With one race remaining before the next four drivers are cut from contention for the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, Crash.net takes a look at how the 12 drivers currently still in the running fared this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, who is set to progress to the next round of the Chase - and which drivers seem about to get their marching orders.
Under the new Chase format introduced for 2014, the only way that any driver can be certain in advance that they will progress to the next round is by winning one of the three races in the current phase.
Penske's Joey Logano secured his transfer to the next round of the Chase by claiming victory at Kansas Speedway a week ago hot on the heels of his first round win at New Hampshire. Job done in terms of progression, this time out at Charlotte it initially looked as though he might be taking it easy and simply cruising around knowing that he didn't have to worry about anything. In fact he went on to cross the line in a strong fourth place despite a mid-race incident which saw him tangle with Danica Patrick that caused fellow Chase contender Ryan Newman to spin out, so he's obviously still trying pretty hard regardless. Logano and his team mate Brad Keselowski had looked the class of the field coming into the Chase, but with Keselowski's title bid unravelling by the week it's Logano who is now proudly carrying Penske's banner into the next round of the Chase, and moreover doing it with the sort of unflappable consistency that wins championships.
Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick has been so dominant at so many tracks this season that it was startling to realise coming into this weekend at Charlotte that he'd actually only managed to pick up two race wins so far in 2014 despite starting from pole an impressive eight times. Bad luck (especially on pit lane) seemed to plague him and it looked set to happen again on Saturday night when he suffered a suspected loose wheel while leading the race. Fortunately a convenient safety car enabled him to pit without too much of a loss in position, and he soon worked his way back to claim his first win since Darlington in April. "Bad luck can't haunt you forever," he commented afterwards, and if this really does indicate that his fortunes have finally turned around then you can expect Harvick to be one of the strongest contenders for the 2014 Cup title.
After race winners, the next drivers to progress are those with the most points from the three races comprising this round of the Chase. While not locked-in until after the last of the three races, there are five drivers who are currently looking pretty strong heading to Talladega.
The Chase has not been a happy hunting ground for Kyle Busch in the past, but his performance so far in 2014 indicates that he might just have developed enough patience and strategic awareness to change all that this time around. He's picked up two top-five finishes so far in this round which makes him the top scorer among those drivers not already through to the next round by virtue of an outright race win. His third place at Kansas was particularly significant, as that's never been a good track for him in the past. A disaster at Talladega could still send him crashing out, but if he's careful and avoids danger than the Joe Gibbs Racing driver should be joining Logano and Harvick in the final eight come next week's decider; the question is whether Toyota have managed to develop the raw power and reliability of their power units over the course of the year to enable Busch to make a real bid for the title itself.
When we did our initial overview of the Contender 12 round of the Chase, we had Ryan Newman down as one of those who'd be making an early exit. That certainly no longer looks to be the case, after two top-ten finishes so far have put him just five points behind Kyle Busch in the standings. Especially impressive was the seventh place at Charlotte, which came despite a mid-race scare when he spun out as a consequence of a clash between Logano and Patrick. Despite that setback Newman regrouped and worked his way back up the order, and it's exactly that sort of ability to make lemonade out of lemons that can be key to achieving a successful title campaign. We're still not sure if the Richard Childress Racing team can quite get him all the way to the championship given that Newman's yet to win a race in 2014, but we've been surprised once already so let's wait and see.
Carl Edwards was also on our list of drivers who'd be leaving the Chase at the end of the second phase, and instead - rather like Newman - he's surprised us with strong performances at Kansas and Charlotte where the Roush Fenway Racing driver finished fifth and eighth. So much for Edwards' forthcoming departure from the team and his move to JGR in 2015 being a distraction. In fact Edwards has been so quiet all year that he's flown somewhat under the radar and it's easy to forget that he's already claimed two race wins in 2014 (at Bristol and Sonoma), and while that doesn't make any difference to the points at this stage of the Chase or whether or not he progresses to the next round, it's still an indicator that he might prove to be the underdog who surprises us all when it comes to the crunch. At present he's just one point behind Newman, so as long as he doesn't trip up at Talladega he should easily make the final eight.
The four-time champion was one of our top picks to win this year's title coming into the Chase, and Jeff Gordon is still looking more or less on target even if he hasn't gone out and dazzled by winning another Chase race like he did at Dover that secured his transfer from the first round. Kansas wasn't as strong as Gordon would have liked - 14th was not the best start to the Contender 12 phase, although there were plenty who did worse - but he quickly rebounded by picking up second place behind Kevin Harvick this weekend at Charlotte to ensure that he's still very much in the running points-wise for a safe transfer to the final eight. That said, it's alarming to see how the fortunes of his fellow Hendrick Motorsports team mates have suddenly declined: the squad had looked the class of the field after getting all four drivers through to this round of the Chase, but now there's a very real risk that Gordon might be the only one to make it into the next which would be quite a huge shock.
