The 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship started last month at Chicagoland with 16 drivers in contention, but now the field has been halved and some big names including Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have already fallen by the wayside. After the next three races the field will halve again and leave just four in the running at the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 16.
This weekend's Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway is the first step to that winner-take-all climax to this year's season, and while no one will be eliminated this week it's still essential that the Chase contenders stay out of trouble and secure strong results to keep them in the running through the next two outings in Texas and Phoenix.
"We have been fortunate to have won at Martinsville before," said an optimistic Kevin Harvick, who won two weeks ago at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "Now we have to figure out how we can get the best finish that we can, really out of each race track [in the Eliminator 8 Round].
"I guess if you had to pick one that you have had the most success at I think Phoenix would be hands down the one you would pick out," added the Stewart-Haas Racing driver. "But our 1.5-mile stuff has been our bread and butter this year as we have gone through the season, so Texas should be good and Martinsville has been good for us in the past."
"As far as Chase tracks, Martinsville stands out for us," said last year's race winner Jeff Gordon, who emerged from Talladega as the only one of the four Hendrick Motorsports line-up still in contention for the 2014 title. "It's a strong track for this Drive to End Hunger team, and it's a track where we've had great success over the years ... We also tested there recently, so I hope we have a strong start to this Eliminator Round."
Gordon's team mate Jimmie Johnson will be watching the Chase battle from the sidelines, but at the same time will be very much in thick of the action out on the track itself. Just because the title is now out of his reach, it doesn't mean that he can't pick up a few more race wins before the end of the season to maximise his year's performance.
"I'm looking forward to watching Jeff Gordon and the #24 team make a run at it [but] there are four more races in the season and we want to go out and win all four of them," the six-time champion insisted. "We can finish well in the points and push our focus to 2015.
"Last year we were trying to win the championship and got behind on 2014 so now that we were eliminated we can focus forward," he pointed out. "We've had a great season so far with three wins and I'd love to put the Lowe's Chevy back in the winner's circle a few more times this year."
Richard Childress Racing's Ryan Newman comes into this weekend's race buoyed by the news that he won't be handicapped in the Chase by having any points penalties arising from issues with the rear ride-height of the #31 car at Talladega last weekend, where he finished in fifth place in the result to secure his transfer to the third round of the Chase. Further analysis by NASCAR on Monday concluded that the problem arose from race damage and not from set-up issues, meaning that Newman was cleared of any possible infractions.
"In the end, they saw that the damage from being hit from behind was enough to knock the back of the car down, enough to take it out of its window," said Newman after the announcement that there would be no penalties.
"I think it was the #20 that actually drilled me really hard and it actually wrinkled the quarter panel, which shows that the body's moving," Newman added. "I never looked at the car after the race. I didn't expect there to be any issues, so I didn't analyse exactly what happened."
Now he's free to look forward to this weekend's race without any distractions. "Martinsville Speedway is a fun track to drive when you have a car that allows you to look out the front window," he commented. "If you are spending too much time looking in the mirror and can't get in the corner, you are going to have a nightmare of a day.
But he also admitted to be wary of the 'Paperclip' as it was almost as easy to get caught up in a wreck on the 0.526-mile short track as had been at Talladega. "Looking at where this race lands in the Chase, all of the races are equally important when you do the math. There are outside, situational circumstances like a wreck that you can be involved in. That applies to any track but I think Martinsville has a higher potential for a wreck to happen in comparison to some of the 1.5-mile tracks we go to for example.
"Obviously, you never know what's going to happen, so we'll just have to wait and see and hope for the best," he added. "We had a decent test at Martinsville last week that answered some of the questions we had so I hope we can be one of those teams up front and in contention for the win."
Newman's success in making it this far into the Chase has surprised many, but now it's down to the final eight the threat he represents to his rivals is starting to get fully appreciated.
"Ryan Newman is kind of quiet and has the ability to really sneak up unnoticed and gobble this thing up," said Penske's Brad Keselowski, who secured his Chase progression spot with a last-gasp victory at Talladega last week. However, the 2012 Cup champion has never won at Martinsville before.
"We've run well at Martinsville in the past – much better than our results show," he insisted. "You know, this place is tough. It's very, very tough.
"At any given time you can have a good day spoiled by something out of the ordinary happening," he explained. "I still remember my first race here ... I think I wrecked half-way through and I wrecked on pit road and I wrecked again on the racetrack!
"Right now, I am feeling about this weekend much like I did about last weekend at Talladega. Each of our previous outings has taught us something, whether it is car set-up, adjustments, who you can race with or even strategy. I feel like we're to the point now where the law of averages is on our side."
Keselowski's teammate Joey Logano comes into the Eliminator 8 Round as top seed in the Chase, although in practice everyone's points have been levelled out again at 4000 and the two wins that Logano has already claimed so far in the Chase now count for nothing in terms of getting him through to the finale at Homestead-Miami. That means he has it all to do again - and getting the championship business sorted at the first opportunity would be ideal.
"First and foremost, we want to win this weekend to lock us into the next round of competition and to be a lock to race for the Championship in Homestead," he said. "That is very important. But it would also be pretty cool to win one of those grandfather clocks. It has to be one of the coolest trophies in all of motorsports. It's unique.
"But it's not an easy race to win," he admitted. "There is a lot of beating and banging that goes on there and you can even get caught up in someone else's mess. That's a big part of short track racing. But we had a good test there and I feel like we have the ability to go there and win, especially with what we learned in the spring and how strong we were then."
Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards has been in Chase contention before - he's twice finished the season as runner-up, most cruelly in 2011 when he tied on points with Tony Stewart only to lose the title on a most-wins tiebreaker. That means he knows the perils and pitfalls of running a championship campaign this deep in the season, and what and where things can go very wrong.
"I think Martinsville is going to be a really tough race," he said. "I think that there are a lot of guys with nothing to lose and I think we just have to go there and do what we've been doing and that's give our best performance, not make any mistakes and just keep this going.
"We're having fun, I'm glad to be a part of this," he added. "I'm really proud of our whole team for the way we have performed so far in the Chase. We're excited to go to Martinsville. We feel like that's a track that we can run well at."
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