Chase in Chicago takes backseat to Bears

September, 15, 2011

CHICAGO -- First, I'm not a huge fan of Chicagoland Speedway hosting the first race of the Chase, which NASCAR already has said will happen again next season, too.

The third-largest media market in the country is too wrapped up in the Chicago Bears to get NASCAR on the front page of the local paper.

Imagine if the Cubs or White Sox were contenders.

Well, it could happen.

I'd rather see the Chase begin somewhere such as Darlington or Bristol. They're smaller markets -- OK, tiny compared to Chicago -- but they would embrace the sport, and the style of racing at those tracks is more likely to create drama that captures the imagination.

But I love the Windy City, at least three months out of the year, when it isn't cold as heck.

And I loved Thursday's gathering of the 12 Chase drivers at the LaSalle Power Co. in downtown Chicago, the former site of Michael Jordan's restaurant.

The animosity drivers showed toward a few media members a week ago at Richmond was gone. Everybody, from 12th-place Denny Hamlin to first-place Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, believes they have a chance to knock five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson off the throne.

Check that.

Two-time champion Tony Stewart already has eliminated five drivers, scratching Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and himself from the list of realistic contenders.

Kenseth laughed at Stewart's generosity with the media that he had berated a week ago for asking questions that weren't what he considered original.

"Stirring the pot," Kenseth motioned.

In case you haven't been paying attention, Stewart's list of contenders are Johnson, Harvick, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski, in no particular order.

"The winner of the championship will come out of that group," Stewart said.

And if Stewart is standing on stage, hoisting the championship trophy above his head 10 weeks from now at Homestead-Miami Speedway?

"Then I'll declare I'm a total bumbling idiot," Stewart said.

I thought he only said that about the media.

Anyway, there wasn't a driver among the 12 that wasn't in a good mood. Harvick took a fun stab at Kurt Busch, noting all the reporters during one interview session had laptops -- and not papers -- and didn't "leave me anything to tear up." Busch, remember, took a transcript from a reporter and tore it up in a heated moment after Saturday night's race at Richmond.

Newman cracked a similar joke, saying, "Keep all the papers away from me."

Yes, drivers pay attention to all the trivial stuff that happens off the track.

Kenseth took a joking shot at the reporter who at Richmond was shot down by Stewart, saying, "Ask me an original question."

There were a few. Gordon took advantage to push his conspiracy theory that Richard Childress Racing driver Paul Menard spun out intentionally to bring out the final caution at Richmond, allowing teammate Harvick to catch up and win.

Harvick pushed the theory that Gordon and other Hendrick Motorsports drivers bring out cautions to help Earnhardt get back laps.

It was that kind of entertaining day.

Hopefully, the racing at Chicagoland Speedway will be just as entertaining and give me reason to like opening the Chase here.

David Newton | email

ESPN Staff Writer



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