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FRANCKLY SPEAKING: Be Careful For What You Wish For

NASCAR got a black eye Sunday in Martinsville. And it might be a self-inflicted wound.

The debate over the Kenseth/Logano incident has reached shouting levels in some circles.

Going back to the dirt track, pre-NASCAR, times drivers regularly got even for some wrong during the races.

As NASCAR grew into the coast-to-coast national sport with Fortune 500 sponsorships suddenly the drivers went from leather jacketed, chain smoking, beer drinking, common man heroes to corporate spokesmen. In the growth spurt of the 1990s corporate sponsors needed their spokesmen to clean up their act on and off the track.

The sanctioning body reacted also; limiting the type of behavior that made the late Dale Earnhardt both the most loved and hated Intimidator he was. Television’s multi-billion dollar contract, which started in 2001, implicitly called for racing to mirror other professional sports.

The combination of squeaky-clean drivers racing under the Marquis of Queensbury-like boxing rules did a lot to drive away hordes of fans that missed the rough and tumble drivers and racing of the past.

“Give us back our heroes and payback” fans said.

And it was only five years ago that the series granted their wish. NASCAR Robin Pemberton VP told the media that the fans wish would be granted. “Boys, have it at” became the buzzword.

Only there didn’t seem to be any guidance on where the line of acceptable behavior was drawn.

The other issue in NASCAR’s growth was that the Cup championship awarded consistency over wins. The worst epithet an early NASCAR driver could face was that he was a “points racer.” For years we were fed a steady diet of post-race interviews with “it was a good points day.”

Not inspiring words are they?

The Chase was born after @MattKenseth’s 2003 mostly consistent championship. His public image was so robotic that new sponsor Sprint used that as a theme of their television commercials.

Something more was needed. Maybe not the fans, but certainly NASCAR wanted a “seventh-game” moment in Homestead. Only early Chase rules continued to award consistency over wins.

Then last year, in the latest iteration of the Chase, we now have a knockout championship formula with elimination rounds. With attendance down and sponsorships slipping away the new Chase makes every threshold race more desperate for the teams to advance and keep their dwindling sponsors.

While ramping up the urgency and taking off the gloves NASCAR has increased the tension in the hearts and minds of the drivers making virtually every lap count in their own futures.

The desired side of the urgency is where drivers battle each other with vigor for every win. The undesired side is that a driver may feel wronged when “robbed” of a win and take it out on the rival driver while not racing for position.

And that’s what’s happened in the past few weeks in Kansas and Martinsville.

The bottom line is the sanctioning body and fans can’t have payback all-the-time. There has to be a certain line drawn where contact is acceptable. Otherwise the damage won’t only be a black eye.

The sport might be shooting itself in the foot.

EMAIL LEWIS AT lewis.franck@popularspeed.com

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GET A GRIP: Martinsville Edition

Short-track racing at Martinsville Speedway brings out racing’s range of emotions. From the jubilation of victory to the frustration of defeat, the “paperclip” shaped the championship battles moving forward.

The shortest track on the scheduled produced some of the biggest storylines of the season. This led to many memorable moments, and the best and worst are recapped on this week’s list.

Four Tires

  • After being swept up in trouble at Talladega Superspeedway, @Matt_Crafton needed to bounce back in Martinsville to remain alive in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship race. He entered the weekend striving to earn every point possible and left having accomplished this goal. After scoring his second career victory at the track, he cut the points deficit to 10 points with three races remaining. Now he will set his sights on chasing down @Erik_Jones in order to compete for his third consecutive series championship.
  • In a season where @JeffGordonWeb has struggled to perform as well as many expected, everything changed in the Goody’s 500. He turned his year around in an instant by capturing the No. 24 AARP Members Advantages Chevrolet team’s first victory of the season. They have come alive since the Chase began, and their efforts were rewarded with a spot in the Championship 4. Gordon’s approach to what could be his final NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race ever changes drastically now as he will have a shot at capturing his elusive fifth championship.

Two Tires

  • After showing tremendous speed in qualifying and starting second, @CameronNHayley had an impressive Halloween afternoon in Martinsville. He ran up front for much of the Kroger 200 and scored a career-best series finish of third. It was his fourth top-five finish of the season and serves as a momentum booster for the final three races.
  • Had it not been for a late-race caution, @JamieMcMurray would have challenged Jeff Gordon for the victory. The 39-year old continued to close in and gain ground as the laps wound down. However, the late restart placed McMurray in the undesired outside lane against the Martinsville master Gordon. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver was able to hang on and finish second in one of his most impressive performances of 2015.

