Brad Morgan · Tuesday September 24, 2013
Two races down and the Chase hierarchy has become more defined. The Sylvania 300 played out differently than the opening event at Chicagoland, but the finishing order showed many similarities as several of the same drivers made this edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not.
Already there is a sizeable gap separating the haves and the have-nots in standings with fourth place Carl Edwards already 36 points off the leader’s pace. Eight races remain before the 2013 Sprint Cup champion is crowned, however, meaning there is still ample time to make up ground.
The 12 title eligible drivers behind Matt Kenseth in the standings will look to stage a comeback when the series returns to the Monster Mile Sunday, where absentee Tony Stewart won in the season’s first visit. Which Chasers have a chance to win Round 2? That and more are talked about in this week’s Hot or Not.
Matt Kenseth’s name is bolded in the introduction for a reason.
Remember back at the beginning of the season when the No. 20 team seemed light years ahead of the competition, despite some unlucky breaks? Well, it’s happening again, only this time Kenseth hasn’t been hit by the engine bug or any other bug for that matter.
The Joe Gibbs Toyota was the class of the field Sunday, leading 106 laps and ran first as the checkered flag waved. That’s 2-for-2 for Kenseth, who turned in an equally dominant effort at Chicagoland last week.
Those wins really add up and they have created a 14 point cushion over teammate Kyle Busch, the runner-up in both races. Rowdy is one of two drivers who have been able to keep Kenseth within striking distance; the other is a familiar face.
Jimmie Johnson has a reputation for rising to the occasion when the clock hits Chase time, and this year is proving no different. After putting up some un-five-time-like numbers leading up to the playoffs the Hendrick driver looked very comfortable in Illinois, and then posted a fourth-place result at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Five championships and an all-around multitude of Chase success would make Johnson’s current run seem sustainable, but in order to make another title a more realistic possibility he will need to apply more pressure to Kenseth.
At Dover the No. 48 is no stranger to the level of sensationalism required to play catch up. Johnson has a whopping seven wins at the track, and another could be in the works despite his 17th there in June’s FedEx 400.
Carl Edwards makes his first Chase appearance in a warm state of mind after finishing ninth at NHMS. Cousin Carl knows that playoff pushes runs aren’t built in one day (just look at 2011’s near miss with the history books) and the No. 99 appears to be headed down a similar road this go-around.
The top-10 paired with an 11th at Chicagoland are enough to give Edwards a two point edge over teammate Greg Biffle (who also makes this week’s Hot or Not) for fourth in the standings and keeps things looking respectable in comparison to some of his more adverse competitors.
When the Sprint Cup rolls into Delaware Edwards will look to continue bettering his finishes by posting another solid run. Good news for the Carl faithful: the odds of doing so are favorable. In 18 career starts, Edwards has finished eighth or higher in 11 different contests.
Greg Biffle got exactly what he needed from the weekend in Loudon, a third-place finish, and has put himself back into championship contention after stumbling in the Chase opener. For that, the Biff is deserving of a spot alongside his RFR compatriot.
After starting slowly in the Small Wonder it appeared that perhaps Biffle was a postseason dud, but as the sun faded behind overcast skies the No. 16 Fusion transformed into a completely different animal. From there Biffle enjoyed some of the fastest times on the track en route to his best finish since a lone win in the Irish Hills.
Biffle’s chances at collecting his second win at Dover aren’t as good as they once were. Since 2010, the Washington native has only one top-10 finish after getting two victories in the years beforehand.
Fate took a wrong turn for Jeff Gordon in the closing laps in Loudon.
After making the Chase thanks to an act of collusion conducted by Michael Waltrip Racing at Richmond and placing sixth at Chicagoland it appeared that Gordon was destined for something greater, but that all changed because of a botched pit entry. The No. 24 Chevrolet was undoubtedly one of the best cars on the track (leading 36 laps), but after sliding through his pit box midway through the race, Gordon couldn’t fully recover.
The 15th place finish isn’t enough to ruin the party, but Gordon now has work to do in order to prevent his team from slipping any than eighth in the standings. Gordon’s best hope to lessen a 42 point deficit is a replication of the output from his last two trips to Dover (2nd and 3rd).
Kevin Harvick cannot afford another lackluster effort like the one the No. 29 team had at NHMS. A 20th-place result normally isn’t disastrous, but on this occasion it made him the second-worst finishing Chaser.
The strangest part about it is that Harvick never appeared to have anything for the leaders. The No. 29 Chevrolet isn’t known for displays of breathtaking power at Loudon, but it was strange to see Harvick struggle to the extent that he did.
Now the RCR driver must travel to Dover, where his performances have been historically worse than the track the series just departed. If there was an opportune time for Harvick to put together a first ever win there, now would be nice.
It might be harsh to think that Kasey Kahne is now without a hope of winning the championship after only two races, but it’s most likely true. Kahne had trouble stringing together consistently good finishes during the regular season, and unfortunately for the No. 5 camp those discrepancies have flared up during the Chase.
All seemed well for HMS’ third playoff entry after Kahne led 31 laps during the early stages of the race, but that all changed after spinning on Lap 252. Because of the incident the Great Clips Chevrolet was forced behind the wall, eventually reemerging to claim a 37th-place finish.
That’s two Chase races down and no finish better than 12th for Kahne, who hasn’t gotten a top 10 in exactly a month. Even worse, he’s now last in the Chase standings, an astounding 71 points outside of first.
Kahne isn’t the only driver left reeling for answers over Kenseth’s up-tempo start; others including Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano have all fallen over a full race worth of points behind the leader, making a comeback from any of these drivers seem unlikely.
The chance of one of the above lifting the Sprint Cup trophy at Homestead may be farfetched, but it’s not impossible. They should go back and take a look at Jimmie Johnson’s first ever title. The five-time champion began the ‘06 Chase with four straight finishes of 13th or worse (including a 39th at Loudon to kick things off) and still came back to win it all.
Hey, it could happen, again.
©2000 - 2008 Brad Morgan and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!