Here we go again: once more the contenders for the 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship are dead-level in the points and with everything to win or lose over the course of the next three races. Whatever happened last week or last month no longer has any practical bearing: the wins and the points accrued up to now have to all intents and purposes been swept away. Not that we're going to let this ruin our fun or stop Crash.net
from once again trying to predict who is going to be among the last four drivers still in it when the championship is finally decided next month!
We start with the usual warning that anything we predict can and almost certainly will be knocked into disarray by a single on-track incident at Martinsville, Texas or Phoenix over the course of the next two and a half weeks. If we needed any reminding of how easy it is to run into trouble in this new-format Chase then we got it last week when championship favourites Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch all crashed out of the play-offs on account of a single bad result in each case. In other words, just because you're one of the best drivers out there it doesn't mean you're going to successfully clinch the title or even still be in the running by the season finale.
It's that sort of thing that irritates racing purists, who believe that the champion should always be the best driver of the year. But if that were the case then we'd know well in advance of the end of the season who the champion was going to be, and where's the fun and excitement in that? To keep things thrilling all year means that there has to be a chance that even the very best driver still isn't going to make it through: at the moment the driver with the most wins in 2014 is Brad Keselowski
and he came within a whisker of joining Johnson, Busch et al
on the sidelines after Talladega last weekend.
As it is, Keselowski pulled off a last-gasp transfer and is through to the final eight left standing in the battle for the 2014 Sprint Cup alongside his Penske team mate Joey Logano
. Both drivers have now won two races each in the Chase - one in each round so far to secure their respective progressions on each occasion. Anyway you look at it, the pair are now surely the top contenders for this year's championship: Keselowski came into the Chase as the top seed, while Logano has now taken over that mantle coming into the third round of the play-offs.
We had Keselowski down as having the edge over Logano but after his near-death experience avoiding elimination last week, is that still necessarily the case? His week six crisis could break either way for him - either by knocking his confidence by knowing how close he came to dropping out, or alternatively boosting it through the roof thanks to knowing that when the chips were down and only a win would do, that's exactly what he was able to pull off. Moreover, he did it at a track where it's almost impossible to be sure about anything. Keselowski seems like the kind of character that would keep all the positives in his mind while dumping all the negatives from an experience like that, so we wouldn't be surprised to see him bounce into Martinsville with a whole new lease of life and maybe even claim a back-to-back win just to prove that he can.
But don't forget about Logano, either. He's got five wins to his name this year, more than anyone in the field except for his team mate, and he's done it in such a calm and assured that it's easy to forget just how impressive he's been. And consistent, too - last week's 11th place at Talladega is the first time he's finished out of the top five in the Chase, so he would easily have transferred even if he didn't have a place locked down after his win at Kansas. Again, we wouldn't be surprised if he strolled into Martinsville this weekend and did the business again right away with another victory to ensure his spot in the season finale title decider at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 16.
Which of the remaining six drivers left in the field can stop the Penske pair? Early on our money was on Jeff Gordon
and he rewarded our faith with victory during the first round of the Chase at Dover. But since then he's cooled off a little, and 26th place at Talladega meant that he only kept his place in the final eight by three points. Moreover, Gordon has now lost the support of all of his team mates in the Chase, with Kasey Kahne also joining Johnson and Earnhardt on the sidelines. Of course they'll all still be out on the track racing on Sunday, but their hands are tied in terms of the sort of genuine play-off backup they'll be able to provide the #24 from now until the end of the season. But all that said, Gordon is a four-time champion and a four-time race winner in 2014, so our money is still on him to make it through to the final four - assuming that he can stay out of trouble in the meantime.
However, currently taking Gordon's position as 'best of the rest after Penske' on our list os Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick
. He's been strong all year despite only chalking up two wins all season despite eight pole positions, but his excellent victory at Charlotte two weeks ago seems to have dispelled some of that hard luck that's been hanging over the #4 all season and put him back in a winning frame of mind, with a solid ninth at Talladega last week. If the team can avoid any more pit lane fumbles, missed strategy calls and plain bad luck then it's undeniably clear that Harvick is in the sort of form that could easily propel him to his first Sprint Cup championship next month.
All four of these drivers were on Crash.net'
s original list to make it to the season finale, so we're just about hanging in there prognostication-wise. We had even forecast that Johnson wouldn't make the final line-up, but have to admit that we didn't expect him to fall out of contention as early as Talladega. We thought Carl Edwards
and Ryan Newman
would be on the sidelines instead by now, but they both had a remarkably solid Contender 12 Round and remain firmly still in contention. Newman is even currently third seed (behind Logano and Harvick) thanks to his fifth place finish at Talladega last week, and so despite the fact that he's yet to win a race all season it's clear that he has to be considered a genuine threat and could easily end up taking one of the priceless final four spots away from one of the other seemingly stronger contenders.
Edwards meanwhile has two wins under his belt already this season, and yet of the two seems the weaker challenger. He's finished in the top ten in just two of the six Chase races so far, whereas Newman has double that tally and all of them in the last four outings, suggesting that it's the Richard Childress Racing driver who has the current edge in form. Additionally, while there's no outward sign that Edwards' forthcoming exit from Roush Fenway Racing is affecting the team's overall effort in this year's Chase in any significant fashion, it's still likely to be a factor in everyone's minds. For that reason we would be surprised to see Edwards squeak into the final four after Phoenix, whereas Newman remains very much the joker in the pack as far as we're concerned.
As for the remaining two drivers currently still in contention, the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Denny Hamlin
and Matt Kenseth
are going to have to significantly up their game if they're to stay in with a chance of winning the title. It's not that we doubt either man's abilities - Hamlin was championship runner-up in 2010 after all, and Kenseth similarly just lost out to Johnson in 2013 - but rather that the team hasn't been its usual sparkling self all season with just two wins all year - and one of those had been notched up by Kyle Busch, who crashed out of the play-offs in an early accident at Talladega last weekend. In a previous forecast we'd figured that Hamlin would be the first JGR entry to bite the dust as he's the one who gets all the bad luck that's going around in the regular season, but we were forgetting that when it comes to the Chase it's always Busch who seems to end up getting shot down in flames first.
The problem for Kenseth and Hamlin is that this year's Toyota engines have struggled to match those of produced by Chevrolet and Ford in terms of sheer power and reliability, and while Toyota Racing Development have made great strides as the season has gone in it has still left JGR on the backfoot, as exemplified by the fact that Kenseth is still without a win this year where he had a career-best seven victories under his belt by this stage last year. Try as we might we just don't think that either driver will make it through to the Homestead Chase final line-up unless some really big breaks come their way in the next three races.
A win at Martinsville would do nicely, and while Kenseth is yet to notch up a victory at the 'Paperclip' it's a different matter entirely for Hamlin who has gone to victory lane here four times in the past (albeit admittedly not since the autumn race in 2010) - so maybe he knows the trick to unlock NASCAR's shortest circuit and book himself a place in the winner-take-all race at Homestead. If Hamlin can manage that then all bets really will be off.
Current standings after post-Contender 12 Round reset
Current Chase contenders
1. Joey Logano
2. Kevin Harvick
3. Ryan Newman
4. Denny Hamlin
5. Matt Kenseth
6. Carl Edwards
7. Jeff Gordon
8. Brad Keselowski
Eliminated former Chase contenders
9. Kyle Busch
10. Jimmie Johnson
11. Kasey Kahne
12. AJ Allmendinger
13. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
14. Greg Biffle
15. Kurt Busch
16. Aric Almirola
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