Fast Five: Biggest Storylines Entering 2017 NASCAR Season

The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season starts tonight, with the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona, a non-points event with an all-star field.

As always, there are a plethora of storylines entering the new season and Daytona Speedweeks.  Here are the biggest subplots entering the new year:

5. Johnson Goes For Championship Eight

After winning his record-tying seventh Cup Series championship in November, the 2017 season is Jimmie Johnson’s first chance to win an unprecedented eighth title and break the record of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

Johnson has won his seven titles over the last 11 seasons, while Earnhardt won his seven over 15 seasons and Petty won seven over 16 seasons.  Even if Johnson, 41, does not win his eighth title in 2017, he is expected to have several competitive years left to try to break the record.

4. Daniel Suarez enters Cup, replacing Carl Edwards 

Carl Edwards’ retirement at 37 came as a surprise to everyone in the NASCAR garage.  His replacement, however, was not as surprising to insiders, although it is a name casual fans may not recognize.

Daniel Suarez, 25, replaces Edwards in the #19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota after winning the XFinity Series championship in 2016, becoming the first minority champion in any NASCAR national series, and the first born outside the U.S. (Mexico).

The very talented Suarez will immediately be a threat to win races and qualify for the playoffs, and joins a rookie class that also includes Erik Jones (#77 Furniture Row Racing Toyota) and Ty Dillon (brother of Austin, #13 Germain Racing Chevrolet).

3. Changes at Stewart-Haas Racing

Tony Stewart also retired after the 2016 season, and is replaced in the #14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford by Clint Bowyer.

SHR, which consists of Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick, is changing to Ford for the 2017 season after the last 14 seasons (eight with Stewart as co-owner) with Chevrolet.  The move allows SHR to become one of the two co-leading teams with Ford (alongside Penske Racing), after spending their tenure with Chevy in the shadow of Hendrick Motorsports.  With the move, SHR also had to change engine providers; after using Hendrick engines for their entire history, the company now moves to Roush-Yates Engines.

The team is also is fighting a developing legal battle with ex-sponsor Nature’s Bakery.  The company ceased its sponsorship of Patrick after the first year of a three-year contract, as the small company was struggling to pay for their sponsorship.  As a result, SHR has sued Nature’s Bakery for a breach of contract, and the company has countersued.  Patrick will still be sponsored for 2017 by TaxAct and Aspen Dental, the latter of which extended their sponsorship to fill some of the void left by Nature’s Bakery.

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Returns

Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed the last 18 races of the 2016 season after suffering a concussion, one which he says is at least his fourth such injury in racing.

The son of Dale Earnhardt, who was killed 16 years ago today in the Daytona 500, has been voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for 14 straight seasons, capitalizing on both his father’s popularity and his moderate Cup Series success.

The 42-year old Earnhardt Jr., who married on Dec. 31 and enters a “contract year” in 2017, returns at arguably his most successful track, as he will make his first start of any kind since July in next week’s Daytona 500.  He will not race in the Advance Auto Parts Clash tonight; Alex Bowman, who earned a spot in tonight’s field by winning a pole at Phoenix last year, will drive the #88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

Earnhardt Jr. is a 26-time Cup Series race winner, and has finished in the top five in points four times, including a third-place points finish in 2003.  He is one of 11 drivers with multiple Daytona 500 wins, and can become just the sixth with three or more with a win next Sunday.

1. NASCAR’s Changes for 2017

NASCAR in 2017 will look different from any NASCAR season in the past, for multiple reasons.

First, the Cup Series has a new title sponsor.  What was the Sprint Cup Series in now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, as the energy drink company signed a “multiyear deal” with NASCAR back in December.

A new identity for the Cup Series made this offseason natural timing for other changes, and NASCAR has made several.

The biggest change is the new race format:  races will be divided into three segments, called “stages,” with points being awarded to the top 10 after each stage in addition to the full field at the race’s completion.  Stage winners will also recieve bonus points for the newly-named playoffs (formerly “The Chase”), as will the top 10 in regular season points, and those bonuses will carry through all the way until the Round of 8 (previously, bonus points only applied to the initial round, the Round of 16).

Many say the result will be better racing throughout the entirety of the event, although there are many skeptics, myself included.  Tonight’s 75-lap exhibition has no stages, so we won’t see the new format in action until next week’s Daytona 500.

In addition, NASCAR announced a new damaged vehicle policy for 2017.  Teams will no longer be allowed to replace major parts on damaged cars, and while they will be allowed to fix damage on original parts, they will only be allowed five minutes on pit road to perform such repairs.  Any car that has to go behind the wall or to the garage will be out of the race.

This rule is a safety initiative by NASCAR, as often times in the past when teams have sent patched-up cars back on the track they have caused accidents.  How much it affects the racing–and how much attrition goes up–are a big unknown right now; this change will potentially be seen in tonight’s Advance Auto Parts Clash (i.e. a hypothetical “big one” takes out 14 of the 17-car field).

How all these changes affect the competition, including driving styles and strategy, will be a big storyline throughout the entire 2017 season.

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NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup Preview

While it may be overshadowed in the sports world by football season, and the approaching baseball postseason, it is an exciting time in NASCAR, as they prepare for their version of the playoffs, the Chase for the Sprint Cup.  Last year, NASCAR changed the format from the previous 10-week cumulative Chase to a four-round system among 16 drivers, with four drivers eliminated every three weeks for the first nine races, all leading up to a “final four”, one race, winner-take-all finale in Homestead.  The elimination format is known as the “Chase Grid”.  Chase participants who win a race in a round automatically advance to the next round, while remaining spots are determined on points.

Kevin Harvick won last year’s title, winning the Homestead race to do so.  This year, there are several storylines entering the Chase, including the recent dominance of Joe Gibbs Racing, the recent struggles of Hendrick Motorsports (at least, relative to their normal level of success), maiden appearances in the Chase for Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard, and Jeff Gordon trying to win a championship in his final season.

