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NASCAR Cup Series

GALLERY: Playoff Picture After New Hampshire

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff picture took an interesting turn with Denny Hamlin’s victory in Sunday’s Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Hamlin, driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota, became the 12th different winner so far this season, although Joey Logano’s victory at Richmond Raceway doesn’t count in the playoff standings because of post-race inspection issues.

Following Sunday’s race, there are now just seven races left in the Cup regular season.  Once the regular season concludes, the 16-driver field will be set for NASCAR’s playoffs. Here are the 16 drivers who are currently playoff eligible.

Martin Truex Jr., 3 wins, 29 playoff points

Truex will have a huge advantage when the playoffs start because of the points he’s already amassed. And in the next seven races, the Furniture Row Racing driver could add a whole lot more.

Jimmie Johnson, 3 wins, 16 playoff points

The seven-time champion has had an up-and-down season, but we all know how good he is when the playoffs roll around. He is also one of just two drivers with three victories already in 2017.

Kyle Larson, 2 wins, 13 playoff points

In addition to his victories at Auto Club Speedway and Michigan International Speedway, Larson has an amazing seven runner-up finishes in just 19 races this season.

Brad Keselowski, 2 wins, 13 playoff points

Early in the season,  Keselowski and Team Penske were especially strong. In the last eight races, though, Keselowski has finished 31st or worse four times.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 2 wins, 10 playoff points

Is there a bigger surprise this year than Stenhouse earning his first two career Cup victories, both coming at restrictor-plate tracks? Stenhouse has helped make Roush Fenway Racing relevant again.

Kevin Harvick, 1 win, 8 playoff points

The 2014 series champion has had consistent speed virtually since the time he joined Stewart-Haas Racing, and the team seems to have done a good job adapting to the change to Fords.

Denny Hamlin, 1 win, 7 playoff points

Even without the New Hampshire win, Hamlin likely would have made the playoffs on points anyway. But his big victory on Sunday eliminates all doubt that he’ll race for a title.

Ryan Blaney, 1 win, 8 playoff points

A victory last month at Pocono means Blaney will make the playoffs in just his second full season and Wood Brothers Racing will be in for the first time ever.

Kurt Busch, 1 win, 5 playoff points

It’s been an odd year for Busch, who won his first Daytona 500 by leading only the final lap, but hasn’t earned any other playoff points since then.

Ryan Newman, 1 win, 5 playoff points

A savvy gamble on pit strategy at Phoenix Raceway broke a 127-race winless streak for Newman and a 112-race winless streak for Richard Childress Racing.

Austin Dillon,  1 win, 5 playoff points

Last year, Martin Truex Jr. won the Coca-Cola 600 by leading 392 of 400 laps. This year, Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600 by leading only the final 2 laps.

Kyle Busch, 0 wins, 5 playoff points

As well as he’s run at times this season, it’s hard to believe Busch hasn’t won a race yet.

Chase Elliott, 0 wins, 2 playoff points

In his second year, Elliott has consistently finished well, but his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets seem to lack a little in speed.

Jamie McMurray, 0 wins, o playoff points

While McMurray has run well this season, his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Kyle Larson has put up bigger numbers.

Clint Bowyer, 0 wins, o playoff points

One of three Stewart-Haas Racing drivers currently playoff eligible, Bowyer is looking for his first race win since Charlotte in the fall of 2012.

Matt Kenseth, o wins, 2 playoff points

The bad news for Kenseth is he’s the driver on the playoff bubble right now. The good news is he’s 52 points ahead of Joey Logano, who is the first driver outside looking in.

All photos courtesy of Nigel Kinrade Photography © 2017

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Busch Falls Short in Title Bid

Kyle Busch found out Sunday just how hard it is to repeat as the Sprint Cup Series champion.

The Championship 4 contender finished sixth in the Ford Ecoboost 400 at Homestead-Miami in the winner-take-all season finale, behind two other Championship 4-eligible drivers Joey Logano who was fourth, and race winner Jimmie Johnson, who captured his record-tying seventh title.

It was an up-and-down race for the reigning champion, as he fell a lap down to the leaders at one point, but battled back late in the event. It was too little, too late.

Busch led just one lap Sunday but spent most of the race within striking distance inside the top-five. On lap 137 of the 268-lap race, Busch made an unscheduled pit stop for a tire issue. As a result, he dropped to 21st in the running order, one lap down. 34 laps later, Busch rejoined the lead lap as the result of another caution.

