NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Racing to the Point: Separating the Chase Contenders & Pretenders

This new elimination-style playoff format has many people believing that some of the Chase underdogs have a chance at the title as along as they keep their noses clean and survive each round.

I want to dispel that rumor right now. The cream is still going to rise to the top, as it always does.

With that said, here’s a handy guide to all your Chase competitors, sleepers and also-rans entering Chicagoland.

I couldn’t win the title if the rest of my competition retired tomorrow to become pastry chefs and NASCAR wrote my name on the trophy: Aric Almirola, AJ Allmendinger, Carl Edwards.

The surprise here might be Edwards, but it shouldn’t be. Lame-duck drivers don’t win championships. Kevin Harvick (2013) and Matt Kenseth (2012) each put forth valiant efforts for teams much stronger than Edwards’, and neither factored into the championship. Edwards has had some strong runs recently at Watkins Glen and Bristol, but he’s also had a couple of complete no-shows at Michigan and Richmond. Roush Fenway Racing is a long way back on the engineering side and Edwards has his eyes fixated on the exit sign.

Meanwhike, whether you’re a fan of the new Chase format or not, you have to admit that it’s kind of fun throwing a couple of true underdogs in the mix. Allmendinger and Almirola are just that. It’s also really nice to see a pair of smaller race teams that haven’t made the Chase before reap the spoils of it.

It’s a nice story, but these guys don’t have a shot in hell. Unless the Chase turns into a game of Super Mario Kart and Almirola can use his lightning power to shrink the competition and then run them over, he’s in trouble. Allmendinger better at least get star power or he is, too. These guys just don’t have the cars to compete and the schedule isn’t really in their favor. There are no road courses left and the chances of three-quarters of the field getting wiped out at Talladega so Almirola can score another win aren’t good.

I’m going to need a genie in a bottle, a four-leaf clover and that horseshoe Jimmie Johnson used to have up his butt to win this thing: Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch.

After that dismal run at Richmond, Biffle could arguably be in that first group. The reason he’s not is because of the five weeks before that where he pulled top 10s out of his butt every week. Biffle was driving the wheels off that car late in races to score those finishes because the No. 16 hasn’t been top 10-worthy. Biffle’s going to need to pull a lot more out to get to the finale, but considering the run he went on just to get in the Chase, it’s not impossible.

Kyle Busch isn’t in the next group with his teammates because of, well, Kyle Busch. As evidenced this summer, when things aren’t going well, he’s not your guy. Not only is he not mature enough to win a Sprint Cup championship, but this year, he also doesn’t have the car to do it. The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas sure get off of pit road quickly, but they’re not so good in a straight line.

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
Kyle Busch: the Carmelo Anthony of NASCAR. (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

Busch has made the Chase in five of his seven seasons at Gibbs. He hasn’t played a factor in any playoff. He has only one finish better than eighth and that was last year (fourth). He’s NASCAR’s Carmelo Anthony.

A week after winning at Atlanta — a race during which he ran like junk until the end — Kahne returned to previous form and finished a lap down at Richmond. The No. 5 team’s been a mystery this year. Every time you think they’ve figured it out, they show the very next week that they haven’t. Kahne ran third at Kansas earlier this year, and then was 14th the next race at his best track, Charlotte. He led to the final restart at Indy and was just 10th the next week at Pocono. He won Atlanta and was 17th at Richmond. He won’t win a championship because he’s all over the board.

Newman’s consistency lately has been impressive, but he’s usually working hard just to get into the top 10. He doesn’t have the machine to beat Penske Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. He is reliable, though, and that could advance him a couple of rounds. The only reason I don’t have Newman in the next group is because those drivers have the capability of winning, while the No. 31 going to Victory Lane this year — outside of Talladega — is a long shot.

My team doesn’t have it all put together, but don’t overlook me because I could sneak into the finale: Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch.

I don’t need to chronicle much about the Gibbs guys because they’ve told their sad stories during every TV interview this summer. The pit crew is great, the car isn’t good enough and – again – the car isn’t good enough. You can’t completely count out Hamlin or Kenseth, though, because they can run in the top 10, maybe win a race and end up at Homestead. If they get there, they’re best bet to win the title is to convince Brian France to make the finale a pit crew competition. He likes changing rules, so he might just do it.

If the Chase started earlier in the year, Kurt Busch would’ve been in that first category. He was wrecking often, running 30th when he wasn’t and contending with Danica Patrick for 29th in the standings. For a while there, it wasn’t clear whether he was going to be able to stay in front of David Gilliland and co. to stay in the top 30 and qualify for the Chase.

