On this face of it, this weekend's AAA Texas 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway is about as relaxed and laid back as it gets for any of the Chase contenders who are still in the battle for the 2014 championship.
As the middle of three races in the Eliminator 8 Round - the final phase of the play-offs that decides the final four that will contest the title in the winner-take-all event at Homestead-Miami on November 16 - Texas doesn't offer the same high-stakes do-or-go-home drama that next week's race at Phoenix International Raceway holds. The 1.5-mile high-banked oval is a solid, standard sort of circuit that doesn't threaten anything like the chaos of one of Talladega's 'big ones' or the explosion of bad tempers generated at Martinsville. Even the feuds that broke out last week are likely to be put on hold this week until the Chase outlook becomes clearer.
So that means it's just another race, a fairly normal day at the office for the Cup drivers. And that's precisely what makes it potentially the key to who will get through to Homestead, because for once the drivers' fortunes mainly lie in their own hands. Form will out, and if drivers like Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski can't make it work at Texas (or Phoenix) then maybe they have no place in the season finale any way.
Harvick and Keselowski are currently at the bottom of the points, both of them over thirty points off Jeff Gordon who currently tops the standings after finishing second last weekend to Dale Earnhardt Jr. That makes it very difficult for either Harvick and Keselowski to recover in time to claw their way back into the top four, so instead their objective has to be an outright win either here or next weekend at Phoenix.
History is not in favour of Harvick pulling that off here, as he's never once made it to victory lane at Texas. He does have three top-fives and 11 top-tens for an average finish of 13.6 in 23 races, but that's not the sort of record that suggests he's about to secure his place in the Cup finale this weekend. Harvick's best bet is surely Phoenix, which might be cutting it fine but he does have five career wins there including last year's Chase race and also the most recent visit earlier this year. No wonder he's continuing to look optimistic about staying in contention for the title.
Brad Keselowski hasn't won at Phoenix before; and he hasn't won at Texas, either, although it is where he made his Cup début in 2008. He's secured one top five and three top-tens here for an average finish of 19.5 in 12 races, which hardy inspires confidence that he's about to play a second get-out-jail-free card like he did two weeks ago at Talladega to get himself out of trouble and stay in the Chase.
However, Keselowski's team mate Joey Logano did win this season's first Cup race at Texas in April, which means that he's in a position to become only the third driver to sweep both events since the track began hosting two races a year in 2005. Significantly, the two names already on the list are also current Chase contenders, with Carl Edwards the first to do it in 2008 and Denny Hamlin the second in 2010.
A win this weekend for any of the three would guarantee them a place in the final title battle at Homestead regardless of what happens next weekend at Phoenix. At present, all four spots in the season finale are still in play thanks to Earnhardt (who dropped out of the Chase earlier this month) winning at Martinsville and denying his Hendrick Motorsports team mate Jeff Gordon the security of an automatic transfer.
If Chase contenders win this weekend at Texas and next week at Phoenix then just the remaining two positions will be awarded according to who has the most points. In the event of a tie, then only the three races of the Eliminator Round will be taken into account in the count-back of who has the most second-place finishes, or third-place, or fourth, etc. If two drivers still end up with the exact same finishes, the benefit goes to the driver who scored the best finish first.
That's a help to Jeff Gordon whose second place at Martinsville is already in the bank and could prove crucial in such a scenario. But equally, Gordon will know all too well that leading in the points is no guarantee of making it through to the next stage - just ask Kyle Busch, who was in a strong position in the standings going into Talladega but who was taken out in an early crash and ended up with his season in tatters as a result.
So Gordon will be just as motivated to put the matter beyond doubt with a win this weekend: he has one win here back in 2009, together with nine top-fives, 12 top-tens and two pole positions in 27 races, but still only an average finish of 17.2. Ryan Newman has a comparable record at Texas with one win (albeit back in 2003), three top-fives, five top-tens and two poles for an average finish of 19.1 in 22 races. He would dearly love to win this weekend if only to silence the critics who are complaining that he shouldn't have made it this deep into the Chase given that he hasn't won a race all year.
Wins or not, consistency has put Newman into second place in the championship standings just three points behind Gordon. But it's tight at the top, and Newman has only one point over Logano and he is a mere two ahead of Matt Kenseth, who is the other driver in the eight remaining Chase contenders yet to record a win all season. What Kenseth does have is two wins at Texas (2002, 2011), 13 top-fives, 17 top-tens and and average finish of 8.3 in 24 races which gives him as good a chance as anyone of walking away from this weekend with victory in his pocket and a seat at the table in Homestead as reward.
Overall, the tasks facing each of the eight drivers is clear:
- • Harvick and Keselowski each both absolutely need wins and have little to lose by going flat-out for victory at Texas. That said, Harvick's best chance is likely to come next week at Phoenix, which puts even more pressure on Keselowski to do the business at Texas.
- • If Gordon can't win himself, then the best outcome for him this weekend would be for another non-Chase contender to get to victory lane since that means three drivers would then get to Homestead based on the points. With Gordon's existing second-place finish in hand for use in the event of tie-breakers it would take some kind of true disaster to then stop him from getting through to take a shot at winning his fifth Cup title.
- • Newman's strongest suit all Chase long has been consistency, and he needs to keep those top fives coming and not falter either this week or next. A win would be great, but if not then a couple more top five finishes could also prove to be exactly the golden ticket he's looking for.
- • Logano, Kenseth and Hamlin are all in very similar boats. They need to avoid running into trouble themselves at Texas and Phoenix while hoping that one of the others (or Gordon or Logano) crash out early to thin the herd at the front. It's an uneasy position for all three, but Logano - who has picked up wins in both of the first two rounds of the Chase - could easily take care of business with another victory here this weekend that would leave both of the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers in a very tricky spot at Phoenix.
- • Carl Edwards is currently in no man's land, 20 points off Gordon at the front but over ten points clear of Keselowski and Harvick. It's not impossible that he could make it on points, but realistically his strategy has to be do whatever it takes to win.
NASCAR isn't like Formula 1 where you can be pretty certain than only one of two or three drivers are likely to win. At Texas it could well be any one of two dozen different drivers lifting the trophy on Sunday afternoon. But for our money, we think it will either go to Joey Logano or a non-Chase contender such as Jimmie Johnson or Kyle Busch, both previous race winners at Texas and both of whom are looking to redeem their seasons following their premature ejection from the Chase.
It's a little early to be looking ahead to Phoenix, but the stats say the man to beat there is Kevin Harvick - with a side bet on Carl Edwards pulling something out of the bag at the last minute.
If all that falls into place then the final four Chase line-up for Homestead could be shaping up as Jeff Gordon (on points), Joey Logano (on either points or a win), Kevin Harvick (on a win) and ... Well, on this calculation, it's looking like Ryan Newman may continue to go winless and yet still prove the doubters wrong regardless, all the way to the season finale.
Of course it would be a miracle if all our predictions actually fell into place and came true. But that's what makes watching the actual racing out on track so exciting, since a single piece of debris at the wrong moment could yet turn around everyone's expectations.
Sprint Cup Series championship - Chase standings
1. (+6) Jeff Gordon 4044pts
2. (+1) Ryan Newman 4041pts (-3pts)
3. (-2) Joey Logano 4040pts (-4pts)
4. (+1) Matt Kenseth 4039pts (-5pts)
5. (-1) Denny Hamlin 4037pts (-7pts)
6. (--) Carl Edwards 4024pts (-20pts)
7. (+1) Brad Keselowski 4013pts (-31pts)
8. (-6) Kevin Harvick 4011pts (-33pts)
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