NASCAR's Chase becomes clearer with 'Dega in the rearview
With Talladega come and gone, the Chase for the Sprint Cup comes into greater focus. With just four races left before NASCAR crowns its champion, four drivers have a legitimate right to call themselves contenders (with Jeff Gordon having an outside shot 36 points back in fifth). The expected carnage never took place; a track notorious for having “The big one” proved that it is possible to have great plate racing without a massive wreck. Next week's race at Martinsville will provide another chance for Jimmie Johnson to pull away- and another chance for those behind him to stake their own claim at being this year's champion. A look at the remaining contenders and what they'll need to be standing tall when the smoke clears at Homestead in four weeks.
The "little one" ended Sunday's race early
1. Jimmie Johnson (leader)
Despite a pedestrian 13th place finish in Alabama, Jimmie Johnson leaves Talladega as the points leader. He led a number of laps early in the race and seemed poised to pick up the win. But Johnson short pit the field on his last pit stop and got shuffled back in the pack as a result. Yet even without the win, Talladega is clearly mission accomplished for the #48 team. He finished the race running and far enough ahead of Kenseth to capture the points lead. That's about all Chad Knaus and crew could have hoped for coming into this week's race.
Moreover, he's going to a track next week that's one of the best for both himself and his team. Johnson has eight grandfather clocks sitting in his trophy room, more than any other active driver. The guy in second place with seven? Teammate Jeff Gordon. They have the half mile paper clip figured out and will be two clear favorites to win at Martinsville. Even when he doesn't win, Johnson gives the competition little chance to make up ground; he has 20 top ten finishes in 23 races at the track. Johnson's championship hopes brightened considerably thanks to a quiet Talladega.
2. Matt Kenseth (-4)
On the flip side of that same coin was the race run by Matt Kenseth. Like Johnson, Kenseth spent much of Sunday's race running up front and looked to be a factor to win. Also like Johnson, a late pit stop cost Kenseth much of his track position. Unfortunately, Kenseth also suffered from late race handling issues- a curiosity given the lack of importance handling normally has at the 2.66 mile track. It's also interesting to note that Dale Earnhardt Jr (who followed behind Kenseth early in the race) complained bitterly about Kenseth's roof flaps early in the race; those complaints ceased and Kenseth's handling disappeared as the race wore on.
Kenseth is behind for the first time in this year's Chase and going to one of his worst tracks in Martinsville. Of course, the last time in the Chase Matt went to one of his poorer tracks came at New Hampshire- where he won his second consecutive race to open up the playoffs. If he can finish within ten spots of Johnson at Martinsville he'll be within striking distance. Don't forget that the season ends at an intermediate track in Homestead and JGR has owned those kinds of tracks this season.
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3(tied). Kyle Busch (-26)
Kyle Busch managed to cut a significant amount off his deficit to the leader with a fifth place run at Talladega. Despite yet another pit road miscue early on which caused him to fall deep into the field, Busch recovered nicely. He stayed ahead of the other lapped cars and got a lucky dog that put him back on the lead lap with plenty of time to go.
Yet questions remain as to whether Kyle is mentally tough enough to see a championship chase all the way through the final race. At one point on Sunday, Busch found himself sitting directly in front of Brad Keselowski. After the two tangled on track during a recent Nationwide race, Brad essentially put a bounty on on Kyle. Busch was clearly rattled to have Keselowski on his rear bumper, going so far as to say over the radio that Brad had better not try anything or he'd risk having the entire garage at his hauler. With Martinsville (and its low speeds providing plenty of payback opportunities) coming in just a week, why would Keselowski risk a multi-car pileup at Talladega? The Blue Deuce is in Kyle's head and it will be difficult for Busch to win a title as long as that's the case.
3(tied). Kevin Harvick (-26)
On the other side of the mental toughness coin is Kevin Harvick. With his planned departure to Stewart-Haas Racing this coming offseason, Harvick has absolutely nothing to lose. His driving shows it; as NASCAR's resident closer, Kevin has a chance to close his career with RCR by winning its first title in nearly 20 years. If Sunday's race had gone another five laps it's entirely possible he could have won; he'd spent most of the afternoon riding in the back but showed a remarkable ability to move forward when he needed to. He just ran out of time this week.
Harvick isn't a world-beater at the remaining tracks. He has one win and three top five finishes in 24 starts at Martinsville and has similar success at Phoenix and Homestead. But he's relaxed and enjoying his swan song with RCR. He may not have the equipment to make a run at the teams ahead but that won't stop the veteran from being a part of the conversation at the very least.
5 and Below. Everyone Else (-34 and beyond)
Realistically speaking, the remaining drivers in the Chase field are competing for a spot at the year-end championship banquet head table in Vegas (reserved for the top ten drivers). Dale Earnhardt Jr. was likely one rookie mistake by Dillon away from returning to victory lane this past weekend and has passed half the field since blowing an engine at Chicago. But despite being tied for sixth place, he remains 52 points behind leader Johnson. Ryan Newman managed to survive, not a normal thing for him at Talladega- yet he's 72 points off the lead in 11th place. These drivers simply have too much ground to make up and too little time to do it in. One of the top four may make a mistake but it's highly unlikely all four will.
The only driver outside the top four with any sort of a shot is Jeff Gordon. At 41 years of age, Gordon's last championship is fading further into the past. He only made this year's Chase after intervention from NASCAR's office days after the Richmond race. Whether he belongs among the other 12 or not, however, Gordon is making the most of his opportunity. If somehow Johnson struggles next week at Martinsville, Gordon may yet be a factor as the season draws to a close.