Kevin Rutherford · Tuesday November 5, 2013
Two is the magic number entering Phoenix for — hey, look — two reasons.
One — the more obvious, unchanging one — is simple: there’s two races left in the Sprint Cup season. The other? According to most, it’s a two-horse race for the championship at this point, with either Matt Kenseth or Jimmie Johnson likely to take the title.
Is that a safe assumption? Oh, absolutely. Third-place driver Kevin Harvick is 40 points back from the leader, which is nearly an entire race behind (never mind those who think Richard Childress is sabotaging his last few races after his run-in with Ty Dillon anyway). Kyle Busch is even further back at 50 points behind. Technically speaking, the rest of the top 10 in points still have a mathematical shot, though the lower in points one goes, the more that sometimes crazy scenarios have to fall into place.
But if NASCAR racing, as well as sports as whole, are anything, it’s unpredictable. Take Jeff Gordon, a driver who sat third in points entering Texas with a chance of sneaking into the lead should Johnson and Kenseth falter. After a 38th-place finish (without bonus points) he’s all the way back to sixth, 69 points behind and with a ghost of a chance to win the title.
Imagine that happening to Kenseth or Johnson. The way both have been running, 6.1 average finish in the Chase for the former and 4.9 for the latter (best of anyone in Cup,) one slip-up from one likely means assured victory for the other, unless they have their own issues.
If something does happen to both — let’s say an early-race crash or parts failure at Phoenix that decimates both to sub-35th-place finishes — this isn’t over for Harvick and the others, though Harvick especially. It just might set up one of the more hotly contested finales in series history.
Since the new points system in Cup began in 2011 with one point awarded to the 43rd-place driver and anywhere between 47 and 48, depending on laps led, given to the race winner, no driver has ever managed maximum points. However, Tony Stewart has had the best performance since then, scoring 90 points in the final two races of the 2011 season on his way to usurping the throne from Carl Edwards via a tie, scoring an average finish of second.
Edwards’ stretch that year was nearly equally great, with 87 points scored at Phoenix and Homestead combined. Optimal points don’t have to be limited to bona fide title contenders, though; in 2012, Kevin Harvick was the best among Chase drivers, managing 83 points and an average finish of 4.5 to propel him from 11th to eighth in the final rundown.
Prior to 2011, the points were a little different, but it’s obviously still possible to compare average finishes. Carl Edwards had a hell of a 2010, winning the final two races and earning 385 points. Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson both nearly equaled that mark with a 1.5 average finish, Biffle accomplishing the task in 2005 while Johnson hit in 2004, the first year of the Chase.
If a driver was able to replicate Edwards’ feat this season, that could garner an acme of 96 points — assuming said driver leads the most laps in both races. Even accomplishing what Biffle and Johnson did in the mid-2000s would still earn close to 90 points.
If Kenseth and Johnson continue their blistering streaks, they’re untouchable and the title will only come down to them. However, if anything out of the ordinary occurs and someone, namely Harvick or Kyle Busch, can capitalize, a title win by someone other than the top two is totally not out of the question.
Shoot, look at Johnson’s luck during the last two races in 2012 and 2011. He wasn’t nearly as lights out as he’s been this year even prior to Phoenix and Homestead, but the driver of the No. 48 managed an average finish of 34th in the last two races last year. The year before? 23rd. Kenseth didn’t exactly set the world on fire the last two years either, with averages of 16th last year and 19th in 2011.
Comparatively, Harvick managed his 4.5 average in 2012 — the best of anyone in the Chase at the last two races. He’ll obviously be looking to replicate, if not better, that success in 2013, and if he can do so while Matt and Jimmie have some major hardships, like the former’s had the last two years especially, things could get dicey.
Don’t get me wrong here. All the time, folks complain that some people are eternal optimists, saying a driver still has a chance at [insert accomplishment here] until he or she is either mathematically or physically unable to do so; whether or not Denny Hamlin could make the Chase after his return from injury comes to mind.
I’m not saying this is gonna happen. In fact, I wouldn’t bet on it if I was a betting man, which I’m not because I’m awful at everything but video poker — but as the title battles have shown in the past across all series, things don’t always go the way one expects. Johnson and Kenseth have amazingly high average finishes entering the last two races? Great. Cool. Jeff Gordon was doing pretty good up until last week, too.
At the very least, Harvick and co. should know what they’re up against and what they have to accomplish in order to sneak in an upset. Obviously he’ll need some help at the expense of his competitors, but if that happens — however unlikely — the story will be tremendous.
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