No Tires

  • It was a Team Penske show at the front of the field for much of Goody’s 500. Brad @Keselowski and @JoeyLogano were the strongest competitors and were able to control the tempo with ease. However, one bad restart spelled trouble for the blue deuce as he broke loose on the backstretch, slamming into @MattKenseth and triggering a crash. This put the team behind the wall for a couple of laps as they repaired the car to salvage a finish. After dominating the race, Logano was involved in an accident with Kenseth less than 20 laps later. This took both of Roger Penske’s entries out of contention after they proved to have the best cars in the field. Now both will eye a win in the next two races to advance to the finale.
  • @KurtBusch was an innocent bystander during the Lap 434 accident involving Keselowski and Kenseth. He was tagged by a spinning Kenseth, which lifted his tires off the ground briefly before he hit the inside wall. This put the Stewart-Haas Racing team behind the wall where they repaired the damage and tried to save as many points as they could. Busch ended up 34th and now joins the Penske teammates in the group of drivers likely needing a victory to make it to Miami.

As fans witnessed last season, the intensity of Martinsville will carry into the season’s final three races. With so much on the line, it will be a wild battle in Texas. The competitors know the importance of wins and running up front at this point in the season and will continue to duel as Miami approaches.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @NASCARJason

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

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AFTER THE FACT: Jeff Gordon Story More Than a Fairytale

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – The screams said it all.

“We’re going to Homestead!” Jeff Gordon yelled both over his radio upon taking the checkered flag and in Victory Lane as he continued to jump around the Martinsville frontstretch.

It was his ninth time celebrating in that very spot, but his first this season. A win that for the longest time didn’t seem would ever come. More importantly, as Gordon emphatically noted, it locks him into the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

If Gordon’s emotion weren’t enough to get you going, the fans made sure to play their part. Repeated chants of “Homestead! Homestead! Homestead!” broke out across the night as Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team continued with their post-race celebration and customary hat dance.

His fairytale ending suddenly doesn’t seem so unrealistic.

Since January, when Gordon announced he would be retiring, collectively as a group – fans, drivers, and media – there’s been the hope of seeing him go out as the champion.

That hope has dominated headlines, talk radio and social media timelines. But it’s hard for it not to because Gordon is now the sports story we all love – an athlete fighting to go out on top.

This is Derek Jeter with the game winning hit in his last appearance at Yankee Stadium. It’s Jerome Bettis leaving the game of football as a Super Bowl champion. Or Michael Jordan, the first time he retired, after the NBA Finals.

For Gordon, each weekend he enters the media center of whichever racetrack the series is competing and talks about how he’d like his career to end. He answers the same questions over and over. Can this team win the championship? How emotional would it be to win the championship in your last season?

And now, let it sink in.

Let what we’ve talked about for 33 races, nearly 10 months of racing sink in because it’s now very much reality. Jeff Gordon could potentially win that elusive fifth championship. Even better, Jeff Gordon could win that elusive fifth championship in his final season.

“Why can’t we win at Homestead? That’s what I say,” Gordon replied when asked if his team should be feared now. “I think a lot of people didn’t think we could do this, and we have. There’s no reason why we can’t do it there as well.”

It’s OK to get chills.

There have been some, including yours truly, who have made it known this 24 team is not the same we saw a year ago. Gordon was arguably the best driver in the Sprint Cup Series in 2014 from start to finish. Kevin Harvick might have taken home the championship, with Gordon not even making it to Homestead, but Gordon was always the favorite and led the regular season point standings.

This year, Gordon went under the radar. He had fight for a Chase spot. Getting to Victory Lane became the wish of his fans. It wasn’t long before the tune went from Gordon was going to win the championship in his final year to let’s just hope he wins at least one more race.

Sunday night Gordon admitted his AARP team was getting their butts kicked at the start of the season. The performance was nowhere near where it should have been. Then the Chase came, and it was evident from the first race in Chicago they were ready to rise to the occasion.

Even still, Gordon has not been the fastest car, and often should have finished worse than he did. But in a format built on survival, Gordon has succeeded. While his competition continues to self-destruct in one way or another, Gordon has climbed through the standings. He’s avoided the drama and self-inflicted wounds to remain championship eligible.

Suddenly, Gordon was telling himself if he got to Martinsville he had a shot. Not long after that many others began to share the same thought. Sunday he proved to all of us his confidence had been spot on. Sunday he showed everyone it’s not yet time to give up on adding a new chapter to the book of great sports moments.

Said Gordon, “I absolutely think that we’re just as capable as anybody else that’s going to be in that final four.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

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DO THE MATH: Gordon, Johnson Fight for Mr. Martinsville Title

Today, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is at Martinsville Speedway for the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500.

Drivers will likely need some headache relief by the end of the 500-mile race as the half-mile track is known to make tempers flare. Coupled with the pressure of the Eliminator Round, the event should produce intense door-to-door racing.

The Chase is narrowing down as eight drivers remain in the playoffs. Each will be looking for a victory to clinch their spot in the Final Four. Will a title contender be in Victory Lane today, or will a non-chaser grab the win?

Before the green flag flies, here are some interesting stats to consider:

• Of the remaining Chase drivers, @JeffGordonWeb has the best stats at Martinsville. In his 45 starts, he has also collected eight wins and a stellar average finish of 6.9. During that time, he has also led a total of 3,744 laps at the venue. If he collects an extra 23 laps today, he will surpass Cale Yarbrough for most laps led. Will Gordon accomplish the feat? He begins fifth.

• While @joeylogano has never secured a victory at Martinsville, each of his past three starts has resulted in solid top-five finishes. Earlier this year, he started from the pole and finished third. Leading the field to green once again, will the No. 22 team grab their fourth victory of the Chase?

• Martinsville has not been the best track for @MartinTruex_Jr, but the No. 78 team’s performance in the spring was notable. He qualified third and finished sixth. Leaving Talladega Superspeedway last week with a seventh place finish, the team has momentum heading into the third round. He begins second today.

@JimmieJohnson has already been eliminated from the Chase but is one of the best at Martinsville, with eight wins and an average finish of 7.3. In Saturday’s final practice, he was found at the top of the board in single, five, 10, and 15 lap averages. While he starts 21st, he will be one to watch.

@dennyhamlin grabbed his fifth victory at the Virginia-based track earlier this season and looks to complete the sweep. He did just that back in 2010. With an average finish of 8.3, this non-Chaser could find himself in Victory Lane today. He begins 10th.

• In his 31 starts, @mattkenseth has never won at Martinsville. However, since he joined Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013, his results have been consistent. In five starts, four have produced top-six finishes. He begins 18th today.

• Earlier this season, Toyota snapped Chevy’s streak of eight victories at Martinsville, while Ford has not won a race at the half-mile track since 2002. However, a blue oval driver is on the pole today. Will the manufacturer return to Victory Lane?

EMAIL STEPHANIE AT stephanie.adair@popularspeed.com

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The Top-10 Weirdest NASCAR Moments of 2015

As NASCAR celebrates Halloween weekend at Martinsville Speedway, it is the perfect time to reflect on some of the weirder moments in the sport to date. Here are the top-10 weirdest happenings so far, with more undoubtedly to come.

10: The 2015 season got off to an admittedly weird start with both Busch brothers sitting out the biggest race of the year, the Daytona 500.

The elder Busch, @KurtBusch, was out of his Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 Chevrolet after being suspended indefinitely by the sanctioning body after a family court judge in Delaware ruled that there was a ‘preponderance of the evidence’ that the driver ‘committed an act of domestic violence’ against Patricia Driscoll, Busch’s girlfriend at that time.

Regan Smith was tapped to replace Busch in the Great American Race and finished 16th.

Younger brother @KyleBusch was also out of the Daytona 500 but for very different reasons. The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota suffering a hard crash in the season opening XFINITY race, which resulted in a compound fracture of the right lower leg and a left mid-foot fracture.

Matt Crafton substituted for the ailing Busch brother in the Daytona 500 and finished 18th.

In spite of both of their absences from the early part of the season, both drivers have eerily managed to bounce back to compete this year in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

9:  There must have been something very strange in the water nine months ago with the plethora of NASCAR babies that have appeared on pit road. The newbies include Brexton Busch, Cash Bowyer, Owen Larson, Scarlett Keselowski, and Tanner Kahne just to name a few.

8:  There have been a number of racers injured or taken ill this season, from Kyle Busch to Brian Vickers to Denny Hamlin most recently, however, one of the weirdest illnesses to strike was a fainting spell for Kyle Larson.

In fact, at the last race at Martinsville Speedway, @KyleLarsonRacin fell ill at an autograph session and was rushed to the hospital. The 2014 Rookie of the Year was evaluated at the hospital and it was determined that dehydration led to his fainting spell.

Regan Smith was again appointed the relief driver and again weirdly finished 16th in his substitute role, the same finishing spot that he had finished in relief of Kurt Busch at the Daytona 500.

7: The seventh weird occurrence in the season to date occurred at Pocono Raceway where three drivers had hard crashes into the pit wall that were eerily similar.

Ray Black Jr. suffered the first hit into pit wall during the Pocono Mountains 125 NASCAR Camping World Truck race. Jeb Burton then suffered the same fate when his race car plowed into the pit wall in Saturday’s final practice session.

The worst and almost identical crash into the pit wall was incurred by Kasey Kahne in the Windows 10 400 Cup race when his No. 5 Aquafina Chevrolet hit so hard that pit crew members went flying and the pit wall was so heavily damaged that the race had to be red flagged for almost 15 minutes for repairs.

@kaseykahne finished dead last in the race in the 43rd position, undoubtedly impacting his future inability to participate in the Chase.

6: Various types of critters created some very weird scenes at several different tracks this season. At Pocono Raceway, there was a weird sighting of what some called a squirrel, others called a cat, and still others deemed it a fox.

There was also a bunny at Bristol that stopped the Truck Series practice and a baby duck at Dover International Speedway that was indeed tough to corral before action could resume.

5: The fifth weirdest happening of the season to date occurred at the Richmond race in September. Racer Michael McDowell led the field in prayer to start the race and then strangely hit the safety vehicle while under caution.

@Mc_Driver was circling the track with the field under caution on Lap 288 when he slammed into the rear end of the safety truck after telling his team that he never saw the vehicle. McDowell went from prayer captain to troublemaker, having to take his own trip to the NASCAR hauler after the race.

Thankfully, there were no injuries and no inferno a la Juan Pablo Montoya when he hit the jet dryer at Daytona in the 2012 Daytona 500.

4: One of the most recent weird occurrences occurred when Austin Dillon and his girlfriend were almost taken out by pre-race pyrotechnics gone wild. A piece of fireworks misfired during opening ceremonies for the NASCAR XFINITY Series Drive for the Cure 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and came down right next to @austindillon3, burning his backside.

The No. 33 Richard Childress Racing driver soldiered on to win the race from the pole, however, showed off his burnt driver’s suit bottom in the media center after the race.

“I was praying with my girlfriend and I think it was a sign from God,” Dillon said after the race. “He said, ‘you’re getting ready to have a good night or something.’ Get your butt in gear.”

3: Many fans would no doubt say this has been one of the weirdest Chase runs to date as well, particularly with six-time champion Jimmie Johnson eliminated on the very first round of competition.

And on the flip side, not many had predicted that Joey Logano would win three races in a row and now sit on the pole for the Martinsville race, poised to potentially make history with four consecutive trips to Victory Lane.

2: With a track built on an ancient burial ground, there is no doubt that weird things do just happen at Talladega. Both races this season have oozed strangeness, with the ‘Big One’ occurring early at the first Talladega race.

Sixteen cars were involved in a wreck which occurred on Lap 47 when Trevor Bayne lost control, taking out Paul Menard, Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson, David Ragan, Danica Patrick and Kasey Kahne to name a few.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. went on to win the Geico 500, his first victory at Talladega Superspeedway in 20 races.

Strangely enough the fall and most recent Talladega race also involved @Tbayne6, who was crashed by Kevin Harvick, sparking the controversial ending to the CampingWorld.com 500. That race featured an aborted attempt at a green-white-checkered finish and then the wreck involving Harvick and Bayne.

Earnhardt Junior finished in second, however, was officially eliminated from the Chase as were Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, and Ryan Newman.

1: The weirdest moment in the season has no doubt been the transformation of Tony to Tanya. Thanks to a tweet from Stewart-Haas Racing’s crew chief Tony Gibson that has gone viral, there was a ‘new’ driver apparently practicing in the No. 14 machine at Martinsville Speedway, with the name above the door magically transforming from Smoke to Tanya.