He’s come a long way since. Busch was third at Watkins Glen, wrecked racing for second at Michigan (31st), was fifth at Bristol, 13th at Atlanta and seventh at Richmond. A lot of people are probably counting him out, but he has the Hendrick power and the experience of winning a title before, so I wouldn’t.

Everyone is wondering if I’m going to just flip a switch and blow the competition away like I’m the bad guy in an action movie: Jimmie Johnson.

Has that mad scientist Chad Knaus just been using Johnson’s car for Chase lab experiments all season, or is the No. 48 really just an eighth-place car? That’s probably the most intriguing question we should get an answer to at Chicagoland.

Johnson has flipped that switch before after entering the Chase under the radar, but none of those instances seemed quite like this. In the past, when Johnson’s car wasn’t right at the beginning of the race, he was almost always fighting for the win by the end. That hasn’t happened this year. Part of the reason is the drivers in the next group are really, really fast and in the top 5 almost every week. That hasn’t necessarily been the case of his competition in the past.

I’m here, I’m for real, and you’re going to have to go through me to win the chip: Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick.

I debated whether or not Harvick belongs in this group. He obviously has the speed each week to be here, but I’m not sure he completely believes he has the team to be here. The rest of the drivers on this list do. Harvick’s disdain for his own pit crew — they don’t seem that bad to me — may cost him. His driving has been championship-worthy.

Earnhardt’s been the weakest qualifier of the group and seems to initially miss the setup most often, but the guy grinds out solid finishes like it’s nobody’s business. He’s also proven this year that he can win, which is what held him back from being a true championship contender in the past. Still, Earnhardt is certainly the underdog out of the five drivers in the final group.

Gordon has a scary look in his eyes. It’s a mix of confidence and drive I assume. It’s been missing from his past Chase appearances. Gordon and Harvick have followed each other around on the track this season like they’re from the same shop. The difference between them is Gordon is completely behind everything his team is doing, and believes that if they keep doing that, he’ll win a fifth title. Harvick, meanwhile, doubts whether something is missing.

That brings us to Mercedes AMG Petronas – I mean, Penske. Keselowski has qualified in the top 3 15 times in 26 races. It’s doesn’t quite match the qualifying dominance of the Mercedes F1 team, but in NASCAR Sprint Cup, it’s astounding. Logano is right there every week, too. It means that they not only start at the front every race, lead laps and stay out of trouble, but they also get the best pit stalls. And the Penske cars are just as fast in the race as they are in qualifying. Gordon and Harvick can compete on a weekly basis, but not really anyone else.

If you’re saying Logano isn’t ready to be champion, think again. He runs up front and is capable of winning everywhere. Maybe he does wilt under the pressure of the Chase, but Keselowski won’t. He lives for this. He’s also laid down the biggest smack downs this season (Kentucky, New Hampshire and Richmond) and I’m not sure he’s finished.

The new format is about first getting to Homestead (at least one of them will) and then beating three other cars there.

Can you picture a Penske car not winning at Homestead? I can’t.

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Bill B

Interesting analysis. Your logic is sound and I agree with it for the most part. But remember, there is a higher than ever crapshoot-luck factor in this year’s chase format that defies logic.

Carl D.

Why you wanna go and pick on Kyle Busch? Don’t you know he’s the winningest driver in Nationwide history? Oh… this column is about the Sprint Cup Championship… Never mind.

Bette Geraud

I can hope a Penske car doesn’t win! I am for Jeff ( the old timer ,who got much younger if you have watched his driving ). —-and Harvick who has had the speed most of the year ! I don’t care for the way Kevin has talked to his crew But they have had their problems ! I don’t know where you have been looking not to see them ?? My own thought : they have lost all confidence in them selves !!!Now Tony : he better get the Pit crew thing under control fast !! His best time for a
Champion ship is right now with his buddy Harvick ! ! Get a crew together for him with so e leadership and he could have a winner this year !!!! Shouldn’t say it but I will ! We sure don’t want Brad as. Champion again ! A pretty sad representative for our beloved Nascar !!!

Carl D.

Bette, Bette, Bette… I love your cheerful photo but I gotta disagree with you about Brad. He’s a great champion. He races other drivers relatively clean, does his required post-race interviews usually without trashing other drivers, shows his support for our troops, and when he wins he circles the track with the U.S. flag. Yeah, he was a little aggressive when he first came up to cup, but no moreso than Harvick and Stewart, and he has matured a lot since then (unlike a certain driver who shall remain nameless but his brother drives the #41). I’ll be pulling for Brad, but take solace in the fact that I really think this is the year the drive for five is successful for Jeff Gordon.

DeniseW

Amen, Carl! I think Brad has represented his sport very well.

JohnQ

Huh, what, oh the Chase again, sorry I must have dozed off. You zzzzz were saying zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

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