The Hollywood Casino 400 had all the twists and turns of a great Hollywood script and left many of the Sprint Cup Series’ best with unfavorable odds of advancement moving forward. A Contender Round opener at Kansas Speedway did a number on the Who’s Hot and Who’s Not landscape and things are just getting started.
Charlotte Motor Speedway presents its own set of challenges and is the perfect place for a pivotal race before the probable peril that awaits at Talladega Superspeedway in just two weeks.
Here’s the aftermath of Kansas, but warning; things have changed in a hurry.
Wins in the Contender Round are at a premium. It’s impossible to predict what will happen in its restrictor plate finale at Talladega so getting locked in now is of the utmost importance. That’s exactly what Joey Logano did Sunday. Logano started from the fourth position and led a race-high 122 laps before collecting the victory, but that isn’t the only reason he owns Hot or Not this week.
Logano has been the best driver in Sprint Cup competition recently and shows no signs of slowing down. Since the beginning of the Chase, Logano hasn’t finished worse than fourth and is the only Chaser who can say that. He’s also the only Cup driver who has finished inside the top 10 in 10 of the last 11 races. Add three wins over that period into the equation and its easy to understand why “Sliced Bread” is dead. Logano had put his old nickname to rest earlier in 2014, but his championship aspirations are alive and better than ever.
Better news for Logano: Kyle Larson isn’t in the Chase. After narrowly missing out on a Chase berth, Larson hasn’t backed down. With four sequential top 6s, he would be second in the playoff standings or tied for ninth if points didn’t reset after Richmond.
The Chase has revitalized Kyle Busch. Busch’s third at Kansas contributed to an average finish of seventh over the last four races. When compared to a 31.6 mark in six races preceding the Chase, his most recent form has been remarkable.
Busch breezed through the Challenger Round and is set up nicely for the remainder of the second round. With top 10s in 12 of 14 races at Charlotte, he’ll look to retain the second spot in points.
Busch’s turnaround goes well beyond numbers, however. After crew chief Dave Rogers expressed his disgust for Busch’s testy attitude at Bristol Motor Speedway it appeared the there was a serious rift in the No. 18 camp that would prevent Busch from making a postseason impact for yet another year, but that verbal confrontation instead seems to have improved his composure for the time being.
“I won today. I just didn’t get champagne and a trophy,” Busch said after rallying to finish third at Kansas. Those comments represent another form of victory for a driver who is ordinarily unhappy with anything less than a trip to Victory Lane.
Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman round out the top 4 in points after running the Hollywood Casino 400 without issue. Both drivers are setup for possible advancement if favorable Charlotte histories hold true again.
Edwards has led laps in the past three Kansas events and has finished the past six inside the top 11 in six consecutive races. Meanwhile, Newman has managed top 10s in two of three races since the beginning of the 2013 season. Their consistent styles will be beneficial while trying to hold off those who fell short in Kansas.
The list of Chasers affected by adverse circumstances at Kansas included many of the favorites for the Cup title. Jimmie Johnson was caught in a wreck involving the recently eliminated Greg Biffle, among others. Kasey Kahne made a green flag stop that backfired when the caution flag waved while he was still on pit road, and then he scraped the wall and brought out a caution of his own. Even Brad Keselowski ran into trouble after the No. 2 Ford blew a tire and made hard impact with the wall.
But none were hurt worse than Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Earnhardt, like Keselowski, took a shot in points because of a tire issue, which in his case resulted in a 39th that dropped him to 11th in the standings. But unlike Keselowski, Earnhardt hasn’t recently shown what it will take to recover. Earnhardt has only one top 10 over the last seven races and didn’t lead a lap in that stretch until Sunday (pacing the field for 45 laps before his accident).
If Earnhardt’s recent CMS numbers are any indication, he might need a win at Talladega to advance. Earnhardt hasn’t finished better than 15th at Charlotte in three attempts and recorded his first DNF – a blown engine – in eight years in May of 2013.
Austin Dillon has been the only rookie to remotely challenge Larson in the battle for Rookie of the Year. The remaining full-time rookies – Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett, Alex Bowman and Cole Whitt – haven’t shown signs of being truly capable of winning the honor. Among them, Annett and Bowman aren’t even showing signs of improvement as the season moves into its closing stages.
Among drivers who have attempted each of the last six races, Annett and Bowman rank ahead of only Josh Wise in average finish. Annett’s 32.0 mark is 2.7 positions worse than his average for the entire season. With three finishes of 37th or worse over that span it’s easy to understand how that could happen.
Bowman actually fared better than Annett’s drop off, posting a 33.76, only 1.57 positions worse than his season average, but was less successful overall.
Neither Allgaier, Annett, Bowman or Whitt has a top-10 finish this season. Allgaier leads the four with six top 20s compared to Annett’s three, while Bowman (a 13th in the attrition-filled Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway) and Whitt have only one.
It’s been a rough campaign for each to say the least, but at least they have managed to maintain their full-time seats. Rookie Ryan Truex appears to have parted ways with BK Racing in September and fellow rookie Parker Kligerman lost his ride with Swan Racing after it sold all assets in April.
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