Just take a look at what drivers may be seeing in their rear view mirror on Sunday when the Goody’s 500 takes the green flag.

Happy Halloween!

EMAIL MARY JO AT mj.buchanan@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW MARY JO ON TWITTER: @maryjobuchanan

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Eliminator Round: Eight is Enough

The Chase has reached the halfway point.

Two rounds down, two rounds to go. Eight drivers have been sent packing with eight drivers still left in contention for the 2015 Sprint Cup Series championship. But it only gets harder from here.

While each of the previous rounds keeps you in contention for a championship, this round determines if you will get the chance to compete for it.

This is the Eliminator Round.

The Tracks

Martinsville Speedway (0.526-mile oval)

Texas Motor Speedway (1.5-mile quad oval)

Phoenix International Raceway (1.0-mile tri-oval)

The Outlook

One can only think it’s going to get wilder from here.

@JoeyLogano is on top of the world after sweeping the Contender Round, but he did so at the expense of @MattKenseth. The 2003 champion hasn’t forgotten it, and Talladega just solidified his displeasure with the young the driver. Now, he’s going to do something about it.

Logano might be the best driver remaining in the Chase, but it’s hard to believe Kenseth is going to allow him to win the championship. Close quarters at Martinsville provide the perfect opportunity for a front bumper to get used. And not just by Kenseth.

Martinsville is the classic lose your temper racetrack. And if even someone doesn’t lose their temper, the slightest mistake by a driver getting into Turn 1 or Turn 3 and their fellow competitors are going to pay the price. Quite a few Chase drivers were sent spinning in this race last year.

But back to Kenseth and Logano seeing as this is the main storyline going into this round. If Kenseth doesn’t do it here, then Phoenix is another great place to do it. Anyone remember what @JeffGordonWeb did to @ClintBowyer after they made contact earlier in the day?

Simply put, whether it’s Logano or any of the other seven drivers, survival is what this round is all about. Not only can each of these three tracks can be very unforgiving, but just like the first round, they can jump out and bite a driver if they let their guard down.

High speeds at Texas mean wild restarts and we’ve already seen how aggressive restarts have been the first six weeks have been. A Texas restart last year cost Gordon a shot in the final four. I fully expect that to be the case again this year.

As for Phoenix, high speeds and flat corners call for the minimizing of the mistakes. Considering self-inflicted wounds have been the theme of the Chase thus far, that might be hard to do. One team is going to take themselves out of contention early in the Chase and have to spend the next two weeks looking for the Hail Mary.

But Phoenix will also see the best rise to the occasion. Last season, the first six drivers at Phoenix were Chase drivers looking for a spot in the Final Four at Homestead.

Drastic times, though, call for drastic measures. Meaning if you were angry at what took place last weekend in Talladega for @KevinHarvick doing what he did to stay championship alive, prepare yourself to see the same type of action sometime over the next three weeks.

Eliminator Round Drivers

  1. Joey Logano
  2. Carl Edwards
  3. Jeff Gordon
  4. Kurt Busch
  5. Brad Keselowski
  6. Martin Truex Jr.
  7. Kevin Harvick
  8. Kyle Busch

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WEAVER: Handicapping the Eliminator 8

And then there were eight …

The quest for the Sprint Cup Series championship has taken plenty of unexpected turns over the past six weeks, a trend that will surely continue over the next three events as the eight best (or otherwise luckiest) teams in the sport will do battle for the most prestigious prize in NASCAR.

Based purely on the numbers, this round should be easy to predict, in terms of those who advance to Homestead and those who are left fighting for fifth during the final event of the season. There are three REALLY good teams in the 22 (Joey Logano), 4 (Kevin Harvick) and 18 (Kyle Busch.) Those are also the three drivers most likely to win a race during the Eliminator Round and automatically advance to the Championship Race.

But the fact that at least one spot is guaranteed to a driver without a win opens up the possibility for all sorts of outcomes. And the inaugural elimination Chase last season proved that anything could happen. With that in mind, here’s a handicap for the penultimate round of the Chase for the Championship.

