With 26 races in the books there exist two distinct groups of drivers: those who qualified for the Chase and the many, many more who will have to wait until next year to lay stake over one of 16 playoff spots.
The line was left anything but blurred after the regular season finale at Richmond International Raceway, as Greg Biffle grabbed the last available wild-card berth and Clint Bowyer was left mulling over a lost opportunity.
It would be far too easy to classify based solely off postseason statuses as championship contenders or bystanders, just hoping to play NASCAR’s version of a wedding crasher for a week or two. Instead, let’s take a deeper look to determine Who’s Hot and Who’s Not, taking into account the races leading up to Chicagoland Speedway and Chase statistics from years past. Find out below who’s favored to survive the first round of eliminations and whose title hunt could come to a premature end.
This one’s an easy call. Brad Keselowski did it all in the Federated Auto Parts 400. Keselowski qualified on the front row for the 11th time, led an eye-popping 383 of 400 laps, captured a series-leading fourth victory and left no doubt that he’s ready for the Chase. It was the kind of performance that might be deemed boring to the untrained eye: near-perfect stops and an uncanny ability to remain unchallengeable circuit after circuit, but it showed just how good Keselowski can be.
Keselowski’s last-second jump to number one on the Chase grid makes the decision to include him as a Chicagoland favorite an easy one. An ongoing run of three consecutive top 10s there is highlighted by a 2012 victory that served as a precursor to his lone Sprint Cup Series championship, and top 10s in three of four events entering this favorable matchup don’t hurt either. Keselowski’s outlook at the moment is easily as stocked as his refrigerator at Team Penske’s headquarters.
Don’t worry, Jimmie Johnson appears to be just fine. The ESPN broadcast team concluded ABC’s coverage Saturday night with somewhat of a question mark surrounding Johnson’s condition following his collapse after climbing out of the No. 48 Chevrolet, but an Associated Press article Sunday helped to clarify the situation.
Although Johnson said he wouldn’t participate in a triathlon benefiting the Jimmie Johnson Foundation, all systems are go for the six-time champion in pursuit of a record-tying seventh NSCS crown.
While Jeff Gordon has remained productive at intermediate tracks well into his 23rd year of NSCS competition, Gordon hasn’t experienced quite the same level of success at Chicagoland over the past three years (24th in 2011 and 35th in 2012). The good news is that those hiccups are the only things keeping him out of the upper echelon of Hot or Not. Gordon has otherwise been at his absolute best.
Gordon enters the Chase in the second tier of drivers – three points behind Keselowski – coming off a runner-up finish that locked up the regular-season points title, but he holds a slight edge over Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Johnson, Joey Logano and everyone else in several categories. Gordon either leads the or is tied for the series lead in top 10s (17), average finish (10), races finished (26) and lead-lap finishes (23), and if that wasn’t enough, he’s also an accomplished Chaser.
Kevin Harvick fits the same mold. Harvick has three third-place and two fourth-place points finishes spread across seven prior Chase runs.
Harvick makes a Hot or Not appearance having recently discovered the remedy to his consistency woes, evidence of the second-best average finish (7.67) in six races leading up to Chicagoland. That’s bad news for everyone else and turns Harvick into an instant week-to-week threat should this new-found coherence between driver and team be maintained, considering he was posting “freaky fast” speeds long before the No. 4 Chevrolet’s mechanics and pit crew caught up.
Joe Gibbs Racing, like Hendrick Motorsports and Penske, safely put each of its full-time entries into the Chase, but there’s a glaring difference that separates JGR from the latter. The organization’s three drivers aren’t in championship form and in some cases aren’t even competitive.
Matt Kenseth enters the Chase without a win for the first time since 2010, fresh off a 41st at RIR.
Kyle Busch is the fortunate one, if only because his inclusion in this category is a bump up after weeks in the Hot or Not basement. There’s no denying that Busch has been the worst of the JGR trio and is here only to be mentioned aside Denny Hamlin and Kenseth.
Busch limps into a Chase that he wouldn’t have qualified for had it not been for a victory at Auto Club Speedway, and he’ll need to find a way to improve quickly or he’ll be in danger of missing the first cut. The best case scenario would be paradoxical reaction, given that Busch usually enters the final 10 races on a hot streak before collapsing, but its hard to foresee a turnaround because of his lackluster postseason history.
Hamlin shares multiple characteristics with Busch: a lone win – the only reason he’s Chase eligible – and a rough stretch leading up to Chicagoland. Hamlin threw his HANS device at Harvick following a DNF at Bristol and looked ordinary during a 21st at Richmond, but while Busch has reason be optimistic at Chicagoland, Hamlin doesn’t, posting an 20.5 average finish spanning eight starts.
Reality can be harsh. Placing Aric Almirola in the cold category after back-to-back top 10s and a Chase berth might seem a little extreme, but it also makes sense. Almirola’s playoff ticket was punched after winning a bizarre Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, and that doesn’t mean much (just ask Darrell Waltrip).
Almirola’s 16.625 average finish at Chase populated 1.5-mile tracks in 2014 shows that Richard Petty Motorsports has maintained the intermediate track package success that it found last season, but RPM equipment still lacks the horsepower of the elite organizations, illustrated by progressively lower production as track size increases. Almirola’s 1.5-mile average since 2012 also trails 13 other Chase drivers, making an early exit seem more likely.
There’s also the Chase experience aspect. Neither Almirola nor RPM have ever made a playoff appearance, and that usually doesn’t bode well for a driver or team. Examining the drivers with only one year’s worth of Chase starts shows why. Of those five, only Logano has an average finish of at least 15th and none were able to finish higher than eighth in the Chase standings.
For as big of an underdog as Almirola is, AJ Allmendinger is an even bigger one. The fellow first timer has only two top fives, one being his first-ever win at Watkins Glen International. The No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing driver’s prospects don’t get any more encouraging from there, falling short of Almirola’s results, and making him the least likely driver to capture the title.
Las Vegas odds makers disagree. Allmendinger and Almirola are listed as 250-1 long shots to hoist the championship trophy.