By Matt Weaver – A lot of ballyhoo was made of NASCAR’s decision expand the Chase for the Championship to 13 drivers following the events that transpired at Richmond. The end result was the literal biggest Chase of all time, not that it matters much after the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Matt Kenseth became just the third driver to open the Chase with two consecutive wins and with it has turned the playoffs into a three team battle following Sunday’s race in New England.
For the second straight week, Kyle Busch — Kenseth’s teammate — finished second and Jimmie Johnson scored a top-five. The end result is just three teams within 36 points of the top spot — the top three separated by 18. The biggest Chase in NASCAR history is suddenly a three-car breakaway with eight races remaining.
Here are the top three stories to emerge from the Chase race at New Hampshire:
Kenseth defies odds
On Friday, I wrote that Matt Kenseth was not yet the favorite to win the Chase due to his previous results at New Hampshire. The 2003 champion entered Sunday’s race with a 13.8 average finish and a 16th-place average over his past 12 starts. But I also wrote that a good finish could establish his place as the favorite, speculation he exceeded by pulling into Victory Lane.
The victory is his seventh of the season and extends his own personal best marks — at 41 years old and in his first season driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.
To those counting on Talladega to catch Kenseth, do so at your own risk as the Toyota driver has been one of the two most dominant plate aces (alongside Johnson) this season. Kenseth, powered by JGR and crew chief Jason Ratcliff may just have found an unbeatable combination in the 2013 Chase.
In college football, some weekends are considered “elimination Saturday.” Sunday’s race at New Hampshire took on the form of an elimination race, perhaps ending the championship hopes of the bottom four Chase contenders.
Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. entered the race at the back end of the standings and didn’t do enough to negate their problems at Chicagoland, finishing 14th (Logano) and sixth (Earnhardt). At this point, two wins are likely required to negate each bad result.
Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer were the latest to have their Cup hopes dashed. Kahne’s late-race accident relegated him to a 37th place finish while a delayed final pit stop dropped Bowyer to 17th.
On its face, Bowyer’s result wasn’t crippling but at 10th in the standings, nine teams may be too many to jump with eight races left in the season. This is especially true given the pressure and scrutiny the team faces following “Speedgate” at Richmond.
And the reality is dictating that no one is going to catch Kenseth if he continues to perform at his current pace.
Don’t fix the Chase if it isn’t broke
It is somewhat ironic that the Chase was instituted as a result of Matt Kenseth winning the championship with consistency and only a single victory in 2003.
It’s ironic because Kenseth is again running away with a championship and doing it under the format he helped necessitate. This has left some questioning the competitiveness of the current playoff format.
Look — nothing can be done to squash dominance.
The best teams and drivers will take whatever system you throw at them and eventually beat it. Sure the Chase could benefit from some added diversity in the form of a short track and road course but the 1-48 championship system — plus the Chase — is a valued aspect of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing.