Three races into the brand-new-format Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and the field has already been reduced by four drivers, with the remaining 12 contenders now all level on 3000 points for the next round of the play-offs. But just because they're equal on points doesn't mean that there isn't a first among equals when it comes to who the favourites are to clinch the 2014 title.

Last week's race at Dover International Speedway saw the four lowest-scoring drivers AJ Allmendinger, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle and Aric Almirola eliminated from title contention. Without meaning to be unkind, the identities of the four to be relegated from the Chase won't really be much surprise to anyone who has been paying attention, consisting as they did of three drivers who had qualified for the play-offs with a surprise race win during the regular season, along with Biffle who is yet to win a race this year but who still succeeded in finishing a slender eight points clear of Clint Bowyer in the championship standings after September's Richmond night race.

With the possible exception of Kurt Busch, none of the quartet had really shown the level of consistent quality required to make it far into the Chase. Busch did have a decent run through the year considering his #41 team was set-up from scratch by Stewart-Haas Racing in a mad last-minute scramble last winter, but understandably it needs some more time to really settle down to get the full return on the investment. He could well be one to watch in 2015's Chase.

Heading into this weekend's race at Kansas Speedway that kicks off the second phase of the Chase (named the Contender Round) we're back to having just 12 drivers in the running for the title, which is how the old Chase worked from its inception in 2004 all the way through to 2013 - that is, if you overlook the abnormal inclusion of a thirteenth driver last year in the wake of the Richmond race rigging scandal. However the new system now resets them all dead level on points with just three races (Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega) to allow them to differentiate themselves from each other before another four drivers are cut from the roster. So who is likely to make the grade - and indeed, who is looking favourite to win this year's title?

Without question, the entire Hendrick Motorsports contingent is looking very strong: they're the only team to get a full four-car line-up into the Chase with reigning champion Jimmie Johnson still in the running along with team mates Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne. That feat alone of taking up a third of the spots in the second round of the Chase with a grand total of 11 races wins so far this year between them speaks volumes for their level of performance.

Looking a little deeper at HMS shows that Kahne has been slightly lucky to make it this far - he was just two points clear of being cut after Dover, and overall hasn't shown the same strength week-by-week of his other more experienced team mates in the squad. The other three look very level on paper at least, but of the trio it's Gordon who has succeeded in scoring the team's sole race win in the three Chase races to date, which suggests that the four-time champion is the man currently on best form. Interesting, none of his titles have come in the Chase era, so will the new format work better for him and enable the 43-year-old to claim his first championship since 2001?

By contrast, the ten years of the old Chase format couldn't have been better suited to Jimmie Johnson who claimed five titles back to back and a sixth in 2013. With his crew chief Chad Knaus, Johnson knew exactly how to run a successful ten-race play-off campaign and be right there at the top when it mattered most. The question now is whether he'll be able to carry through that sort of pitch-perfect performance of a mini-marathon into the new short sprint format being used for the elimination-style play-offs this year, and so far the answer is a very qualified 'maybe.' He's not really looked as strong as usual during the regular season and all three of his 2014 race wins came in a four-race purple patch early in the summer, since when his best result has been a solitary third place last week at Dover. No one's silly enough to write off Johnson's chances of a seventh championship at this stage of course, but he's far from looking invincible in the new set-up.

Away from the Hendrick garage we have strong showings from the three-car Joe Gibbs Racing line-up and the two-car Team Penske squad, both of whom have also been successful in getting all their available drivers into the second phase of the Chase. In JGR's case that's Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, while for Penske it's Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano carrying the torch.

Initially it might look as though JGR is almost the equal of HMS, but closer analysis shows otherwise with the three drivers having picked up only two wins between them all season: by Kyle Busch's usual standards, a solitary race victory at Fontana in March is a major disappointment, and no wins at all for Matt Kenseth who finished as a strong runner-up in last year's Chase is a genuine surprise. Part of the problem is with the team's Toyota engines which have struggled to match the power and reliability of their Chevrolet counterparts used by the Hendrick stable; while there have been encouraging recent signs that Toyota Racing Development have finally got on top of their developmental issues and found a way to deliver speed without blowing up in the process, it still puts JGR as a whole on the back foot this deep into the season and slightly behind the curve in terms of the Chase.

Things could hardly be any more different for the Ford-powered Penske pair who have been on stunning form in 2014. Better still from their point of view, they've only been improving as the season has gone on. Between the two of them, Keselowski and Logano can lay claim to nine race wins this season, including a victory apiece in the first phase of the Chase (at Chicagoland and New Hampshire respectively) which indicates that they have the wind at their backs at the most crucial stage of the season where momentum can make or break a title run. Of the two it seems that Keselowski has the slight edge over Logano which means that if it comes down to the Penskes for the title then the 2012 champion should just about edge it; but the fact is that the new Chase format is balanced on such a fine knife edge that a single misstep in any one race between now and the season finale at Homestead-Miami on November 16 could throw it entirely in one driver's favour over the other. All that said, Brad Keselowski is currently top seed in the Chase and it's for very good reason.

As for the remaining three places in the Chase Contender Round, we have Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick, Richard Childress Racing's Ryan Newman and Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards. Of these it's relatively easy to suggest Newman and Edwards as outsiders to make the title decider, with Newman yet to win a race in 2014 and Edwards only successful once (in the fourth race of the year at Bristol Motor Speedway.) Neither team is looking anywhere near its former glories and both are going through something of a rebuilding process, with Roush further handicapped by knowing that Edwards is leaving the team at the end of the year to run a new fourth car at Joe Gibbs.

Harvick is a different matter, however: he's claimed two wins to date this year (at Phoenix and Darlington in the spring) and moreover his run of pole positions has been simply astounding, with eight so far this season which is more than he had managed in all the previous 12 years combined. He should really have won a bunch more races than he has on the back of this sort of qualifying performance, but he's repeatedly just lost out on race day - if you can count ten top fives, 15 top tens and an average finishing position for the year of 14th as 'losing out'. Pit stop glitches have continued to plague him just as they did when he was at RCR, and even team boss Tony Stewart swapping in his own reliable pit crew to take over in the last three races seems not to have helped the #4 get that missing piece in place that could make all the difference - yet.

So with all that analysis done, where does that leave us in terms of predictions for who is going to make it through the Contender and Eliminator Rounds?

Again without meaning to be cruel, it's Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman who look to be most up against it when it comes to avoiding the cut that comes after the Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 19, along with Kasey Kahne and one of the JGR contingent - our money's on Denny Hamlin simply because it seems that whenever there's any bad luck going for the team, he always seems to be on the receiving end of it. However a single accident at any of the three events for any of the other drivers would be very hard to bounce back from in time, and could therefore prove crucial in deciding the line-up.

As for the final four who will race for the title at Homestead, it would surely be a surprise if Keselowski and Gordon weren't still firmly in contention following the final eliminations at Phoenix on November 9. We think that the remaining two places will probably be shared out between Logano, Johnson and Harvick - and right now, surprise though it might be, it seems that it could well be Johnson who might be the man left out when the music stops.

And as for which of our predicted top four might emerge as the ultimate winner at the end of the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead - well, that really is utterly impossible to state with any sort of certainty. The four will start the race dead level in points so the title will go to whichever of them finishes in the highest position. That means a random first lap multi-car accident could leave three of the remaining quartet immediately out of the running; equally, it might come down to a four-wide lunge to the chequered flag at the end of over three hours of racing. Only your friendly neighbourhood psychic can assert their ability to predict that one in advance.

That's really the beauty of the new 2014 Chase format: it might have its faults, but in terms of making the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship a nail-biter right down to the wire then it's undoubtedly doing its job.



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