Here’s how I see the Chase playing out:

Challenger Round

Races:  Chicagoland (9/20), New Hampshire (9/27), Dover (10/4)
Advancing to next round:  Kevin Harvick (Chicagoland winner), Denny Hamlin (New Hampshire winner), Jimmie Johnson (Dover winner), Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer
Eliminated:  Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard

Harvick is on the pole for Sunday’s race at Chicagoland, where he’s won twice before and finished in the top five over half the time.  Recent form, and his form all year, for that matter, suggest he is ready to win in the Chase, even despite having not won since March 15 at Phoenix.  Much of the same can be said about Hamlin at New Hampshire.  The driver who is racing with a torn ACL last won March 29 at Martinsville, although he did win the Sprint All-Star Race (a non-points event) in May, ranks second among Chase drivers with a 10.7 average finish in Loudon, with two wins at the track.  Johnson recent finishes don’t necessarily suggest him threatening for a record-tying seventh title, but in 27 Dover starts he has 10 wins, 15 top fives, and 20 top 10s, making him the clear favorite for that race.  The #48 team also have rough stretches like their recent one at some point most years, but always seem to practically flip a switch come Chase time.  He has, after all, won six of the 11 championships awarded in the Chase era.

Kurt Busch won the inaugural Chase in 2004, and while he does have three wins at New Hampshire, he has a poor average finish of 18.6 at Dover, and his overall recent form has been decent, but not champion-like.  My elimination of Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t be a popular prediction, as he is the sport’s most popular driver, but the three tracks in this round are all tracks he struggles at, particularly at Kansas and Dover.  He only has 31 top 10s in 77 career races at the three tracks combined.  However, should Junior get past this round, with his record at Talladega, and last year’s win at Martinsville, he could be a threat for a deep run.  McMurray could potentially be a sleeper, but he has to get out of this round first.  His best average finish at these three tracks is 17.8 at Dover, with the other two worse than 20th.  Menard has the least career credentials of any driver in the Chase, and his numbers at these three tracks are similar to McMurray, although he is having his most consistent season this year.

Contender Round

Races:  Charlotte (10/10), Kansas (10/18), Talladega (10/25)
Advancing to next round:  Carl Edwards (Charlotte winner), Jimmie Johnson (Kansas winner), Brad Keselowski (Talladega winner), Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin
Eliminated:  Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman

Edwards doesn’t necessarily have the most wins at Charlotte–he only has one, and it came this May in the Coca-Cola 600–but he has been consistent there.  His 10.8 average finish there is second among Chase drivers, and after struggling during the summer, he has been steadily improving coming into the Chase, including a win at the Southern 500 two weeks ago.  Johnson has three Kansas wins, and has 15 top 10s in 18 starts at the track.  His 9.1 average finish there is the best among Chase participants, and he won at Kansas in April.  The Talladega race is as unpredictable as any in the Chase, but Keselowski won the fall race there last year, and has 3 wins in 13 starts there.  An average finish of 12.5 doesn’t necessarily scream “race winner” at other tracks, but because of the craziness that happens in restrictor plate racing, that average is very respectable.  Kenseth, Harvick, Gordon, Logano, and Hamlin all have solid enough records at the tracks to be expected to run well, resulting in their advancement on points.

Bowyer is trying to win a title in the final season for his team, Michael Waltrip Racing, and has won at two of these three tracks, but he was the last driver in the Chase, and his luck will run out here.  A writer who covers NASCAR wrote this week that if Kyle Busch can get past Kansas, he can win the championship.  I agree, but I don’t think he will get past Kansas, or Talladega either.  While his Charlotte record isn’t bad, Kansas is his worst track on the circuit, with a 21.3 average finish, and only 3 top 10s and a single top five in 15 career starts there.  His Talladega record isn’t great either, although he has won there, with a 22.4 average finish.  Truex is good at Kansas, but won’t be able to get past struggles at Charlotte and Talladega.  Newman doesn’t have an awful record at any of the three tracks, but his best average finish is 17.6, and he always seems to be part of the “Big One” at Talladega.

Eliminator Round

Races:  Martinsville (11/1), Texas (11/8), Phoenix (11/15)
Advancing to next round:  Denny Hamlin (Martinsville winner), Matt Kenseth (Texas winner), Kevin Harvick (Phoenix winner), Jimmie Johnson
Eliminated:  Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano

Hamlin, a native Virginian, is very solid in his home state at Martinsville, with five wins and 15 top 10s in 19 starts there.  Kenseth has two wins at Texas, and an average finish of 9.5, second among all drivers to Johnson.  He has finished in the top 10 in each race at a 1.5-mile track this year, despite not winning at one.  Harvick has seven wins at Phoenix, including the last four Phoenix races, and five of the last six.  Last year’s win in the Phoenix Chase race vaulted him into the Championship Round at Homestead, when he won his first career title.  Johnson advances on points after winning a race in the first two rounds.

By this point in the Chase, with the field being cut down to the final four drivers, there is no margin for error.  Carl Edwards only has one top five in 22 Martinsville starts, and although he is always a threat to win at Texas and Phoenix, he may have to win to advance if he digs himself too deep a hole at Martinsville.  Gordon’s best chance to avoid a winless season in his swan song will likely come at Martinsville, where he has eight wins and a 6.9 average finish, but it may also be his best shot to advance to the Championship Round in his final race at Homestead given that Texas is arguably his worst track with a 17.3 average finish and only one win in his lengthy career.  Keselowski’s average finish is no better than 13.9 at any of the three tracks, and 17.3 at Texas, and he has never won at any of the three.  Logano, who is a common championship pick, has similar numbers to Keselowski at these three tracks, and although he does have one Texas win, he has a 16.9 average finish there.

Championship Round

Race:  Homestead (11/22)
Champion:  Denny Hamlin
Eliminated:  Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson

It all comes down to one race at Homestead to determine who has had a great year, and who is the champion, and it is determined in the “Game Seven” atmosphere NASCAR had in mind when they created this format.  Any of these four drivers are more than capable of winning the title, so here’s why I picked Hamlin.  While Johnson and Kenseth have both made their careers to some extent by running well on 1.5-mile tracks, Kenseth has a 15.8 average finish, although he does have one win, and would tie a record for the most years between championships (12 since his 2003 title in the last season before the Chase).  Johnson has never won and has only four top fives at Homestead, with an average finish of 14.4.  While some will use the argument that he hasn’t had to win, but just finish, most years at Homestead while clinching the title, in other years the #48 hasn’t necessarily been a race-winning car.