POWER RANKINGS

  1. Joey Logano
  2. Kevin Harvick
  3. Kyle Busch
  4. Brad Keselowski
  5. Kurt Busch
  6. Carl Edwards
  7. Martin Truex Jr
  8. Jeff Gordon

1.) Joey Logano

As the winner of the three most recent races and four during the Chase itself, Logano enters the final four-week stretch as the favorite to win the whole shebang. However, his decision to single-handedly eliminate Matt Kenseth from the playoffs with a spin-to-win at Kansas, could cost him as the 2003 champion has made no secret of his animosity towards the Team Penske youngster.

He will also have to deal with a track that’s given him fits in Martinsville this weekend. At the Virginia half-mile, Logano has posted four top-5s in 13 starts but an average finish of 13th.

He’s always had speed at the track, dating back to his time at Joe Gibbs Racing but was often pushed around as a newcomer in his first couple of seasons. That can’t happen now that he’s racing for a championship.

He’s won at Texas and hasn’t finished outside of the top-10 at Phoenix since 2013, but may have to drive out of his rear-view anytime Kenseth sneaks up on him.

2.) Kevin Harvick

Has there ever been a lock to win a race quite like Harvick at Phoenix right now? Having won the last four events at the one-mile venue, many have already penciled the defending champion into the Championship Race at Homestead.

But he’s got to get through Martinsville and Texas first. He has a victory and three top-5s at Martinsville, but an average finish of 16th. And in the Chase, he has finished 15th or worst four times in six tries. He can win anywhere on the circuit but needs to put together the consistency needed to not have to be in so many must-win situations like he has been over the past year.

3.) Kyle Busch

It could be argued that this championship format, combined with this rules package, should have made Busch the favorite from the start of the season. He very well could have won nearly 10 races over a full season, if not for his injury too.

Busch is one of the better short track drivers in the Sprint Cup garage and will have two really good win opportunities at both Martinsville and Phoenix. Despite facing some adversity during the Chase itself, Busch has survived and has never been championship eligible this late into a season. That’s a very dangerous proposition for the other remaining seven.

4.) Brad Keselowski

Even though Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe haven’t enjoyed the same amount of success as teammates Logano and Todd Gordon, they receive the same equipment. As a result, it feels inevitable that Keselowski could equal Logano’s Contender Round success, especially given his career numbers at all three Eliminator Round tracks.

At Martinsville, Keselowski has a pair of top-5s and an averages finish of 14th. At Texas and Phoenix, he has only one finish outside of the top-10 over the past four years at both tracks each. In short, Keselowski is a closer and this is the point of the season where he shines. Assuming the top three seeds each won one race, it is most likely that the always consistent Keselowski would earn his way in on points.

5.) Kurt Busch

Busch has been a model example of how to win a championship this season, when you don’t have a dominating car equal to those being driven by Logano, Harvick and Busch. Showing every bit of his veteran savviness, Busch just completes top-10 after top-10, as his 10.7 average finish this season is third on the tour behind Logano (7.7) and Harvick (9.3).

It’s not that Busch hasn’t had a car capable of winning more races this season, it just seems like he’s methodically taken the safe result more often than not, knowing what it takes to get to Homestead. He and Tony Gibson are sleeper picks by every definition of the word

6.) Carl Edwards

A case could be made that Carl Edwards hasn’t received enough credit for how well he and his team has performed during the second half of the season. Over the past 15 races, the No. 19 team has one win, only three finished outside of the top-10 and a 7th place average finish.

They’ve benefitted from the new high powered Joe Gibbs Racing approach just as much as Busch and Kenseth, who received a bulk of the credit during the summer and fall.

With that said, Edwards is going to have to survive Martinsville, where he’s posted only one top-5 in 22 starts. He finished 10th at Texas in the spring and 13th at Phoenix in his first couple of starts with JGR. But as previously mentioned, this is a team clicking on all fronts and could easily win multiple times over the final four events.

7.) Martin Truex Jr.

The fact that Truex and Furniture Racing has made it this far is a credit to everyone involved within that organization. They’ve outlasted several giants through maximizing their strengths while largely limiting their weaknesses. It’s going to be difficult for them to win one of the next three races, but they don’t have to.

For Truex to advance, he just needs to do what he did the first time he visited each of these next three tracks this season. He posted results of seventh, sixth and ninth at Phoenix, Martinsville and Texas and that should get it done this time, all things equal.

8.) Jeff Gordon

Without a doubt, the four-time Sprint Cup Series champion is the most interesting wild card of the remaining playoff drivers. Based on his E8 worst 14.7 average finish, and the fact he’s the only championship eligible driver without a win, Gordon shouldn’t even be here.

