011.

UPDATE (9/16): Zanardi won his second gold medal of the Rio Paralympic Games as part of the three-man Italian team that dominated the H2-H5 mixed team relay on Friday. This brings Zanardi's Paralympic gold medal tally to four.

As a fan of Zanardi since the late 1990s when he won his two CART titles and made one of the most memorable passes ever at Laguna Seca Raceway, this pleases me to no end. To come back from such a devastating injury and not only be able to walk again, but to race with a modified car and then become a gold medal champion is nothing short of amazing. The guy always has a smile on his face and doesn't know the meaning of giving up.

FORMULA ONE BRINGS ON THE NIGHT

Formula One hits Singapore this weekend for a night race on the streets of Marina Bay. The race has been held since 2008 yet has only three different winners.

Sebastian Vettel has won here four times, including last season, while Fernando Alonso and points leader Lewis Hamilton have each won here twice. It will be interesting to see if Ferrari's Vettel can bring the challenge to the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who have won 13 of 14 races this season.

The fight between Hamilton and Rosberg should be just as exciting as Hamilton leads Rosberg by only two points in the championship. There are still six races to go following the Singapore Grand Prix, but this weekend could be a momentum changer in either direction.

Coverage of the Singapore Grand Prix starts at 6:30 a.m. Sunday on NBC Sports Network.

LOCAL RACES

Rockford Speedway holds it's Miller Lite Night of Thrills featuring Doug Rose and the Green Mamba Jet Car, Monster Trucks, School Bus Figure 8 race, Hornets and Spec Drags. Action starts at 7 p.m. Saturday.

Jefferson Speedway has the 36th annual Wisconsin State Championships on Friday and Saturday night as well as Sunday afternoon.

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