Harvick and Hamlin are both good at Homestead, with Harvick winning last year’s finale to win the title, and holding a 7.6 average finish.  However, it is historically difficult to win back-to-back titles, as only nine drivers have ever done it (although four have done it more than once), and that is true in every sport.  Harvick has also finished second an astounding 10 times this year, with “only” two wins.

Hamlin has two wins at Homestead, and a 10.8 average finish, and has been poised to win a championship his entire career, since his rookie year in 2006 (he would’ve won the title that year in the current format).  One of the best stretches of his career came after he tore his left ACL in 2010, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see him win a championship after tearing his left ACL just before the last “regular season” race at Richmond.  Hamlin does have a 27.1 average start at Homestead, which is by far the worst of the four Championship Round drivers, but his qualifying numbers have steadily improved since his career low average start of 21.0 in 2013.

Two interesting notes should Hamlin win the title: it would be the first title for Joe Gibbs Racing since 2002, and it would be the ninth championship for car number 11 in NASCAR history, which would extend a record, as Hamlin would join NASCAR Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett, Cale Yarborough, and Darrell Waltrip as champions driving #11.

As the Chase unfolds, fans may think that who advances from one round to the next early in the Chase is inconsequential, as they think the drivers who end up competing for the title at Homestead will be near the top of the standings throughout.  However, as I made my projections (ranking drivers first to last at each track then giving points accordingly), Hamlin nearly didn’t get out of the Contender Round at Talladega, as he was tied with Clint Bowyer, and won the tiebreaker based on having more wins.

Now, the drivers I have picked in fantasy NASCAR competition all season have done horribly, always seeming to have an accident or mechanical failure, causing them to finish much more poorly than they would have run without issues during the race.  That being said, I want to apologize in advance to Denny Hamlin’s fans, because in picking your driver to win the title, I have probably actually doomed him into a poor Chase finish.  These rankings, obviously, are as unofficial as they come.

It should be an excellent Chase for the Sprint Cup.  The storylines I already mentioned will make it memorable, as well as those that we can’t even imagine right now which will present themselves.  For instance, who would have thought this time last year that Brad Keselowski would be involved in brawls with Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon after Chase races, and who would have thought Ryan Newman, one of three drivers to reach the Chase without a win, would make it all the way to Homestead, and would finish second, having a shot at the title all the way until the final lap.  Stories like these are what the Chase format intended to create, making it among the most unpredictable of “playoffs” in all of sports.

NASCAR Season Preview

A new NASCAR season is upon us, beginning with the exhibition event, the Sprint Unlimited (formerly the Budweiser Shootout), on Saturday night in Daytona, before the official start to the new season with next Sunday’s Daytona 500.  There’s a lot of excitement down in Daytona, for several reasons.

One reason is the new points format.  Drivers will be eliminated as the season (particularly the Chase) goes along, with the top 4 drivers racing a winner-take-all showdown in the season’s final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.  The so-called “Chase Grid” has received both praise and criticism both throughout the garage area and the racing media, although most of the feedback has been positive.  More on the Chase Grid format, and particularly the 2014 edition, is coming up.  For more explanation of the format itself, read my post here:  https://stilesonsports.wordpress.com/2014/01/30/nascar-changes-chase-format/

Another change that has the garage roaring with more than just the engines is the new qualifying format.  While the lineup for the 56th Daytona 500 will be set as usual, starting with the March 2 race at Phoenix the Sprint Cup Series will begin what has been called “knockout qualifying” by some.  In the past, every car would take to the track by itself for a 2-lap time trial, with the fastest lap being recorded as that car’s qualifying time, and the fastest time winning the pole.  Now, there will be multiple cars on the track at the same time, and eliminations will be instituted for more excitement in the process.  At tracks longer than 1.25 miles (with the exception of road courses), all drivers will turn laps for 25 minutes, before a 5 minute break.  Then the top 24 will run for 10 minutes, before another 5 minute break.  The 12 fastest will run a final, frantic 5-minute stint, racing for the pole.  At tracks shorter than 1.25 miles, and at the 2 road courses, the first segment will be 30 minutes, followed by a 10-minute break and only one more segment, in which the fastest 12 will run for 10 minutes.  This format brings excitement with numerous cars on track at once, and the window of time used for a qualifying broadcast being shortened to an hour from the former 2 or 3 hour qualifying programs.

Finally, a handful of drivers are with new teams, or are new to the Sprint Cup Series altogether.  Kevin Harvick moves from Richard Childress Racing to drive the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing.  He will be joined at SHR by Kurt Busch, who will drive the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet after moving from Furniture Row Racing.  Leaving Stewart-Haas is Ryan Newman, who will drive the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.  The #78 Furniture Row Chevrolet ride left by Busch will be taken by Martin Truex Jr., after he left Michael Waltrip Racing after the team lost NAPA’s sponsorship in the aftermath of last year’s Richmond debacle (https://stilesonsports.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/napa-drops-waltrip-truex-after-scandal/).  Speaking of MWR, Brian Vickers takes over the #55 Aaron’s Toyota full-time in 2014 after sharing it with Michael Waltrip and Mark Martin for parts of the last 2 seasons, including a 2013 win at New Hampshire.  AJ Allmendinger returns to NASCAR full-time after racing both IndyCar and NASCAR last year while trying to repair a reputation damaged by a 2012 drug suspension, driving the #47 for JTG Daugherty Racing, who switched from Toyota to Chevy in the offseason.