But Gordon gritted his way to a trio of top-10s in the Contender Round and now has three really good traditional tracks remaining for him to earn his way into a Championship Race appearance. Gordon will be the odds on favorite to win at Martinsville as he is the active career wins leader at the paperclip with eight and has an average finish of 6.889 at a track that defies packages.

This (and Phoenix to a lesser degree) is a driver track that bodes well for Gordon in his final season. It’s going to be important for Gordon to win if he has any remote chance at Martinsville, because Texas will be a challenge based on their recent intermediate track performances.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

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FRANCKLY SPEAKING: Green Doesn’t Always Mean Go in NASCAR

Does Talladega’s yellow-flag finish leave you seeing red? If so you aren’t alone.

Sure NASCAR officials have a difficult job in governing racing at Talladega where speeds can reach 200 mph. Ever since the stock car series has gone to restrictor plate racing the effect has been to cause huge freight trains of cars which can be caught up in multi-car wrecks we call the “Big One.”

And isn’t it ironic that the track which spawned the need for a green-white-checkered finish ended under a caution?

Back in April, 2007, @JeffGordonWeb took the checkered flag under yellow, at the 2.66-mile superspeedway, beating track favorite @DaleJr. — then driving the No. 8 for the Dale Earnhardt Inc. team. This was hugely unpopular with the big crowd of the day. To show their anger fans threw beer cans on the track.

The crowd’s anger was aggravated because not only did Gordon beat Earnhardt Jr. he also recorded his 77th win eclipsing the late Dale Earnhardt’s career total of 76 at the track where the seven-time Sprint Cup champion consecrated the premises with 10 of those victories. That was like adding gasoline to a fire.

Gordon was a little shaken by the reaction of the fans.

“It’s tough,” he told reporters. “I knew three-quarters of these fans were against me. I didn’t want to start a riot today, but I wanted to break that record. I really didn’t think it would come here. It’s just an unbelievable day.”

Nobody, except for the winning team, enjoys a race which ends under caution.

After that dangerous and sudsy reaction NASCAR, in its’ wisdom, decreed that there would be, at future races, a green-white-checkered flag finish to try to finish under green. Eventually the rule went to three attempts. That is admirable.

The problem is that each green-white-checker attempt at Talladega (and Daytona for that matter) was likely to cause its own Big One which likely results in hundreds of thousands, if not a few million dollars, in wrecked cars.

And then there was @AustinDillon3’s frightening wreck in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona this July.

So shortly before last week’s race in Talladega the sanctioning body ruled that there would be only one “attempt” at a green-white-checkered finish. On Sunday the law of unintended consequences came out to play.

The first attempt to for a green-white-checkered flag was ruled as “not” an attempt despite the fact that the race restarted, in the restart zone, and television showed a green light on the track. NASCAR officials threw a caution before the leaders reached the start/ finish line.

NASCAR Hall of Famer, Dale Jarrett, who raced his entire career without a restart zone, said in his post-race television analysis that he thought that “non attempt” was a restart. The result was another green-white-checkered attempt. And you know what happened afterwards.

It’s time re-establish the start finish line for what it once was.

Otherwise green might not always mean go in NASCAR.

EMAIL LEWIS AT lewis.franck@popularspeed.com

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DO THE MATH: Truex Jr. Due for a Talladega Breakthrough

If there is one rule at Talladega, it would be expect the unexpected.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is back at the infamous Talladega Superspeedway for another round of high-speed action. Only @joeylogano rests easy today, as he is the only Chase contender guaranteed into the next round.

As for everyone else? They will be locked into an intense battle until the checkered flag waves.

Who will join Logano in the Eliminator Round? Before the green flag flies, here are some stats to consider.

• Logano may have won the first two events of this round, but a clean sweep could be a long shot. The driver of the No. 22 has never won at the 2.5-mile track and hasn’t placed in the top-10 since 2011. Can he break that streak today? He starts tenth.

• Two of the four Joe Gibbs Racing entries are in need of a win today. @MattKenseth sits 12th in the point standings while @KyleBusch is on the bubble in ninth. Both drivers have scored a win at the Alabama-based track previously. However, in his past five starts Busch has placed in the top-five twice. In comparison, Kenseth has gathered one top-five and two top-10s. Will one of these Toyota drivers be in victory lane today? Kenseth and Busch begin fourth and 16th respectively.

