Chase predictions: Eliminator Round (Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix)
With four races to go in NASCAR's Chase to the Sprint Cup, eight drivers will be competing for half that many slots in the championship finale at Homestead. All eight drivers coming in will be drivers who have a legitimate chance to win a championship based on their performance to date. But only four can advance. Another Left Turn takes a look at the drivers most likely to land their car in the winner-take-all race in Miami.
As before, two notes before getting started. 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 make it there.
Gordon's “Drive For Five” should continue through the Eliminator round and right into the season-ending race. He's done well at Martinsville throughout his career and surviving the crapshoot there will be key to every driver's ability to advance. He's also led plenty of laps at both Texas and Phoenix, including a second place run earlier this year in the Lone Star State. The 24 should go to Homestead with a real chance to take home the hardware.
Speaking of former champions with a chance to make an impact, there's Brad Keselowski. No one has more momentum coming into the Chase than the regular season points leader. Going strictly by the numbers, this three race stretch should be too much for the Blue Deuce. But Keselowski has shown a knack of being able to handle the pressure that comes with a championship Chase. The Texas race will be key. Teammate Logano won there easily months ago and Keselowski himself has done well at the intermediate tracks. I think Brad steals a win there and puts himself through to championship weekend.
Yet another group of tracks that has historically treated Johnson well. He has the best average finish of the remaining field at Martinsville and Phoenix (5.0 and 7.3 respectively) and the second best at Texas (10.6). He's also the leader by far in terms of laps led percentage at all three tracks. Finally, he has five wins in the last 30 combined races at the tracks; only one other driver has more. It may be difficult to watch for some fans but greatness often is. Jimmie won't miss out on qualifying for the title race going to these three tracks.
The driver who has more wins during that stretch than Johnson? That would be Denny Hamlin, who's won six of those 30 events. Hamlin may not have been impressive during the regular season, but the Chase lays out nearly perfectly for him. He's also been one of the few drivers not driving a Hendrick car who's been competitive at Martinsville. He could easily win there and punch his ticket for the championship race four weeks later. He'll have two more shots as well given his past success at Texas and Phoenix.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt has had his best season in a decade. What's more, if NASCAR had implemented the elimination-style format a year ago, we'd be talking about Junior as the defending series champion. Neither of those items change the fact that Earnhardt simply hasn't been good enough to land a spot in the final four for 2014. His history at the three tracks here is also a bit short of the competition, particularly at Texas where his average finish is 16.5 (compared to 10.6 for teammate Johnson).
Logano is also finally reaching the level of success that once earned him the nickname, “Sliced Bread,” with three regular season wins. But it will come to an end during the Eliminator round. He has the second worst average finish at both Martinsville and Phoenix of the remaining Chasers and unless he captures a checkered flag at Texas, those two flat tracks will doom Logano's 2014 championship efforts.
2014 has already been a, “What might have been,” season for Harvick. In his first year with Stewart Haas Racing, Harvick has two wins- but it should have been far more. His team has unloaded fast nearly every weekend and gotten faster as those weekends progressed. He was the only car in the same zip code as Keselowski at Richmond and dominated the Atlanta race a week before. Yet neither ended in wins. His best chance at a win will come in Phoenix- a track that the #4 team dominated at earlier this year. But unless he can do so, his title dreams likely end in the desert.
This portion of the playoff schedule could not possibly lay out any worse for Kenseth. While he had some success at flat tracks last year at JGR, his overall career finish at them remains poor. The shorter distance and flat corners will level the horsepower playing field somewhat but not enough to keep Kenseth in the game for Homestead.