Perhaps the biggest news, when it comes to team changes, is the return of the #3 Chevrolet for the first time since the death of Dale Earnhardt, as Austin Dillon, who is Richard Childress’ grandson, brings the fabled number back to the Sprint Cup circuit after winning both a Nationwide Series title in 2013 and a Camping World Truck Series title in 2011 driving #3.  Childress will only allow a member of the Earnhardt or Childress family to drive The Intimidator’s number.  Other rookies include Michael Annett (#7 Flying J/Pilot Chevrolet for Tommy Baldwin Racing), Kyle Larson (#42 Target Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing), Justin Allgaier (#51 Brandt Chevrolet for the newly rebranded HScott Motorsports, formerly Phoenix Racing), Alex Bowman (#23 Dr. Pepper/Burger King Toyota for BK Racing), Ryan Truex (#83 Dr. Pepper/Burger King Toyota for BK Racing), Cole Whitt (#26 Swan Energy Toyota for Swan Racing), and Parker Kligerman (#30 Swan Energy Toyota for Swan Racing).  This is the biggest class of rookies I can ever remember in my years following NASCAR.

Among those not racing full-time in the 2014 season are Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte, and Mark Martin.  Burton and Labonte will run part-time after their contracts with full-time rides expired, with Burton leaving Richard Childress Racing, and Labonte leaving JTG Daugherty Racing.  Martin began 2013 running part-time for Michael Waltrip Racing, but filled in for Tony Stewart after Stewart’s broken leg in August for 14 of the last 15 races before announcing he would continue at Stewart-Haas in an advisory role, not running any races in 2014 and beyond.

Now, let’s look at what I’m projecting to happen with the 2014 season.  First, I projected the first 26 races (picking a winner), and there were, surprisingly, 16 different winners, filling out the entire “Chase Grid” first round.  Here are the 16, in the order that they would be seeded going into the Chase:

Jimmie Johnson (3 wins), Matt Kenseth (3 wins), Jeff Gordon (3 wins), Kevin Harvick (2 wins), Kyle Busch (2 wins), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2 wins), Denny Hamlin (2 wins), Kasey Kahne (1 win), Tony Stewart (1 win), Clint Bowyer (1 win), Kurt Busch (1 win), Brad Keselowski (1 win), Greg Biffle (1 win), Ryan Newman (1 win), AJ Allmendinger (1 win), Marcos Ambrose (1 win).

This projection has, among others, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, and Martin Truex Jr. missing the Chase.  Edwards would certainly be the biggest surprise, but his close calls running for titles in the past have been based on consistency, and I didn’t project him to win a race in the so-called regular season.  Other potential sleepers include Brian Vickers, Jamie McMurray, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Paul Menard, and Kyle Larson.  And by the way, the wins for Allmendinger and Ambrose both came on road courses.  While both may struggle on ovals (Ambrose is more likely to struggle than Allmendinger), a win on a road course would get them into the Chase.

Starting the Chase is the Challenger Round, with races at Chicago, New Hampshire, and Dover.  Here is how the field is projected to rank after the 3 races, with the top 12 advancing:

Moving On: Jimmie Johnson (2 wins), Denny Hamlin (1 win), Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman
Eliminated:  Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose

The elimination of Biffle, and not Newman, came down to 1 finishing position at one of the 3 tracks (I ranked the drivers 1-16 at each track, and added the results).

Next, the series moves onto the Contender Round, with races at Kansas, Charlotte, and Talladega.  (You thought elimination races for the last 10 years of the Chase format at Richmond were wild; wait until we have an elimination race at Talladega!)  Here is how the field stacks up, with the top 8 advancing:

Moving On:  Matt Kenseth (1 win), Kasey Kahne (1 win), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1 win), Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon
Eliminated:  Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman

This time the last spot came down to a tie, with Gordon winning based on having more wins throughout the entirety of the season.  With the last race of that round coming at Talladega, I can certainly see a photo finish deciding who moves on.

With 4 races remaining, the Eliminator round begins, as the field is cut from 8 to 4 after the 3 races at Martinsville, Texas, and Phoenix.  Here is how those 8 rank in those 3 events:

Moving On:  Jimmie Johnson (2 wins), Matt Kenseth (1 win), Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon
Eliminated:  Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne

Once again, the final spot came down to 1 point (and it was ironically Jeff Gordon battling with Clint Bowyer, at Phoenix, the site of their brawl in 2012).  With that, it comes down to the 3 drivers who battled for the title at Homestead in 2013, with the addition of a 4-time Cup champion to the mix.  The easiest part of all these projections was the Homestead race, as it is only 1 race, and the highest finisher wins the title, plain and simple.  Here is the final projection:

Champion:  Jimmie Johnson
Eliminated:  Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon

As much as it would alienate many within the NASCAR fan base, I am picking Jimmie Johnson to win his record-tying 7th Sprint Cup Series title.  While his stats at Homestead aren’t that good, each time he’s won the title there he hasn’t had to do anything spectacular, he’s just had to finish.  Johnson is very good on 1.5-mile tracks like Homestead, so I think when the pressure is on, he’ll beat the other 3 to the checkered flag.  There is, after all, no one better when the pressure is on than Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.

Here is a season preview for each of the top 12 picked in my Chase Grid:

1. Jimmie Johnson
As mentioned, Johnson is trying to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, who each won 7 Cup titles, although Johnson would have accomplished the feat in a much shorter period of time.  It’s not wise to pick against him until a team consistently beats him.

2. Kevin Harvick
His first year at Stewart-Haas Racing could very well see him contend for a title.  He has finished 3rd in points 3 of the last 4 years, so the move to SHR (which pretty much uses Hendrick equipment), could put him over the hump.  Many also have him winning a 2nd Daytona 500 title.

3. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth, who will turn 42 in March, comes off a career year, with 7 wins and a runner-up finish to Johnson in points.  Recently there’s been a runner-up curse in the Sprint Cup Series, but I think Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliffe are too solid to fall into the trend.

4. Jeff Gordon
The 4-time champ and 88-time race winner says he may retire if he can win the title.  After being added to the Chase in 2013 due to the events at Richmond, Gordon finished 6th in points, his highest finish since 2009, and won at Martinsville, showing he’s still got some competitive fire at age 42.

5. Clint Bowyer
Speaking of the events at Richmond in September, Clint Bowyer and all of Michael Waltrip Racing are ready to put their mistakes behind them.  The best way to do that would be with a solid season, which they are more than capable of having.  Remember, Bowyer and crew chief Brian Pattie finished 2nd in points in 2012.

6. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Yes, I had Junior winning 3 races.  One was at Michigan, where his last 2 wins have come, with two others on restrictor plate tracks, where he has always run well.  He does have 19 career wins, by the way.  There will be a greater sense of urgency, as crew chief Steve Letarte will leave for the NBC broadcast booth in 2015.

7. Brad Keselowski
The 2012 Sprint Cup champ will rebound after a tough 2013 to win a couple of races and be competitive in the Chase Grid.  The talented yet controversial Michigander has already amassed 10 career wins in just 161 starts.

8. Kasey Kahne
Kahne may be picked the lowest out of the 4 Hendrick Motorsports cars, but 8th really isn’t bad, particularly when that means the team would occupy half of the 8 spots in the Eliminator Round.  Kahne made the Chase in 2013 before struggling to a 12th place points finish, a year after a career-high 4th in 2012.

9. Kyle Busch
Whether you call him “Rowdy” or “Wild Thing”, it’s clear Kyle Busch is one of best known and most talented drivers on the circuit, and a “love him or hate him” type of figure.  While many have him contending for a title, the 3 race stretch of Kansas-Charlotte-Talladega during the Contender Round will have Busch out earlier than he would have hoped.

10. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin would rather forget 2013, a year in which he missed 4 races and lost a title shot with a broken back, before suffering through a series of tough breaks on his way to a 23rd place points finish, although he did win at Homestead.  Like Busch, the stretch of Kansas-Charlotte-Talladega will prevent Hamlin from a deep Chase run.

11. Tony Stewart
Like Hamlin, Stewart is coming off an injury, although his injury is a broken leg and caused him to miss 15 races, and has Stewart, in his own words, at about 65% strength to start the season.  Expect him to start slowly (he usually does anyway), before heating up in the summer to qualify his Chevy for the Chase.

12. Ryan Newman
Newman moves from Stewart-Haas Racing to Richard Childress Racing, where he will be the senior driver at the age of the 36.  Newman comes off his Brickyard 400 win in 2013, and has won 17 races and 51 poles in his 13 seasons.  He joins up-and-coming crew chief Luke Lambert for the 2014 campaign.

(Note:  As you might have figured out, I didn’t account for the fact that a non-Chase driver, or someone already eliminated, could win one of the Chase races.  I simply picked the driver with the highest likelihood of winning out of the drivers who were left for each event.)

Johnson Wins Sixth Title

Jimmie Johnson finished 9th in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, enough to comfortably claim the 6th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship of his career, all of which have come in the last 8 seasons.  His 6 championships place Johnson just 1 title short of the record of 7, shared by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.  While breaking that record is likely one of Johnson’s career goals, he has a legitimate shot at winning 10 titles in his career.  Johnson won the title by 19 points over Matt Kenseth, the 2003 Cup Series champ in his first year for a new team, Joe Gibbs Racing.  Kenseth ran well, leading the most laps and finishing 2nd, but when Johnson finished the race without issue, the 28-point deficit at the start of the day was insurmountable.  Kevin Harvick, who still had a mathematical chance at the title at the start of the day, finished 34 points back after struggling most of the day before rallying to a 10th place finish.  The top 5 in the standings were rounded out by Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson (File) (Photo credit: AmyKay1974)

The title is the 11th for Hendrick Motorsports, adding to an all-time record which already exists.  As mentioned, Johnson has won 6 titles in the last 8 seasons (by the way, that’s never been done before; Earnhardt won 6 in 9 seasons from 1986-1994), all with Hendrick.  In addition, Jeff Gordon’s 4 Cup Series titles (1995, 1997-98, 2001) are all with Hendrick, and 1 of Terry Labonte’s 2 titles came for Hendrick (1996).  Sunday’s title for Johnson adds to Hendrick’s already historic career.  First I figured up that Hendrick has won 11 titles in his 30 seasons in the Sprint Cup Series, which is true.  But when analyzing the titles, I realized that all of the 11 are in the last 19 seasons, an unbelievable feat.

Kenseth’s runner-up finish was behind Denny Hamlin, who grabbed his first victory of an otherwise dreadful season.  Hamlin broke his back in March in an accident while racing for the win at the Auto Club Speedway.  He returned at Talladega, but ran only 23 laps before being relieved by Brian Vickers, before finishing 2nd the following week at Darlington.  After that, however, Hamlin was continuously nagged by accidents and bad breaks.  Hamlin’s win continued a streak of winning a race in each of his full-time Sprint Cup seasons, now 8 in a row.  Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 3rd in the race after leading some laps in the second half of the event.

Martin Truex Jr. was the best among those in their final ride for their current teams, with a 4th-place finish.  Truex will be moving to Furniture Row Racing next year after his current team, Michael Waltrip Racing, was forced to let him go after losing NAPA’s sponsorship.  Kevin Harvick, who, as mentioned, finished 3rd in the standings and 10th in the race, will leave Richard Childress Racing after 13 Sprint Cup seasons for Stewart-Haas Racing.  Ryan Newman finished 17th in his final ride for Stewart-Haas Racing, and will drive for Richard Childress Racing next year.  Kurt Busch ended his only season at Furniture Row Racing with a 21st-place finish, as he prepares to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.

Others either took the track for the final time on Sunday, or face an uncertain future.  Mark Martin finished 19th and Ken Schrader finished 34th, both in their final race in the Sprint Cup Series due to emending retirement.  Juan Pablo Montoya ended a 7-year NASCAR career with a 18th-place finish.  Montoya isn’t retiring, but instead moving back to the IZOD IndyCar Series, trying to duplicate success he had in open-wheel racing in both Indy and Formula-1 earlier in his career, including an Indianapolis 500 win in 2000.  Jeff Burton finished 23rd in his final race for Richard Childress Racing, and Dave Blaney finished 38th in his final race for Tommy Baldwin Racing.  Both veterans are unsure of their futures in the sport at this time, as well as Bobby Labonte, whose replacement for next year at JTG Daugherty Racing, AJ Allmendinger, drove the team’s car on Sunday.

