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Wednesday’s motor sports roundup: Basketball analyst Dick Vitale takes Jimmie Johnson to win Sprint Cup title

Dan Gelston
Associated Press

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, the former University of Detroit and Detroit Pistons coach, 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 to join Hendrick Motorsports teammates Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Chase.

“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 Chase 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 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.

Double duty

Aric Almirola will pull double duty this weekend as he prepares for his first appearance in the Chase.

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.

Helmet system defective

A defective cooling system in Johnson’s helmet was determined to be the cause of the six-time Sprint Cup champion’s severe dehydration following Saturday night’s race at Richmond.

“The team found an issue with the cooling system for my helmet. Basically, it was blowing warm air,” Johnson said.

Jim Utter of The Charlotte Observer contributed

Sprint Cup

Myafibstory.com 400


Chicagoland Speedway (oval, 1.5 miles), Joliet, Ill.


Friday, practice (Fox Sports 1, 1-2:30 p.m.), qualifying (ESPN2, 6:30-8 p.m.); Saturday, practice (Fox Sports 1, 11 a.m.-noon; Fox Sports 2, 2-3 p.m.); Sunday, race, 2 p.m. (ESPN, 1-5:30 p.m.)


400.5 miles (267 laps)

Last year:

Matt Kenseth won the Chase opener for the sixth of his seven 2013 victories.


Jimmy John’s Freaky Fast 300


Chicagoland Speedway (oval, 1.5 miles)


Friday, practice (Fox Sports 1, noon-1 p.m., 4:30-6 p.m.); Saturday, qualifying (Fox Sports 2, noon-1:30 p.m.), race, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN2, 3:30-6 p.m.)


300 miles (200 laps)

Last year:

Kyle Busch raced to the 10th of his 12 2013 series victories.


Lucas Oil 225


Chicagoland Speedway (oval, 1.5 miles)


Today, practice; Friday, qualifying (Fox Sports 1, 3-4:30 p.m.), race 8:30 p.m. (Fox Sports 1, 8-11 p.m.)


225 miles (150 laps)

Last year:

Kyle Busch raced to fourth of his five 2013 series victories.


Carolina Nationals


zMAX Dragway, Concord, N.C.


Friday, qualifying (ESPN2, 11 p.m.-midnight); Saturday, qualifying (ESPN2, Sunday, 2-3:30 a.m.); Sunday, final eliminations (ESPN2, 8:30-11:30 p.m.)

Last year:

Robert Hight topped the Funny Car field in the Countdown opener. Morgan Lucas won in Top Fuel, Jeg Coughlin in Pro Stock and Andrew Hines in Pro Stock Motorcycle.