Busch scratched and clawed his way through the field and was in contention late in the running.

Before the final restart of the night, Busch pitted from fifth and was forced to restart in 13th with fresh tires.

“Once we restarted third on the bottom and didn’t get a good restart and lost that ground, we were going to be sixth or fifth, three rows back, and we weren’t going to be able to do anything from there,” crew chief Adam Stevens said. “We knew we were going to give up some track position, but we weren’t going to make up any ground from where we were at.”

Busch got around seven cars in the race’s final two laps, but couldn’t quite reach Logano or Johnson.

Though he was disappointed with coming up short of the championship, Busch credits the No. 48 team for making the most of their opportunity.

“Jimmie Johnson was nowhere all night long – couldn’t keep up with us really. We were the third-best car I felt like and I never even saw him in my mirror barely. He just came out of nowhere there at the end and did what he needed to do and was Superman and won the championship, so that’s when it matters,” he said. “Big congrats to seven-time Jimmie Johnson and being able to continue that legacy and race against him and hopefully we can beat him one of these times.”

Busch has now been both sides of the championship title fight at Homestead. Through it all, there’s one commonality.

“You just never give up. You’ve got to keep going. Whatever is thrown at you, you’ve just got to keep making the best of what you’ve got and keep trying, Busch said. “This M&M’s team did a great, great job all year long. Here this weekend, we fought hard a little bit with an ill-handling car, but we made the most of it and just not enough.”

Shane Carlson is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist

EMAIL SHANE AT shane.carlson@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @ShaneCarlson4

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

EDWARDS on Homestead: We’re Just Gonna Do It

AVONDALE, Ariz. — It was a so-so weekend for Carl Edwards, who finished 19th at Phoenix International Raceway, but he’s not too concerned about his performance in Sunday’s race.

The 37-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing driver won the rain-shortened AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway last week, which clinched the Round of 8 contender’s berth for the championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

He, JGR teammate Kyle Busch, six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, and Phoenix winner Joey Logano are the final four who will fight for the title next weekend.

It marks the second time in Edwards’ career that he’ll fight for the Sprint Cup trophy. The first time was in 2011 against Tony Stewart, and he suffered a heartbreaking defeat as the two ended with a tie in points, but the championship went to Stewart because he had more wins during the season.

This time around, the scenario is different and harder for the No. 19 racer, who is competing against a trio of talented wheelmen.

“It’s going to interesting trying to beat three guys,” Edwards told POPULAR SPEED. “Against one guy, it was a pretty singular focus. We’ll go to Homestead next week and try to win the race like we did at Texas. We have a great mile-and-a-half program, and we’ve been able to perform when it matters. We’re just gonna do it.”

Edwards has finished runner-up in the Chase twice before (2008 and 2011). In his 13 years of Cup racing, he’s won 28 events including three in 2016.

He won at Homestead in 2010 when he was driving the No. 99 for Roush Fenway Racing. After each race he wins, he’s known to do a backflip off his car in celebration. If he ends up doing one at Homestead this year, he better stick the landing; it’d be the greatest flip of his career.

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Trucks

Nemechek Falls Below Cut Line

Following his ninth-place effort at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last weekend, 19-year-old John Hunter Nemechek failed post-race inspection.

The NEMCO Motorsports No. 8 Chevrolet Silverado did not meet NASCAR’s ride height standards after Saturday’s UNOH 175, the first race in the inaugural NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Chase for the Championship.

As a result, he was docked 10 championship points in both the owners’ and drivers’ standings. The penalty drops Nemechek from fourth to seventh in the Chase standings, five points below the cut line with two races remaining until the Chase field is trimmed from eight drivers to six.

Crew chief Gere Kennon was fined $6,000 and placed on probation until Dec. 31, 2016.

The penalty comes as the second ride height violation for NEMCO Motorsports, as their truck also failed the ride height minimum at Iowa Speedway in June.

NASCAR eliminated ride height rules for the Sprint Cup Series before the start of the 2014 season, but the restrictions still take effect in the XFINITY Series as well as the Camping World Truck Series.

Now sitting below the cut line, Nemechek has two more opportunities to lock himself into the Round of 6, including this weekend’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway later on this month.

