This weekend marks the third year in a row the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup opens at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet.
Voyager Media sports reporter Mark Gregory was able to talk to Hall of Fame driver and ESPN NASCAR analyst Rusty Wallace about the Chase set up and the big NASCAR story lines.
The interview took place prior to the NASCAR sanctions against Michael Waltrip Racing and the removal of Martin Truex, Jr. from the Chase.
MG: Well, Rusty, the race for the Chase is over and the field is set, what are your thoughts on the top 12?
RW: My take on that race is it was just so damn exciting on who was going to make it and who wasn’t. If the caution didn’t come out at the end, Ryan Newman was going to win the race and he was in and Jeff Gordon would have made it, then Clint Bowyer spun out and it changed everything. As was all the drama in NASCAR and it was what the fans were hoping for. It was an amazing race for the Chase.
MG: The last two seasons, the driver that has won the first race of the Chase at Chicagoland has gone on to win the Spring Cup. Is that pure coincidence or do you feel there is that much momentum gained from winning the first race?
RW: I actually think it is a little bit coincidence, but I will tell you, and maybe I’m contradicting myself here, but I think Carl Edwards is really going good this year and he has his mojo going as I call it. His crew chief Jimmy Finning is a real veteran and a real smart, smart guy. They paired Jimmy and Carl and have seen results from the beginning. That car has been fast. Mile-and-a-halfs are Carl’s specialty and for him to win on a short track last night, which surprised me, but he did good. I did not expect him to win on a short track, so this could be his year for a championship and a win here would help.
MG: What are your thoughts in general about the Chase opening at Chicagoland Speedway?
RW: We all love coming to Chicago. It is a great city and the race track is designed nice, its beautiful and we all enjoy it. I hope there is a good crowd there for the race, the attendance has been down more than I thought it should be, but this is a big, big race. It is a great place to kick off the Chase. I am a Midwest guy, I grew up in St. Louis and I like the place. I like the people that run it, I like the family that owns it, I like the racing it puts on and there is nothing wrong with getting to hang out on Michigan Avenue a little bit and have something to eat.
MG: With eight laps left at Richmond and Ryan Newman leading the race, Clint Bowyer spun out, eventually leading to Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Martin Truex, Jr. making the Chase instead of Newman. You said on ESPN after the race you felt the spinout was not only intentional, but ordered by the team, do you still believe that?
RW: The whole thing looked peculiar. I only saw what we saw after the race and we were asked to report what we saw and from what we saw, it looked like he spun the car out on purpose to help his teammate. He is the only one that knows that. We can all speculate all we want, but he is the guy that knows. Personally, if that did happen, I think he was under extreme pressure from his race team to make him do that. I don’t think Clint himself would ever do that. I know Clint, he is a great guy and has very good character and I think that is team self-induced. I did actually meet with Michael Waltrip and Michael had no idea that happened. He saw everything and was surprised. It seemed like it all came from a spotter a crew chief and an engineer that all got together, if indeed that did happen. I shouldn’t be dreaming all this stuff up, because I really don’t know.
MG: That being said, do you think that move will hurt Bowyer’s chances of winning the Chase? Do you expect drivers, like Newman who in his last 10 races with Stewart-Haas and out of the Chase, who have nothing to lose to retaliate and wreck the No. 15 at some point?
RW: I’m not avoiding the question, man, I just don’t know. I know if I was there and I got taken out by somebody that threw the race, if the race was actually thrown, by him spinning on purpose, yeah, I would be upset and disappointed with Clint.
MG: You drove for a long time and if stuff like that happened when you drove no one would have known. With the technology today, we were able to see the in-car camera and hear the audio between Bowyer and his crew. While fans like to see all the look-ins, is that technology a good thing?
RW: Everyone in the world has done that in the past. I know several drivers hat have spun out on purpose to bring a caution out or hit the wall and act like they can’t get off the wall or whatever. The problem now with these teams is that all the networks are monitoring all the radios and there are 30 or more cameras and then in-car cameras, so if you are going to do it, it’s not as easy to run and hide, but I will tell you, everyone did it.
MG: What are you most looking forward to heading into the Chase?
RW: This is going to be a helluva year this year with the new Gen6 car. That car has really proved to be a hot rod and it is breaking track records everywhere it has went. I think we are going to see a lot of great racing. I think we will see the 48 car of Jimmie Johnson come out of his slump and take off like a rocket in Chicago and Carl Edwards has proved he’s got what it takes. From there on out, the field is so equal. We have Kyle Busch in the Chase this year and Matt Kenseth in the new car for Joe Gibbs has been tremendously consistent. This mile-and-a-half is going to tell us a lot.
MG: If you had to pick now, who is your favorite to win at Chicagoland?
RW: To win this race, I am going to say Matt Kenseth. He has been strong and fast. But, I can tell you, I have picked and picked and picked all year and haven’t got one right yet. But, me and the folks from ESPN all pick, but none of us have been right yet. But, I do lead in points for getting closest, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot.
MG: Who is your favorite to win the Sprint Cup Championship?
RW: I keep wanting to say Johnson, but he has had so many problems. He has to come out of Chicago with a good race for me to say him again, but he is who I picked at the beginning of the year.