Last week, everything appeared so simple. It was clear which of the eight Chase contenders were up against it, and which were looking in good shape to secure one of the four available seats in the winner-take-all title decider at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 16.
Coming into this weekend, we reckoned that Texas could hold the key to who would ultimately emerge victorious from the Eliminator 8 Round of the new-format Chase play-offs. Instead it seems that this key has actually been used to unlock all the doors and windows and throw the championship battle wide-open, so that now literally anyone could make it through to the season finale - and equally, anyone can still crash out.
had held the points lead after Martinsville, albeit only by three points over Ryan Newman
. Three more drivers (Joey Logano, Matt Kenseth
and Denny Hamlin
) had also been within single figures of Gordon. But at least last week's race seemed to have singled out three of the drivers looking likely to fail to make the cut, with Carl Edwards
20 points behind and both Brad Keselowski
and Kevin Harvick
more than 30 points off the pace.
That's a lot of ground to make up in just two races, but to their credit Harvick and Keselowski went out this week and threw everything they had into doing just that, taking second and third place respectively at Texas which in a single bound almost halves their deficit to the points leader - which is no longer Gordon, by the way, after the #24 spun out after contact with Keselowski at the penultimate restart on Sunday evening. Instead it's Logano and Hamlin who are tied for the top spot on 3072 points, while Newman - who has made a virtue of solid reliability in his title campaign - is still hanging in there two points behind.
And yet we can't say with any certainty that any of these three will make it through to the finale at Homestead, because now only 18 points covers all eight remaining contenders after mayhem at Texas closed everyone right back up again. Harvick may currently be in last place in the Chase, but if he were to finish in, say, second place next weekend at Phoenix and none of the other contenders got into the top ten then he would easily be one of the final four at Homestead.
Such an outcome is entirely plausible since Phoenix International Raceway has proved to be a very happy hunting ground for Harvick in the past, with five career wins there in total including last year's Chase race and also the most recent visit earlier this year. It would surprise no one if Harvick made it to victory lane again next weekend.
And of course, a outright win at Phoenix would transform the situation by putting Harvick into the title decider regardless of what his rivals manage to pull off, since victory ensures automatic progression to the next (and in this case final) round of the play-offs. What's currently so remarkable is that after the first six races of the Chase were all won by contenders, the most recent outings at Martinsville and Texas have gone to those already eliminated from the play-offs. That means none of the eight Chase drivers are assured of anything as they head off to Phoenix. No one has booked a place, no one can feel safe or certain that they will make it through.
The two recent wins by non-Chase pair Dale Earnhardt Jr and Jimmie Johnson also means that at least three of the spots for the title decider will be awarded purely on who has the most points after Phoenix. Johnson knew this when he fought tooth and nail to stop Harvick and Keselowski getting past him at Texas, because if one of them had won then it would have immediately closed off one of the spots that his team mate Jeff Gordon might yet need to stay in contention. It's why Johnson couldn't waste time indulging in on-track retaliation against Keselowski in case doing so let Harvick slip through to claim the win.
So what's going to happen next week? Frankly, anyone thinking they can make any sort of reliable prediction at this stage needs to be kept away from any casinos, slot machines or pyramid schemes at all times, because it's simply not possible to know. The points are within such a narrow range of acceptable deviation that political pollsters would surely write off any findings as too close to call.
With that caveat in mind, we do stand by our prediction last week that Kevin Harvick could very well win outright next week to secure his position. He's already been mighty impressive in the last few races - even claiming second at Texas on Sunday, a track he's never won at - and together with the form he's enjoyed at Phoenix in the past he's surely got to be the favourite to go to victory lane there when it counts the most.
Jeff Gordon has also been too consistently good in recent races to rule out, and we think he has a good chance of bouncing back to finish in the top three in the points, although he doesn't have the same successful record at Phoenix as Harvick does (he's won only twice, in 2007 and 2011). And given that he's going into next week's race at the top of the points, we reckon Joey Logano for the third of the four available seats.
And the fourth? Hamlin and Newman are the obvious contenders for it, but if Texas proved anything it's how quickly fortunes can change in this new elimination-format play-off system. You'd have to say that Newman has the track record in delivering consistency week-in and week-out during this Chase; maybe his 15th place finish at Texas will be his one and only 'wobble' and he'll bring home the Chase transfer he needs next time out despite his ongoing lack of race wins in 2014.
In many ways the biggest surprise would be to see Denny Hamlin in the final four, simply because there's been no title buzz about the Joe Gibbs Racing driver who has tended to be overshadowed by both of his team mates, Kenseth and Kyle Busch (who was shocked to crash out of the Chase after Talladega.) But maybe that's the route to victory this season - by flying low, staying under the radar, keeping out of trouble. Could Hamlin turn out to be the dark horse champion that no one saw coming all year?
Lets face it - at this point nothing would surprise us.
Sprint Cup Series championship - Chase standings
1. (+2) Joey Logano 4072pts
2. (+3) Denny Hamlin 4072pts
3. (-1) Ryan Newman 4070pts (-2pts)
4. (-3) Jeff Gordon 4060pts (-12pts)
5. (-1) Matt Kenseth 4059pts (-13pts)
6. (--) Carl Edwards 4059pts (-13pts)
7. (--) Brad Keselowski 4055pts (-17pts)
8. (--) Kevin Harvick 4054pts (-18pts)
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