Vitale breaks down NASCAR’s Sweet 16

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 11, 2014

Dickie V has found a totally awesome PTP’er in NASCAR’s version of a Sweet 16 bracket.
ESPN college basketball broadcaster Dick Vitale has picked Jimmie Johnson to cut down the nets — or at least hoist the Sprint Cup trophy and have his seventh shining moment as NASCAR’s champion.
Vitale was in Boston on Wednesday to inject a dose of March Madness into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. The 10-race playoff kicks off this weekend at Chicagoland with 16 drivers in the field for the first time.
Who else but Dickie V can break down a bracket, baby?! Vitale joined Chase driver Kasey Kahne and ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi at a Chase kickoff event and made his picks throughout the field.
Vitale’s Four Wheel Final Four was composed of Johnson, Kahne, 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick.
“You got to have the right combination, baby,” Vitale said. “You got to have the momentum and a smart strategy for each track, and you need the team leader in the right crew chief to call the NASCAR pick and rolls and get in and out of those pit boxes like a quick basketball timeout, making your adjustments to win it at the end.
“Kasey’s my diaper dandy driver to watch.”
The revamped Chase format has eliminations after every three races until the field is down to four drivers for the Nov. 16 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Kahne made the field after a win at Atlanta.
“My win in Atlanta put me in position to compete in this new playoff grid and I feel relieved to be in the club and ready to win and advance,” Kahne said.
KENSETH’S SHOT: Matt Kenseth went into the final 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship last year as the points leader and already with five victories. He then started the Chase winning at Chicago and New Hampshire, but eventually was the season runner-up to Jimmie Johnson.
In the new elimination-style playoff, Kenseth enters the Chase 14th among the 16 drivers still in title consideration, even without winning a race. And his championship chances are just as good as they were at this time a year ago.
“Well, I’ll let you know in December,” Kenseth said Wednesday in Texas, when asked if he liked the new format. “It’s just totally different. … It’s a really unique format, I’m really curious to see how it all works out.”
Kenseth admitted that he hadn’t studied the new format very closely, or paid too close attention to points.
“I always feel like if you win, you’re good,” Kenseth said. “If you can finish up in that top group every week, just see where it ends afterward.”
If Kenseth wins at Chicago or New Hampshire again, or Dover after that, he would automatically be among 12 drivers still in contention for the next three-race round. Four drivers will vie for the title in the Homestead season finale.
“It’s going to be real interesting to watch. I think there’s going to be a lot of drama down the stretch,” Kenseth said. “You’ve got to get through that thing one race at a time, one round at a time.”
GUEST SPEAKER: Hendrick Motorsports prepared for the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship by bringing in guest speaker Herm Edwards in a kickoff event for all employees.
Edwards, a current ESPN analyst and former NFL coach and player, delivered a speech that six-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson found inspiring. Johnson, the defending champion, is seeking a record-tying seventh title; only Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt won seven championships.
“Herm has such a big personality, and he’s able to really deliver a message,” Johnson said. “He’s had success playing on the field, as a coach, and then a lot of us know him today as an analyst. What he’s accomplished playing and coaching really translates in our environment and helps connect with the drivers, crew chiefs and everyone who contributes in the shops and throughout the organization.
“I was very impressed with his speech, and I think our whole team — all of Hendrick Motorsports — left with a skip in their step and ready to go fight these final 10 weeks and try to win a championship.”
Hendrick Motorsports got all four of its drivers, Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne, into the Chase.
DOUBLE DUTY: Aric Almirola will pull double duty this weekend as he prepares for his first appearance in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Almirola will run both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races at Chicagoland Speedway. The Nationwide race will be his first Nationwide start since last season but the goal is to get him extra seat time in advance of Sunday’s Chase opener.
Richard Petty Motorsports will also run Almirola in the Nationwide race at Dover. The decision to enter Almirola was made to help him get strong finishes and advance through the first round of Chase eliminations into the round of 12.
“I’m looking forward to going to Chicago and kicking off The Chase with a good run,” Almirola said. “Running the Nationwide race is going to be beneficial because I’m going to have time on the race track prior to our race. A lot of times we have our happy hour practice and then we’re not on the race track again until the race the next day, so you don’t really know the swing that the track takes after the Nationwide race.
“I’m sure we’ll be able to take some information like air pressures and how the tires are wearing throughout the race to the Cup side as well. We’re all in and focused on consistency in the first three races to advance.”
Almirola, who has two previous Cup starts at Chicago, was a career-best 13th last year.
KLIGERMAN TEST: Parker Kligerman will test an Indy Lights car for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as part of the Mazda Road to Indy “Chris Griffis Memorial Test.” Kligerman started this season in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series but lost that ride when Swan Racing folded. But, his roots are in open-wheel racing.
At 15, he won all three races entered at the Skip Barber Racing Series and in 2006, he won 11 of 14 races and earned the Formula TR Pro Series 1600 title. The test on Saturday and Sunday will be Kligerman’s first time in an open-wheel car in eight years.
“Although it will be a challenge, I’m looking forward to having fun and working with a championship-caliber, open-wheel team,” he said.
AP Auto Racing Writer Jenna Fryer and AP Sports Writer Stephen Hawkins contributed to this report.