Johnson wasn’t the only champion this weekend in South Florida.  Austin Dillon won the Nationwide Series championship, and Matt Crafton won the Camping World Truck Series title.  Dillon is the grandson of Richard Childress, and drives #3 to honor both Childress (who drove the number in the 1960s-70s) and Dale Earnhardt, who made the number both famous and symbolic.  Dillon won the 2011 Truck Series title, in his 2nd season in the series, at age 21.  Now 23, Dillon won the Nationwide title in his 2nd season in the series.  Dillon will move to Sprint Cup in 2014, and will be the first to drive #3 in the Cup Series since Earnhardt’s death in 2001.  Should he continue the trend of winning a title in his 2nd season in each series, he would match the record of, you guessed it, Earnhardt, who won a title in his 2nd season in 1980.  Dillon won by just 3 points after a season-long points duel with former IndyCar champion Sam Hornish Jr.  Crafton is a 13-year Truck Series veteran, having driven his whole career for ThorSport Racing.  He has 3 career wins in the series, including one in April at Kansas Speedway.  Consistency is what won Crafton the title, as he finished in the top 10 in the first 18 events of the season, and had a season-low finish of 18th, which is remarkable over the course of a whole season.  Crafton’s consistency is a trademark of his career, as he has finished in the top 10 in 175 out of his 316 career starts.  Crafton clinched the title simply by starting the finale on Friday night.

I was privileged to watch Sunday’s race in the High Octane Theater inside the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte.  A friend of my aunt gave her 2 tickets for this race viewing party.  We watched the race on the big screens, which featured the ESPN broadcast (but without commercials!) as well as on-board cameras for Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth.  The Hall also provided race scanners, which allowed us to listen in on the radio channels used by the drivers to communicate with their crews and spotters.  While Johnson and Kenseth would have been two interesting drivers to listen to, given the championship battle, I figured ESPN would keep us updated on anything interesting being said by those two, so I kept my scanner on Jeff Gordon’s channel for most of the race.  He is, after all, my personal favorite and was also my pick to win the race in a fantasy league I play with a friend and his family.

NASCAR Hall of Fame

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

The highlight of the day, however, was meeting 2011 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Ned Jarrett.  He was making an appearance at the hall to unveil a car, which will be put on display in the coming weeks, that he drove in 1966, the year he retired midway through the season.  Jarrett is the only driver to retire as the reigning Cup Series champion, having won the title in 1965, as well as one earlier in 1961.  After completing his driving career in which he won 50 races, he began a career as a racing broadcaster, first for MRN Radio in 1978, before joining CBS and ESPN from the late 1980s to the late 1990s.  His most memorable moments as a broadcaster are clearly being in the booth for a handful of wins by his son, 2014 Hall of Fame inductee Dale Jarrett:  his first win in 1991 at Michigan, and his first two Daytona 500 wins in 1993 and 1996.  Jarrett, following the unveiling of the car, answered questions from fans, before taking pictures with those, like me, who became Hall of Fame members on Sunday.

 

 

 

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series:  2013 Chase for the Cup, Final Standings
1. Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, 2419
2. Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing, 2400, -19
3. Kevin Harvick, Richard Childress Racing, 2385, -34
4. Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing, 2364, -55
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports, 2363, -56
6. Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports, 2337, -82
7. Clint Bowyer, Michael Waltrip Racing, 2336, -83
8. Joey Logano, Penske Racing, 2323, -96
9. Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing, 2321, -98
10. Kurt Busch, Furniture Row Racing, -110
11. Ryan Newman, Stewart-Haas Racing, 2286, -133
12. Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports, 2283, -136
13. Carl Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing, 2282, -137

 

2013 Ford 400, Results
(Finish. Driver, Start, Team, Manufacturer, Laps Led, Points)
1. Denny Hamlin, 5, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 72, 47
2. Matt Kenseth, 1, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 144, 44
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 21, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 28, 42
4. Martin Truex Jr., 8, Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota, 0, 40
5. Clint Bowyer, 25, Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota, 0, 39
6. Brad Keselowski, 4, Penske Racing, Ford, 9, 39
7. Kyle Busch, 11, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 0, 37
8. Joey Logano, 3, Penske Racing, Ford, 0, 36
9. Jimmie Johnson, 7, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 35
10. Kevin Harvick, 6, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 8, 35
Notables:
11. Jeff Gordon, 26, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 33
12. Carl Edwards, 18, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford, 0, 32
13. Kasey Kahne, 13, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 31
17. Ryan Newman, 15, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 27
19. Mark Martin, 22, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 25 (final career start)
21. Kurt Busch, 2, Furniture Row Racing, Chevrolet, 4, 24
24. Greg Biffle, 16, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford, 0, 20

Gordon Ends Drought, Bubba Makes History: The Weekend in NASCAR

Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon (File) (Photo credit: .Mearn)

Jeff Gordon won today’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway, for his 88th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory, and his first this year.  This was his 8th career win at Martinsville.  The win was a much needed one for Gordon, as it moved him from 5th to 3rd in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings, and he reduced his deficit from 34 to 27 points.  The win was the 21st at the Virginia short track for owner Rick Hendrick, although the track is also the site of the Hendrick plane crash tragedy in 2004, in which 10 were killed, including Rick’s son and brother, as well as legendary Hendrick engine builder Randy Dorton.

Matt Kenseth, who began the day 4 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson in the standings, led the most laps and finished 2nd, while Johnson finished 5th, resulting in a tie in the standings with 3 races remaining.  Kenseth does own the tiebreaker (for now at least) with 7 wins compared to 5 for Johnson.  The remaining races are at Texas Motor Speedway next Sunday, followed by Phoenix International Speedway on November 10 and Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 17.