Usually it's Denny Hamlin who gets all the bad luck going in the Joe Gibbs Racing line-up, but that's not been the case so far in the 2014 Chase and providing his good fortune holds out another week to see him through the notoriously crash-filled race at Talladega then Hamlin looks set for a relatively comfortable transfer into the final eight. That's even though he's currently only in seventh position in the points, which feels a little too close for comfort even though it's actually still only less than ten points behind his team mate Kyle Busch. Hamlin's solid hand comes courtesy of two top-ten finishes so far this round, with the ninth place this weekend at Charlotte all the more remarkable considering the heated spat he got into with Brad Keselowski which could so easily have caused both cars to wreck disastrously near the end. Hamlin needs to make sure he keeps a cool head at Talladega, and moreover keep clear of Keselowski who might be tempted to indulge in a spot of retaliation which could very easily cause Hamlin to crash out of the Chase if he's not careful.
On the bubble
Two drivers have dropped away in the points from the leading seven, meaning that they are now in a knife-edge battle to stay in the final transfer position going into Talladega next weekend.
Kasey Kahne is getting quite the reputation as an escape artist this year. It looked as though he wasn't going to make it into the play-offs at all before he clinched a late race win at Atlanta the week before the Chase cut-off; then when it came to the climax of the first round, Kahne had to work hard all night at Dover to pip AJ Allmendinger for the final spot in the Contender 12 round by just two points. Now it's another down-to-the-wire moment for the 34-year old Hendrick Motorsports driver if he's to take a further step closer to winning the title, after picking up a 22nd place at Kansas followed by a much better tenth at Charlotte. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Kahne out after Talladega - he's done really well to battle his way this far, after all - but equally we wouldn't be surprised if the great survivor had another narrow escape left in him, either.
Conflict with Brad Keselowski at Charlotte this weekend has taken a terrible toll on Matt Kenseth's hopes of staying in the Chase, after he finished a disappointing 19th place. His post-race brawl with Keselowski shows just how much pressure Kenseth is feeling right now, as he struggles to find the form he displayed in 2013 where he finished as championship runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in his first season with new team Joe Gibbs Racing. Now not only does Kenseth need to cool himself off after the explosive events on Saturday night, he also has to hope that NASCAR aren't going to dish out penalties over the altercation with Keselowski which could deal a major blow to his hopes of salvaging a spot in the final eight next week. He also needs to stay away from Keselowski on the track for the next seven days so that the two don't end up wrecking each other in an outbreak of mutually assured distraction in retaliation - and that's easier said than done at the notoriously crash-prone Talladega Superspeedway.
Needing a win to stay in
Although strong top-five finishes could still be enough to save them if their key rivals in the Chase all meet with adversity, the reality is that three drivers badly need an outright win at Talladega if they're to avoid crashing out of the Chase next week.
A fortnight ago, Brad Keselowski was flying high. The Penske driver was the top seed in the Chase, having won the first round of the play-offs at Chicagoland to add to four other 2014 victories earlier in the regular season. He and team mate Joey Logano looked to be by far the drivers to beat for the title, and everyone expected the 30-year-old to be in contention all the way through to the winner-take-all finale next month at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Instead, the 2012 champion now looks set to fallout of contention unless he can pull a rabbit out of the hat at Talladega, which is a tough ask at the best of times. It was a tyre failure that plunged his campaign into crisis at Kansas, and then an on-track clash and post-race brawl Matt Kenseth (and also Denny Hamlin) made the situation worse at Charlotte. He could still get handed a costly penalty for intentionally hitting Kenseth's parked car on pit road in retaliation. All of which means that the momentum looks to be against Keselowski staying in the Chase at this point, unless he can secure that game-changing race win next week.
Despite picking up three wins earlier in the year, it's not really been a vintage season for six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. Even so, no one expected him to hit serious trouble this early in the Chase: he's such a superstar of the sport that you still expect to see him leap out of danger with a single bound at any moment. The setback at Kansas where he was involved in a four-car accident that left him classified in 40th place was hardly his fault, but it put the pressure on the normally rock-solid #48 team at Charlotte and it showed. Johnson could have finished with a top-ten or even top-five finish, but a decision to pit for a full set of fresh tyres under the final caution proved to be a poor one. With few others adopting the same strategy, Johnson was left mired in the mid-pack with too little space and time remaining to improve his lot and he consequently finished a mediocre 17th when he urgently needed much better. Now he needs to win at Talladega, which he has done twice in the past in 2006 and 2011 - but can he do it a third time when he needs it the most?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
If you could bottle fan support and use it as motor fuel then Dale Earnhardt Jr. would blast away from the field and win every week. Sadly the sport doesn't work like that, and the most popular driver in NASCAR could be about to disappoint his fans for another year with an early exit from the Chase after hitting troubles at both of the Contender 12 races. At Kansas he suffered a tyre failure that put him into the wall on lap 122 while comfortably leading the race, and at Charlotte he suffered a broken gear stick as a result of a bad vibration. Efforts to fix the problem dropped him off the lead lap and he'd just got his lap back when he ended up in the wall. Then, to add insult to injury, he ran out of gas trying to make it to pit road to leave him at the bottom of the Chase points standings. All that said, Earnhardt might still be the best outside bet to pull off a win at Talladega given that he started the year off with a famous victory in the Daytona 500 at the other restrictor plate track on the NASCAR itinerary, Daytona International Speedway. Junior Nation won't be giving up the dream just yet, anyway.