OK, so let’s go into these next two weeks — the final two of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season — assuming that drivers still eligible for the Chase for the Sprint Cup will win.
Two reasons for that: One, there’s the fact that Homestead-Miami Speedway is the season finale, and whomever remains can win the title simply by scoring more points than their three competitors, no other strings attached. Given that the eight currently left standing are pretty much the best teams in the sport this season, one can imagine a battle for the lead between these drivers — because it’s happened that way the rest of the year, why wouldn’t it now? Many believe it’ll take a win at Homestead to win the title, and that’s probably not far off.
Then there’s Phoenix International Raceway. Why a win? Because it’s the final in the Eliminator Round of the Chase and there are quite a few drivers — Joey Logano chief among them — who basically cannot count on making the finale without winning. Oh, and then there’s that little nugget about Kevin Harvick: Dude’s won seven times at Phoenix in his career. Even if this wasn’t an all-important Chase race, he’d probably run away with the show anyway…. if one of his competitors didn’t knock him into the wall first.
Should that be the case, then things aren’t looking good for a few drivers looking to hoist the championship trophy in a week and a half.
Chief among them, interestingly, are two drivers who have been lights out for much of the 2015 season, partially because they run for the same team and said team has been tough to catch, especially recently. Joey Logano and teammate Brad Keselowski enter Phoenix at different sides of the spectrum — Keselowski is looking good for a Championship 4 berth even without a win, as long as he doesn’t screw up royally, while Logano is eighth in points and needs a win to have a shot in Florida.
And yet neither has won a race at either track.
That’s not a damning offense per se, but it’s one we’re considering here in a situation where winning may indeed be everything. Keselowski at least has a solid track record at Phoenix otherwise, with four top 5s and six top 10s in 12 races, but his Homestead highlights have been fairly nonexistent except for that time he was crowned champion (by finishing 15th in that race, mind you), with an average finish of 15th in seven races and just a top 5 and two top 10s — meaning that, sure, he may make it to Homestead by virtue of a solid points place entering and decent statistics otherwise, but when it comes to getting the job done at the finale, he hasn’t exactly impressed just yet.
Logano’s fared worse. He’s managed seven top 10s to go along with two top 5s at Phoenix, which isn’t terrible, but his results have been spotty enough that he’s not even a lock for a race win contender there (though 71 laps led en route to a fourth in last year’s winter race is a bright spot). But even if he rattles off a victory in the desert, he’s been a non-factor at Homestead his entire career to date, managing a mere top-10 finish in six races there.
To a lesser extent, there’s Martin Truex, Jr., who admittedly very few are counting as a championship contender — probably since this is the closest he and his Furniture Row Racing team have been to a title, plus Truex’s overall win count of three. Which makes sense as to why he’s included here; he’s never won at either track. His results otherwise, however, are a bit stronger at Homestead especially, where he’s managed three top 5s and seven top 10s in 10 starts. Still doesn’t scream “2015 champion” at you, but it’s modest.
Still, there’s something to be said for already having that taste of victory at a given speedway. The pressure is off — albeit slightly — to perform because a driver knows he can do it. Once Victory Lane’s been visited, remembering how one arrived at that point and reclaiming that past glory becomes more and more second nature; look at Harvick’s Phoenix record. On the other hand, still chasing that elusive first win at a track — especially if it’s one of the few you haven’t bested — can set a driver up for over-driving, over-correcting and a basic case of getting inside one’s head. There’s already enough pressure on these eight to perform at both tracks (even Jeff Gordon, who will still feel the burn next weekend despite his somewhat-off-weekend in Phoenix), and the added stress of doing so at a circuit where success has often eluded you is not a simple feat.
So is it time to rule out Keselowski, Logano and Truex as drivers who have a shot at the 2015 title? Not exactly, but it’s not looking great for them, either — even though the former is having a good few weeks in the points so far. The newer Chase rules have emphasized winning more than ever, and if you can’t get it done at a track any other time, things probably aren’t looking good for you this weekend and next, either.