Martinsville Speedway, April 2011

Martinsville Speedway (File) (Photo credit: chayes2014_)

Gordon’s win clinched the manufacturer’s championship for Chevrolet (pretty remarkable considering there’s still three races left).  This gives Chevy their 11th straight title, and their 37th overall.  This will be their 25th title in the last 31 years, with the last 30 of those being the Hendrick era, something that is not a coincidence.  While the Hendrick team isn’t solely responsible for this unbelievable run (Richard Childress Racing, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Morgan-McClure Motorsports, Darrell Waltrip Racing, Junior Johnson & Associates, Leo Jackson Motorsports, Ranier-Lundy Racing, Hagan Racing, and (briefly) Joe Gibbs Racing have also played a part in Chevy’s success over that time span), they are a major reason Chevrolet has dominated the sport.  Hendrick Motorsports has won 10 championships and 217 races in 30 Sprint Cup seasons, with drivers like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Terry Labonte, Ken Schrader, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, and Geoff Bodine.  Of those championships, Johnson has 5, Gordon has 4, and Labonte has 1 (Waltrip and Bodine won their titles with other car owners).  Hendrick also has 7 Daytona 500 wins.

Darrell Wallace Jr. Chats With Media

Darrell Wallace Jr. (File) (Photo credit: Bristol Motor Speedway & Dragway)

In Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race, an event that would normally be an unnotable preliminary became a historic occasion when Darrell Wallace Jr. took the checkered flag, becoming just the second African-American to win a race in a NASCAR national series (the national series are the Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Truck circuits).  The first man to do it was Wendell Scott, on December 1, 1963 at the now defunct Jacksonville (FL) Speedway Park.  Scott died in 1990, but his sons Franklin and Wendell Jr. made an appearance at Martinsville this morning alongside Wallace.  The 20-year-old Alabama native, who is called “Bubba” by many in the garage area, was making just his 19th career start in the Truck Series, acquiring his 5th top-5 and his 11th top-10 finish.  He currently sits 8th in this year’s points standings in the series, and could realistically finish as high as 5th in the standings at year’s end (he’s not mathematically eliminated from the title, but it’s unrealistic that he could catch points leader Matt Crafton).  Wallace had previously become the first African-American winner in the K&N Pro Series East in 2010 at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in South Carolina, and he won Rookie of the Year in that series that season.  Also, in 4 Nationwide Series starts in 2012, he has compiled 3 top-10 finishes with a high of 7th.  Everyone who watched the race yesterday, and everyone who has followed Wallace’s career can tell you he has an exceptional amount of talent, and that the win which was his first won’t be his last.  If he reaches the Sprint Cup Series (and I firmly believe he will), he will be the first black driver to start a Sprint Cup Series race since Bill Lester ran 2 races for owner Bill Davis in 2006.  Before that, the most recent man to do it had been Willy T. Ribbs in 1986.  Watch out for Wallace, who currently drives for Kyle Busch Motorsports, to make some noise, and some more history, in the future.

 

Sprint Cup Series:  Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500, Results
(Finish. Driver, Start, Team, Manufacturer, Laps Led, Points)
1. Jeff Gordon, 9, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 78, 47
2. Matt Kenseth, 4, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 202, 44
3. Clint Bowyer, 5, Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota, 60, 42
4. Brad Keselowski, 11, Penske Racing, Ford, 0, 40
5. Jimmie Johnson, 2, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 123, 40
6. Kevin Harvick, 10, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 38
7. Denny Hamlin, 1, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 14, 38
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 12, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet 0, 36
9. Greg Biffle, 33, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford, 0, 35
10. Jamie McMurray, 7, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 31
Notables:
12. Carl Edwards, 14, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford, 0, 32
14. Joey Logano, 6, Penske Racing, Ford, 0, 30
15. Kyle Busch, 3, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 12, 30
18. Kurt Busch, 19, Furniture Row Racing, Toyota, 0, 26
27. Kasey Kahne, 25, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 17
38. Ryan Newman, 17, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 6

Chase for the Cup Standings:
1. Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing, 2294
1. Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, 2294
3. Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports, 2267, -27
4. Kevin Harvick, Richard Childress Racing, 2266, -28
5. Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing, 2258, -36
6. Clint Bowyer, Michael Waltrip Racing, 2239, -55
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports, 2238, -56
8. Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing, 2236, -58
9. Kurt Busch, Furniture Row Racing, 2219, -75
10. Carl Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing, 2218, -76
11. Joey Logano, Penske Racing, 2209, -85
12. Ryan Newman, Stewart-Haas Racing, 2188, -106
13. Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports, 2170, -124

 

Camping World Truck Series:  Kroger 200, Results
(Finish. Driver, Start, Team, Manufacturer, Laps Led, Points)
1. Darrell Wallace Jr., 3, Kyle Busch Motorsports, Toyota, 96, 48
2. Brendan Gaughan, 15, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 42
3. Jeb Burton, 9, Turner Scott Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 41
4. Ben Kennedy, 14, Turner Scott Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 40
5. Ryan Blaney, 24, Brad Keselowski Racing, Ford, 0, 39
6. Denny Hamlin, 1, Kyle Busch Motorsports, Toyota, 66, n/a
7. German Quiroga, 6, Red Horse Racing, Toyota, 0, 37
8. Johnny Sauter, 2, Curb Racing, Toyota, 9, 37
9. Scott Riggs, 28, RBR Enterprises, Chevrolet, 0, n/a
10. James Buescher, 7, Turner Scott Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 34
Notables:
17. Matt Crafton, 13, ThorSport Racing, Toyota, 0, 27
20. Chase Elliott, 12, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 24
22. Ty Dillon, 5, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 16, 23
30. Kevin Harvick, 21, NTS Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, n/a

Series Standings
1. Matt Crafton, ThorSport Racing, 707
2. James Buescher, Turner Scott Motorsports, 656, -51
3. Ty Dillon, Richard Childress Racing, 646, -61
4. Jeb Burton, Turner Scott Motorsports, 639, -68
5. Johnny Sauter, Curb Racing, 625, -82
6. Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski Racing, 615, -92
6. Miguel Paludo, Turner Scott Motorsports, 615, -92
8. Darrell Wallace Jr., Kyle Busch Motorsports, 614, -93
9. Brendan Gaughan, Richard Childress Racing, 595, -112
10. Timothy Peters, Red Horse Racing, 592, -115

Chase for the Sprint Cup Power Rankings

My overall rankings for the 10-race Chase.

