Saturday, September 13, 2014

Chicagoland Practice Notes: Kenseth and Edwards jump into mix of serious contenders

Is Carl Edwards a Chase contender now because of practice?
LAS VEGAS -- Just when we began to hand off the 2014 Sprint Cup trophy to the Hendrick and Penske organizations, and let them fight over who keeps it, a Roush-Fenway Ford said 'not so fast, we got 10-races to go and we're better than we were in the first 26 races'.

Or at least that's what it looked like as Carl Edwards laid down the fastest lap (186.413 mph) during the final 50-minute practice session at Chicagoland Speedway, the final chance for crews to tinker with the cars before Sunday's race. Could Edwards really be this fast? Has the cat-in-the-hat, Jack Roush, been sandbagging, waiting for Chicago for weeks before unveiling his rocket?

There used to be a time when we'd never be surprised to see Edwards' name at the top of a 1.5-mile speed chart. He used to consistently be one of the favorites on these tracks, but lately, the Roush-Fenway cars just haven't had the speed to contend. That is, until today.

We've seen Edwards finish races well on the 1.5s this season, but that was more a credit to Edwards. His car never really gave any indication during practices that he would contend, but he still managed to pull out finishes of sixth or better in four of the first six 1.5-mile races. Hendrick and Penske would win all six of those races, which is why they are the drivers to beat this week and in the Chase - five of the next 10 races are on 1.5s.

While Edwards is better than he's been all season, he's now on par with some of the elite teams, but he's still got to beat them. He's more of an equal now, however his odds may not reflect it so much when all are adjusted around town. He was 30-to-1 to win before the race, and you should expect about 15-to-1 after the practice. Is there any value there? I think the answer is 'Yes'.

He's been making Lynchburg Lemonade out of lemons all summer long, but now he might have something to work with here. We may have 2008 Carl Edwards here again for the Chase, the driver that finished fourth or better in eight of the 10 Chase races, but finished second to Jimmie Johnson.

This version of Edwards is certainly worth a small play at 100-to-1 odds to win the Chase just on the chance that Roush has something up his sleeve for the final 10 races.

Maybe his final practice was just a freak thing, but he hasn't been that freaky this season, so it's at least a sign of better things to come.

There was a morning practice session as well, where Paul Menard was fastest, but the second session is the one that is most similar to Sunday's race conditions.

I was very impressed with the way Brad Keselowski got his car going after a sluggish Friday and early Saturday practice. He was strong in the final one with the best 10-consecutive lap average and second-fastest single lap.

Last year's Chicago winner, Matt Kenseth, also impressed as he is still searching for his first win of the season. He had the second-best 10-consecutive lap average during the early session and third-best in the afternoon. He's been fourth or better in his past three 1.5-mile races. Joe Gibbs might be saving his best for the Chase, like Roush, and ready to give Hendrick and Penske a run for their money.

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