Some of NASCAR’s best drivers from the regular season were left out of the Eliminator Round after falling flat at Talladega Superspeedway. Three former champions entered Talladega weekend on the outside of the bubble looking in, and one of them didn’t advance. Only three remain along with five drivers who have never lifted the Sprint Cup trophy. NASCAR’s most popular driver was also in need of a victory that didn’t materialize.
Needless to say, this edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not is different in comparison to many of its 2014 predecessors. Talladega tends to do that.
Martinsville Speedway offers no relief. Tempers flared the last time the Sprint Cup Series visited the Paperclip – and could again, just two weeks removed from post-race fireworks at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Hot or Not sets the stage for the semifinals below.
It was mission accomplished for Brad Keselowski, who had to put in some overtime at Talladega Superspeedway to prove that Team Penske is still on top of the Sprint Cup Series and advance into the Eliminator Round. Keselowski outlasted Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and stayed ahead of Jimmie Johnson and others through two green-white-checkered restarts to win the GEICO 500 and save his season.
Keselowski joined teammate and Hollywood Casino 400 winner Joey Logano and Bank of America 500 winner Kevin Harvick as automatic qualifiers for the semifinal three-race set. Without what was his second career Talladega victory, Keselowski would have missed the points cutoff after struggling at Kansas and Charlotte Motor speedways.
It was a victory that didn’t come without adversity. Keselowski was nearly taken out on lap 58 when Jamie McMurray spun into the side of the No. 2 Redd’s Wicked Apple Ale Ford Fusion. After several yellow flag stops to survey the damage, Keselowski returned to the race without losing a lap. The team effort makes the 2012 champion’s ending to an adverse round even more deserving of a Hot or Not mention.
In order to stay here, Keselowski needs to avoid another Martinsville Speedway confrontation with Kurt Busch and instead revert back to four starts from 2012-2013 that netted one top 5 and four top 10s. He’ll also need to best several other aspiring Martinsville winners.
Five drivers qualified for the third round of the Chase based off the number of points they accumulated. Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin would qualify for the Chase finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a victory.
Of the remaining title eligible drivers, Gordon is a prime candidate to follow through with that notion. Gordon has eight Martinsville victories, the last of which came in this event last season. He also has the highest average finish (7.4) of any remaining Chase driver over the last six races there.
There’s also Kenseth, whose 8.0 ranks him second in that category. Unlike Gordon, Kenseth doesn’t have a win over his last six starts, but he’s proven sustainable without a trip to Victory Lane over the 26-race regular season and two playoff rounds. Kenseth ranked fifth in points during the Contender Round, second among drivers who haven’t gotten a win this year.
Newman finished third in points over that span, behind only Logano and Harvick. Newman earns a Hot or Not nod after narrowly missing out on a great chance to snap his season-long winless streak at Talladega.
The bad news is that Newman’s car failed post-race inspection after officials found the partially damaged No. 31 Chevrolet SS below standard height regulations. USA Today writer and NASCAR on NBC contributor Nate Ryan believes that Newman could be penalized 15 points if officials find reason to uphold their decision after taking the car back to the Research and Development Center.
Of course, Jimmie Johnson could seize the moment and capture the outright lead for Martinsville wins among active drivers with an incredible ninth victory, but it won’t put him in a position to win a seventh NSCS title.
Johnson was eliminated from Chase contention in a very disappointing way. After leading a race-high 84 laps (also a career high in 26 Talladega starts), he found himself behind Keselowski and without a drafting partner following the first of two green-white-checkered restarts. Johnson slipped to 24th, and for all title-aspiring purposes his season is over, after losing control of a race that he commanded.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. wasn’t in a position to take advantage of Johnson’s late-race mistake because of a mistake of his own. Earnhardt was mired in the middle of a three-wide after the first green-white-checkered attempt and wrecked the No. 88 Chevrolet SS after contract with Greg Biffle. NASCAR’s most popular driver won’t be able to better his career-best fifth-place Chase finish (2006 and 2013) as a result.
Hendrick Motorsports entered the weekend with the unpleasant realization that only one of its two bubble drivers – Johnson and Earnhardt – would be able to qualify for the Eliminator Round. Both drivers needed a win to advance after falling short of expectations at Kansas and Charlotte, one that neither could produce. Add Kasey Kahne to the list of eliminated HMS drivers, and the organizations historic season has quickly gone sour.
Kyle Busch brought a special Halloween-themed M&M’s No 18 Toyota Camry to Talladega, third in the standings with a 26-point cushion over then-ninth-place driver Kenseth. Busch seemed content to ride at the back of the pack in hopes of avoiding the dreaded Big One, but that strategy backfired when Busch was heavily involved in a lap 104 accident that broke out ahead of him. Busch spent the majority of remaining laps in the garage area. Another Big One never materialized and Busch missed the Eliminator Round cutoff altogether.
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. missed the race after failing to find speed in qualifying. It was Stenhouse’s first DNQ in two full-time seasons and is even more embarrassing because of his affiliation with Roush Fenway Racing.
This is just another mishap in what’s been a horrible campaign for RFR. Without Carl Edwards, who’s leaving the organization for Joe Gibbs Racing after the season, RFR wouldn’t have a driver in the Chase field at this stage.
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