@RyanJNewman will also need a solid finish to advance to the next round. While he has never won here, three of his last five starts have resulted in three top-10s and one top five. He starts 18th.

• One cannot talk about Talladega without mentioning the name Earnhardt. Like his father, @DaleJr is among the best ever at this unpredictable track. In 31 starts, he has amassed six victories, the most among active drivers. One of those victories came earlier this season. Team 88 will likely need another win to advance to the next round. They begin fifth today.

• Earnhardt Jr.’s teammate, @JeffGordonWeb also has six victories at the venue, but his last was back in 2007. Since then (15 starts), he has claimed only three top-10s, none of which came from the past five races. Earlier this year, he started from the pole but finished 31st. Today he will lead the field to green once more in his last Talladega start.

@KevinHarvick is another driver to watch. His last three starts have each resulted in a top-10 finish. With one previous win here (2010), the No. 4 team looks to return to victory lane today. They start seventh.

• Looking only at the past five events at Talladega, @MartinTruex_Jr has the best average finish. In the same time span, he also claimed three top-10s and one top-five. He has yet to win at Talladega. Will that change today? He begins 43rd due to a disallowed lap time in qualifying.

• Keep an eye on @Blaney – he may surprise today. Earlier this year, the Wood Brothers Racing driver put up an impressive performance at Talladega, placing fourth. Can he survive the superspeedway carnage and grab another top five finish later this evening? He begins ninth.

EMAIL STEPHANIE AT stephanie.adair@popularspeed.com

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DO THE MATH: Hendrick Motorsports Remains Absent

Today, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is at Kansas Speedway for the second race of the Contender Round. All who are in the playoffs will be battling for the insurance that comes with a victory. As Talladega Superspeedway looms next week, a good performance is crucial.

Can anyone currently in the bottom four rally back into contention? Here are some interesting stats to consider before the green flag drops:

• While Chevrolet captured a victory two weeks ago at Dover International Speedway, Hendrick Motorsports hasn’t won since July. To be specific, the organization has not visited victory lane in 13 races. It is their longest winless streak within a season since 2005 (12). Could they break that trend today? @JeffGordonWeb and @JimmieJohnson are among the best at Kansas. Each has three wins and an average finish better than 10.0. Gordon and Johnson begin sixth and 21st today.

• Hendrick teammate @DaleJr is currently 11th in the point standings. However, he could rally back today at Kansas. While he has never won at the venue, his last five starts have resulted in three top-10 finishes, including a third-place finish earlier this year. He will start 15th.

@KyleBusch and @mattkenseth are also in jeopardy sitting 10th and 12th respectively in the point standings. However, their past performances at this 1.5-mile track are a stark contrast. Kenseth has captured two wins here and has accumulated a 13.2 average finish. In the Kansas event held earlier this season, he placed sixth. On the other hand, Busch has never won here and has a sobering average finish of 21.4. While he missed the spring race here due to injury, the fall event last year resulted in a third place finish, his best in 15 starts. Will either driver be standing in victory lane later today? Busch and Kenseth start third and 11th respectively.

• Carl Edwards is another Joe Gibbs Racing driver who has never won at Kansas. His last five finishes have resulted in three top-six finishes, his highest being fifth (2013, 2014). While Edwards sits sixth in the point standings, the No. 19 team will be looking for a “W” today. He will begin second.

• Both Penske Racing drivers are still in the title hunt and have some solid stats to highlight. @keselowski has one victory and finished seventh earlier this year. Point leader @joeylogano also has a win at Kansas along with four top-fives from the past five races. Will either of them become a repeat winner today? Keselowski is on the pole while Logano starts 14th.

• He may not make a lot of noise, but @MartinTruex_Jr is one to watch. Currently third in the point standings, he is arguably this round’s dark horse – and his stats at Kansas are notable. In his three starts with Furniture Row Racing, the last two have resulted in finishes of fourth and ninth respectively. When Truex Jr. drove for Michael Waltrip Racing, he grabbed his best finish at the track twice in one year – second (2012). Coming off a third-place finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway, will the No. 78 team pull off their second victory of the season? They begin seventh today.

EMAIL STEPHANIE AT stephanie.adair@popularspeed.com

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