One: Bracket Busters
Hands up for anyone who still has a completely accurate 2014 Chase bracket. Silence? Crickets? Tumbleweed?
Yep, thought so. Don’t even vaguely try to convince me that you had a final eight that didn’t include six-time champion Jimmie Johnson or the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., not to mention either Kasey Kahne or Kyle Busch. Now, maybe there are one or two Hendrick Motorsports haters out there who had three of the four HMS drivers exiting the big dance at this second elimination stage, but I seriously doubt it. And, side note, even if they did, why would they have then predicted Jeff Gordon to survive the Talladega Superspeedway carnage?
What this shows is that this new format of the Chase is going to be utterly unpredictable right through the waving of the checkered flag at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Take next Sunday, for example, at Martinsville Speedway, where one ill-timed attempt to get back in line or one slip of the brake pedal could put you multiple laps down in an instant.
Yes, the likes of Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick have looked lightning fast all year – and strong in the Chase – but with the field winnowed down even further after Talladega one error could be season destroying. Of course, there is the Brad Keselowski win-and-make-it-in approach, but Phoenix International Raceway is no Talladega. If you’re not practicing well and qualifying well, pulling off an upset victory is pretty darn difficult.
Two: Form Horses
Despite all the talk of the likes of Johnson and Earnhardt exiting the Chase on Sunday, the simple fact remains that the four drivers who have looked the most impressive in 2014 are all still alive.
Logano, Keselowski, Gordon and Harvick have picked up a combined 18 wins and 52 top 5s between them in 32 races, with both the Penske drivers winning twice and the other two once apiece during the Chase itself.
If this year’s champion is one of the four names listed above no one can really have any complaints. In many ways, though, it’s the four other drivers that are still active in the playoffs that are the most beguiling. Sure, Carl Edwards has two wins but he hasn’t looked like one of the frontrunners all year long. Likewise, there’s Ryan Newman, who has zero wins, a paltry three top 5s and just 41 laps led all year. That leaves us with the Joe Gibbs duo of Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin. Like Newman, Kenseth is winless but he’s shown consistent, if not spectacular form, with 12 top 5s, 19 top 10s and 468 laps led. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the man whose championship essentially prompted the Chase in 2004 won the 2014 iteration without a victory?
All of which leaves Hamlin. Very few tipped Hamlin to make it this far, and with tracks that he has traditionally run well out in the next few weeks, he could be in the mix come Homestead. Given he won there last year, he, too, could be a surprise champion.
Three: Terry Labonte’s Last Ride
In the end, it was a one-lap-down 33rd-place finish to finally bring down the curtain on Texas Terry Labonte’s one day hall-of-fame NASCAR career.
Labonte’s last full time season was in 2004, running the No. 5 for Rick Hendrick, and in the last decade he’s run a total of 73 races, bringing his overall total of starts to an impressive 890.
In a career that began all the way back in 1978, Labonte won two championships 12 years apart (1984 and 1986), went to Victory Lane 22 times across three different decades, picked up 182 top 5s and 361 top-10 runs, led 7,074 laps and ended up with an average finish of 16.6 – impressive stats, however you choose to slice them.
“This is the third time I’ve run my last race,” Labonte told Sirius XM prior to his final start. “It’s been fun. It’s been exciting. I wish I was 10 years younger.”
Don’t we all, Terry, don’t we all.
Four: Fourth Place
So much of the focus in Sprint Cup is on the winners and those running regularly up front. And in one sense, that’s right and proper; they are, after all, the drivers making the headlines and generating the constant drip drip of news.
But every now and then, I like to feature some of the less heralded players – and this week that driver is Landon Cassill, who picked up his first top 5 (fourth place) in 147 races of trying last weekend. His previous best finish had been 12th place in the 2014 Daytona 500.
“Amazing finish!” he tweeted after the race. “I want to be clear about something, my team built these cars themselves, in OUR shop. We didn’t buy these cars from anyone.”
Amazing finish! I want to be clear about something, my team built these cars themselves, in OUR shop. We didn't buy these cars from anyone.
— landon cassill (@landoncassill) October 19, 2014
He added: “They work 7 days a week, and put everything they know about racing into these four SS races. Nobody deserves a top 5 more than them.”
They work 7 days a week, and put everything they know about racing into these four SS races. Nobody deserves a top 5 more than them
— landon cassill (@landoncassill) October 19, 2014
And although it wasn’t the victory he might have improbably have scored in the frantic green-white-checkered finish, it must have felt almost as good as one.
Five: Next Up, the Paperclip
I’ve said this before a few times as we head into a weekend at NASCAR’s smallest, flattest track: there aren’t many problems in NASCAR a trip to Martinsville Speedway can’t fix. Amen to that.
This weekend will be Cup race No. 132 at the famous old venue nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a proud streak that goes all the way back to the sixth race (of eight in total) in NASCAR’s first-ever season.
Over the years, tracks have come and gone but Martinsville has remained on the schedule – and I truly hope it always does. The 0.526-mile track is both the shortest and technically slowest track on the circuit, yet it nearly always provides a gripping, exhilarating race.
I’m expecting nothing less on Sunday, when a win for one of the eight drivers still in the Chase would seal a berth for the championship run at Homestead. Back in March, Kurt Busch out-dueled Jimmie Johnson to win his only race of the year to date and the famous grandfather clock trophy. We might not see the same two protagonists battling it out for the checkers on Sunday but one way or another we should see a thriller of a race.