Brad Morgan · Tuesday November 5, 2013
The AAA 500 proved that the 2013 Chase for the Cup is indeed a two driver race. Jimmie Johnson looked his best Sunday while Matt Kenseth spent much of the afternoon in pursuit of the No. 48 Chevrolet. Their pristine Chase resumes have created a sizeable gap in the standings that leaves even third-place Kevin Harvick (-40 points) without a shot at the moment.
While Johnson and Kenseth remain entrenched a close battle, the other Chase drivers will be looking to crash the party when the series heads to Phoenix.
This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not shows that while some high profile drivers have made serious progress recently, there are really only a few names that have remained relevant with two races remaining.
Eight Chase races down and Jimmie Johnson is in championship form.
The five-time champion appears more than ready to add to a sixth Sprint Cup title to his collection judging by a truly dominant performance at Texas Motor Speedway. Johnson led an astonishing 255-of-334 and collected his sixth win of the season. Everything added up to a perfect driver rating (150) and a slim lead in the standings.
Don’t hand Johnson the Cup just yet, however. While the Hendrick driver did beat Matt Kenseth to the line in a convincing manor, Kenseth showed why he has remained a force in the championship to this point.
On Lap 173 the No. 20 Toyota was caught speeding while on pit road and lost a lap while serving a mandatory pass-through penalty. Kenseth raced his way back onto the lead lap shortly thereafter and finished a close fourth. The close margin paired with Johnson’s bonus points for winning and leading the most laps resulted in a seven point deficit in the standings.
Johnson will again be favored over Kenseth in Phoenix, only this time Johnson would appear to have a bigger edge. Where the 1-mile track is home to some of Johnson’s best numbers, it’s also a venue where Kenseth has struggled. But, if there is anyone capable of reversing some not-so-favorable stats right now, it’s the Joe Gibbs driver.
It’s taken the better part of a year, but Brad Keselowski seems to finally be returning to the level that made him championship worthy down the stretch last season. A sixth-place finish at TMS continues a hot streak that began with his breakthrough victory at Charlotte.
Perhaps the most obvious indication of Keselowski’s Chase-time revival is laps led. He added 30 more laps led to his 2013 total (440), a number that has grown largely over the last two plus months – after being held quiet in that category leading back to the fourth race of the season at Bristol.
The defending champion overtook Jamie McMurray for 14th in the standings (the first non-Chaser spot) in the Lone Star State, and will look to strengthen the gap at a track where he’s experienced an increasing degree of success over the past three races there. Another top 10 would be his fourth consecutive at Phoenix.
Denny Hamlin will also be looking to continue a late-season run in Arizona. The No. 11 team continued to look strong over 500 miles at TMS and Hamlin recorded a seventh-place result, his seventh top 10 of the season.
There were doubts that Hamlin would be able to finish out the season after it became evident that he was still experiencing pain from the spinal injury that cost him four races earlier this year. After not appearing capable of competing at a high level because of those chronic pains, Hamlin has miraculously turned things around over the past month.
With Kevin Harvick’s title hopes hanging by a thread, things could be worse. At least he didn’t suffer a major setback like the other two drivers who were seemingly in the mix entering the weekend in Texas.
Jeff Gordon’s situation was more disappointing because of the circumstances. Gordon was the Cinderella story entering Round 8 of the Chase and appeared to be headed towards another meaningful finish until the No. 24 Chevrolet lost a tire on Lap 73 and collided with the Turn-1 wall hard enough to force the Hendrick machine behind the wall. The four-time champion finished 38th after returning to the track, bad enough to slip back three spots in the standings.
Kyle Busch got off to a good start in the Chase, but since Kansas he has struggled to maintain that momentum, and Texas might have killed his championship hunt. Busch needed a win at TMS, but what he got was far from that.
While Johnson encountered a nearly flawless race, Busch endured a mistake filled affair highlighted by a tire issue that caused damage to the No. 18 Toyota. After racing back to second, he was penalized because of a speeding violation. The end result was a 13th-place finish and an end to Busch’s title hopes.
Carl Edwards was on the way to making something of an otherwise lost Chase. After qualifying the No. 99 Fusion on the pole, Edwards led 38 laps when the green flag dropped Sunday afternoon. But after 187 laps his day came to an end because of a blown engine, his first DNF of the playoffs.
Edwards appeared ready to salvage something after getting off to an unspectacular start to the final 10-race stretch, only to suffer a malfunction that makes this race look a lot worse than it appeared it would be. The worst part is that Edwards has now fallen to 11th in the standings, tied for his lowest position in the Chase, and puts the Roush driver in danger of finishing outside the top 10 for the second consecutive year.
The most alarming part is that it didn’t seem likely for things to fall apart because of the consistency displayed by the No. 99 team during the regular season. Edwards challenged for the points lead at times this year, but once the Chase started, he never displayed that level of racing. Edwards has just three top-10 finishes since winning at Richmond in the non-Chase finale.
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