Chase predictions: Contender Round (Kansas, Charlotte, Talladega)
On Sunday, we looked at the first round of eliminations in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup. Today, we'll look at which eight drivers should move on and claim a spot in the third playoff round. To move on, a driver needs to win one of the three races in round two. Kansas and Charlotte are two of the much-dreaded “intermediate” tracks while Talladega should provide an excellent wild card round to complete this portion of the schedule.
Two notes before going any further. First, when talking statistics, we will generally be looking at the last ten Sprint Cup races held at a given track. The idea is to understand how a driver and team has done recently as opposed to acknowledge dominance that could be a decade or more in the past. Second, remember that the points will be reset once again going into this round. So while momentum can help carry a driver to Homestead, only the points they earn in these three races will actually enable them to move on.
Locks to advance:
Last year's dynamic duo should easily breeze past round two of the NASCAR playoffs. No, Matt Kenseth has yet to win a race in 2014. But that's been as much a factor of luck as it has anything else. The team has as much speed as any of the Toyotas and Kenseth knows how to string together top five finishes when it counts; after all, that's essentially how he won a title in 2003.
The tracks and points format should also benefit Johnson as well. He's had some issues at plate tracks over the years but he's also had some success (his average finish at Talladega is 16.4, second best among the remaining Chase drivers to Kevin Harvick's 15.6). Moreover, he's likely to pick up a win at either Charlotte or Kansas. He's led more laps combined there than the competition and scored ten top five finishes over the twenty races.
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Likely to advance
Just a step behind the first two is this trio of drivers who will also likely move on to NASCAR's Elite 8. Gordon led the points Chase over much of the regular season and that consistency should continue to keep him among the leaders. Both he and Harvick are also good bets to take home a checkered flag at either Kansas or Charlotte given the horsepower that the Hendrick engines have shown all year long.
It's also hard to think that the 2012 champ, Keselowski, won't find a way to either win a race or score a ton of points at all three tracks. Remember, his first Sprint Cup win came at Talladega and he also won at a pair of intermediate tracks (Las Vegas and Kentucky) earlier this year. While some of the Ford teams have struggled, Penske certainly is not one of them.
At risk of elimination:
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
With only eight drivers moving on, the Contenders round will be the first cut that eliminates drivers who have shown championship speed at some point in the season. All three of the above will need to have strong showings at the intermediate tracks and avoid the big wreck at Talladega. Logano's history is troubling; he's averaged a finish in the 20s at both Kansas and Talladega. Hamlin has a better historical record but with the Toyotas down on speed, his margin for error is small.
Earnhardt is another driver who will likely be on the elimination bubble. The intermediate tracks have never been his strength; his three wins this year all came at two and a half mile distances at Daytona and Pocono. He's struggled to lead laps at either Charlotte or Kansas historically. And while 'Dega used to be a Junior playground, his last win there was a decade ago. Odds are he will advance but an unexpected win by one of the drivers below could send him packing at the round of 12.
Most likely to be eliminated:
Of the 12 drivers to enter the Contenders round, these four are the most likely to be eliminated by the time the checkered flag flies at Talladega. Newman's struggles at plate tracks have been well documented (he has an average 'Dega finish of 26.1) but he's also done poorly at the other two tracks as well. Edwards will likely be unable to take his championship run any further thanks to the combination of Roush Fenway's struggles and Carl's impending departure from the team. And Kurt Busch has been far too up and down to think he can string together the kind of consistent finishes to advance.
The toughest cut for this round is, however, his brother Kyle. The younger Busch has six top five finishes and has led more laps than anyone at Charlotte. He's also had a respectable finish rate at Talladega at 17.6. But Kyle simple hasn't demonstrated the ability in years past to keep the team going when they hit struggles during the Chase. He's certainly a threat to win at any track. But unless he does so, he'll likely join Kurt on the sidelines once the third playoff round begins.