1. Matt Kenseth.  He has 5 wins this year, with 4 coming on 1.5-mile tracks.  Half the chase races are at 1.5-mile tracks, with additional races at Talladega and Dover, good tracks for Matt.  He starts the Chase as the points leader based on those wins.  Much of the media has him as the favorite, and so do I, with Johnson’s recent struggles.

2, Carl Edwards.  Winner at Richmond, “Cousin Carl” has some momentum.  Like Kenseth, he is good at 1.5-mile tracks, Talladega, and Dover, as well as Pheonix.  If he is decent at Martinsville, expect the 99 to be in contention to win it all at Homestead.  Unlike Kenseth, and many others in this Chase, he has experienced racing at Homestead with the prospect of winning the title, finishing 2nd  twice.  That experience could put him over the top.

3. Jimmie Johnson.  A month ago it was unthinkable the 5-time champion would be this low in these rankings.  Since then, he has posted finishes of 40th, 36th, 28th, and 40th.  It should be difficult for anyone to suddenly flip a switch and be championship material again, but if anyone can do it, it’s Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.  They are very good in the Chase format, winning 5 of the 9 Chases run, with finishes of 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th in the other 4.

4. Kyle Busch.  Here’s the elephant in the room.  There are questions surrounding Kyle, as usual.  Can he be consistent enough to contend for a championship?  Is he mature enough?  Can he keep his composure in big-pressure spots if he’s in contention late in the Chase?  I have a feeling we’ll get some answers in the next 10 weeks.  Like Edwards, Busch is riding some momentum, and he’s good at Chicago, New Hampshire, and Dover, the first three tracks the Chase will visit.  After those races, we’ll know if he’s in it or not.

5. Kasey Kahne.  I was hesitant to put him this high, because he was 14th in points, reaching the Chase on a wild card berth.  Kahne, though, is another driver very good on those key 1.5-mile tracks, particularly Charlotte and Texas.  He’s also had moderate success at Phoenix, Dover, and New Hampshire.  Like Edwards, Martinsville is Kahne’s weakness among the Chase tracks.  Kahne may be the wild card in another way, as he will likely be consistent enough to contend for a title, like early in the season, or he will lack consistency and struggle down the stretch.

6. Ryan Newman.  The 39 team left Richmond thinking a late caution and a bad pit stop had cost them a wild card spot in the Chase.  Sunday, of course, they found out with the rest of us that there was more to it.  Newman could use his surprise Chase berth as a springboard to a title shot.  However, the “Achilles heel” of Stewart-Haas Racing this year has been 1.5-mile tracks, which make up half of the Chase races.  The full resources of SHR will be needed to give Newman a shot, and he will have them due to Tony Stewart’s season-ending leg injury.  Another negative, though, is that this is a “lame duck” season, as Newman announced Monday he will drive for Richard Childress Racing in 2014.

7. Joey Logano.  Like Newman, Logano just barely got in.  In fact, there is now speculation that Penske Racing may have asked David Gilliland to intentionally let Logano around to help his points situation at Richmond.  (Great, this week’s been crazy enough.)  He has some momentum, if you ignore his finish at Richmond, he had a win, 3 top fives, and 5 top sevens in the previous 5 races.  Penske Racing won the Chase last year with Brad Keselowski.  The 2 car isn’t in the Chase, so all the resources of Penske will be with Logano, not a bad thing to have.

8. Kurt Busch.  The 2004 Champion may be a dark horse in this Chase.  No one gives the single car team out of Denver a chance.  They are the first single car team and the first team based outside of NC to qualify for the Chase.  This team, however, has some help.  They have a competitive alliance with Richard Childress Racing, and after winning at Darlington in 2011 with Regan Smith, they have been poised to win all year with Kurt Busch, with a 2nd at Richmond, three 3rds, and four additional top fives.  He is a “lame duck,” but his team has probably assumed that all year.  Expect him to win a race or races in the Chase; we shall see if the underdog team can contend at Homestead.

9. Kevin Harvick.  Some writers have him among their top 3, and a couple even have him winning the title.  I’ll be different, and coin a new term, as he may be the “lamest duck.”  Harvick has been at Richard Childress Racing since 2001 (2000 if you count Nationwide), and is leaving for Stewart-Haas Racing at season’s end.  In six previous Chase apperances, he has finishes of 3rd (twice), 4th (twice), 8th, and 10th.  He has shown some consistency, but he only has 6 top fives on the year.  I don’t see that as strong enough to contend for the title.

10. Clint Bowyer.  I just can’t see someone with as crazy a week as Bowyer has had going to Chicago and doing well.  There also must be some negative momentum, not just from the Richmond incident but also from a couple of poor finishes.  Also, after Jeff Gordon got the short end of the stick in the MWR penalties (he’s still not in the Chase), and considering the two have a history, there could be some fireworks (who knows).  On the bright side, Bowyer is good at the first three tracks In the Chase:  Chicago, New Hampshire, and Dover.

11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Junior has had a pretty good year, other than the fact he hasn’t found the winner’s circle.  He was, of course, leading big at Michigan when he blew an engine.  Consistency has been an issue this year, not just for Junior, but for all of Hendrick (never thought I’d say that).  In five previous Chase apperances, his best finish is 5th, but not since 2004 and 2006.  His best Chase finish in three appearances while at Hendrick is 7th.  I don’t see anything here to suggest he will be a contender for the title.

12. Greg Biffle.  Biffle struggled for much of the regular season, as did all of the Fords, but put together enough good finishes to make the Chase.  “The Biff” did finish 2nd in 2005 and 3rd in 2008, but has never really been close enough to taste the champagne.   He won at Michigan in June, but his best finish since the win was 8th, and at a road course.  Out of the 8 races at tracks that are featured in the Chase, he had only one top ten finish, and that was a Martinsville, a track he traditionally struggles at.  The signs don’t look promising for the veteran to contend late into the Chase.

Chase Schedule: 9/15 Chicago, 9/22 New Hampshire, 9/29 Dover, 10/6 Kansas, 10/12 Charlotte, 10/20 Talladega, 10/27 Martinsville, 11/3 Texas, 11/10 Phoenix, 11/17 Homestead