Chase prediction: Round one (Chicago, New Hampshire, Dover)
With NASCAR's regular season finale complete, stock car racing is about to embark on its first true playoff-style postseason. Even in the past decade of championships crowned by a Chase, a driver still needed to turn in consistently good finishes over the final 10 races of the season combined to win a title. Instead of a de facto elimination with a poor run early, four drivers will be eliminated from the championship field every three races.
Who will survive the eliminations and take home the Sprint Cup title? Another Left Turn takes a look at the four rounds that make up NASCAR's 2014 Chase to the Sprint Cup. When talking statistics, we'll be looking at the last 10 Sprint Cup races at the track in question for each driver (unless the driver in question has fewer than 10 races at that track). In other words, Dale Earnhardt Junior's three year stretch of dominance at Talladega is noteworthy but since he hasn't won there in a decade it's probably not relevant to how he'll do there in a few weeks.
Moving on, nothing to see here:
Brad Keselowski (+12)
Jimmie Johnson (+9)
Joey Logano (+9)
Unless lightening strikes one of these cars, they should all move on to the Contenders round of 12 after the initial three races. Keselowski and Kenseth are the only drivers in the Chase field with wins at all three tracks (Kenseth won the first two Chase races at Chicago and New Hampshire just a year ago). Logano has three race wins already this year and will benefit from having the cushion of bonus points. Keselowski also heads into the Chase with plenty of momentum after his dominating performance at Richmond.
Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson is still Jimmie Johnson. While some worried that he's lost momentum with his mid-season swoon, they neglect to remember that this is the 48 team's MO. They lock themselves into the Chase, then use the remainder of the regular season as an extended test session. They find every possible ounce of speed they can wring out of the car, then roll that speed onto the track for Chase week one. It's also worth noting that Johnson's 16 wins over the last 10 events at the Chase tracks is well ahead of the next best driver (Denny Hamlin, with 11). And did I mention one of the three tracks is Dover? The same track where Johnson has won three of the last five events and eight races overall? He'll be fine.
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Should move on:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (+9)
Jeff Gordon (+9)
Kevin Harvick (+6)
Kyle Busch (+3)
Finishing closely behind in the “ought to qualify” category are these four drivers. Earnhardt is enjoying his best season in a decade, with three wins over the course of the regular season. Just as importantly, he's been a contender even in races he hasn't won and he's done well at a variety of tracks. Gordon is experiencing a similar career resurgence, matching Junior's three wins. While Harvick has only two wins, only bad luck has prevented him from winning several more (including the Labor Day weekend race at Atlanta).
Kyle Busch is a more interesting case. He's self-destructed early in years past when making the Chase and rarely been a part of the championship discussion. Yet few drivers not named Jimmie Johnson spend as much team near the front as Kyle. He has four top five finishes in the last ten events at these threetracks. He also has the best laps led percentage (other than Johnson) at all three tracks combined during that time frame. Provided Busch can keep it pointed in the right direction, he's moving on.
At risk of elimination:
Carl Edwards (+6)
Denny Hamlin (+3)
Kurt Busch (+3)
There's a significant drop off in 2014 performance between the first eight drivers and the final eight drivers who will comprise NASCAR's Chase field. Yet there's still plenty of speed and racing talent in this group. Despite his lame duck status with Roush Fenway Racing, Carl Edwards has won two races. Ryan Newman managed to race his way into the Chase field on points at Richmond without NASCAR's help this year. And Kurt Busch proved his mettle as a wheelman in taking Furniture Row Racing to the Chase last year- he'll have top flight equipment to compete in it this year.
Denny Hamlin may well be the driver to watch in this group. As noted earlier, he's second only to Jimmie Johnson in terms of wins at the Chase tracks with 11. He also has eight top five finishes combined, better than any of the other remaining seven drivers. He needed a medical exemption to make the Chase after missing a race earlier this year and 2014 hasn't been kind to Toyota overall. But if he's to get on a roll and be a factor at Homestead, it will start with passing the Challenger phase first.
Most likely to be eliminated:
Kasey Kahne (+3)
Aric Almirola (+3)
AJ Allmendinger (+3)
There's no shame in being among the first four drivers to be eliminated from the new Chase format. Just making the field means either you won a race or piled up plenty of points during the regular season. These teams will also be a part of the promotional efforts to get the Chase going- a noteworthy fact in a sport dominated by corporate sponsorship. So while a championship isn't likely to be in their future, it's still been a season to chalk up on the positive side of the ledger, particularly for Almirola and Allmendinger.
It's somewhat less so for the other two. After Saturday night's Richmond race, Biffle may well have summed up 2014 for the entire Roush Fenway Racing operation with his quote, “We just missed the setup. The whole company did.” Edwards two wins aside, RFR has struggled to be competitive. It's been particularly galling considering the success that fellow blue oval group team Penske Racing has had.
Which drivers will advance into NASCAR's version of the Elite 8, the Eliminator Round? Will the top eight stay the same or will one of the bottom four drivers knock out one of the favorites? Check back Monday for Another Left Turn's Chase Predictions for the Contender round!