Every Chase driver knows a win is a ticket to the next round, without having to rely on points. Las Vegas marks the perfect opportunity for Nemechek, as in his first career start at the 1.5-mile oval, he was fourth. This season on intermediate tracks, he has one win, which came at Atlanta, and an average finish of 10.4.

With the uncertainty of Talladega, a win in Vegas would be a major relief for Nemechek. In three speedway starts this season, Nemechek has struggled with an average finish of 17.3. In his lone Talladega start last season, he finished 11th.

Though currently sitting only five points, a pair of solid runs could lock him in if another competitor was to find trouble.

Shane Carlson is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist

EMAIL SHANE AT shane.carlson@popularspeed.com
TWITTER: @ShaneCarlson4

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary

RAPID REACTION: Late Caution Hands Truex Jr. Chicagoland Victory

Sunday’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway marked the first of 10 Sprint Cup Series races in the Chase for the Championship, and Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. earned his third win of the season.

Truex Jr. has been one of the fastest drivers all year and has won two of the last three races. His Denver-based team was riding high with confidence entering the playoffs and now the No. 78 Toyota has guaranteed its spot into the Round of 12, which starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway next month.

Rookies Denied

Twenty-year-old Chase Elliott was five laps away from winning his first career Cup race and advancing to the next round of the playoffs. Then the yellow flag waved when Michael McDowell suffered a flat tire, and his No. 95 Chevrolet smacked the outside wall. During the ensuing caution, Elliott led the field down pit road but came out second behind Truex, who would restart fourth.

Another rookie competitor Ryan Blaney gambled by staying out under caution, allowing his Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 Ford to inherit the lead. However, Truex on four fresh tires flew past Blaney for the lead with two laps to go, and he never looked back. Elliott finished third, and Blaney wound up fourth.

Hendrick Resurgence; Chasing Chase

Despite coming up without the win, Hendrick Motorsports should feel pleased with the speed it showed throughout the day. Jimmie Johnson led the most laps (118) but was penalized with less than 35 laps remaining for exiting pit road too fast during the last cycle of green-flag pit stops. Johnson, who admitted that “it was a top-five day” for the No. 48 team, finished a disappointing 12th place.

The No. 24 and No. 48 were back to their race-leading ways again at Chicagoland. Well actually, all four of the HMS cars were fast on Sunday, including Kasey Kahne in the No. 5 and Alex Bowman in the No. 88. Kahne has struggled almost all of 2016, but the last few weeks have been a little brighter for his team and earned a seventh-place result. Bowman, filling in for the sidelined Dale Earnhardt Jr., finished 10th — marking his first career top 10 in a Cup race.

(Not So) Freaky Fast

Kevin Harvick qualified fourth for the 400-mile event but had to start from the back of the field for unapproved body adjustments, along with Kyle Larson. He charged through the field quickly at the beginning of the race, climbing to eighth, but the No. 4 went a lap down during the first cycle of green flag stops. A caution came out at the wrong time for Harvick, and he fell a lap down, setting him up for a bad start to the Chase.

The Jimmy John’s Chevrolet finished 20th. In back-to-back years now, Harvick has had poor performances at Chicagoland. But if there’s one thing Harvick knows how to do, it’s winning with his back against the wall. He wrecked at Chicagoland in 2015 and then won in a must-win situation at Dover two weeks later. Don’t count out “Happy” just yet.

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Bayne Hoping Seat-Time Pays Off

Trevor Bayne is eight points short of making the field for the 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup as it stands.

With Chris Buescher’s victory last weekend, and assuming Buescher avoids catastrophe in the lead-up to the Chase and can erase the six-point deficit he is currently facing as a result of being outside the top-30 in points, Bayne is facing even longer odds.

If Buescher gets into the Chase, that pushes Kasey Kahne out, and the last driver in would be Kyle Larson.

Larson is 28 points ahead of Bayne with five races remaining until the Chase begins.

That’s why Bayne will be running double-duty this weekend at Watkins Glen International.

Along with making his second career Cup start in the Cheez-It 355 on Sunday, Bayne will also be competing in the XFINITY Series in the No. 60 AdvoCare Ford Mustang for Roush Fenway Racing.

Buescher won the XFINITY Series title last year driving the No. 60 Roush Fenway entry.

“Double-duty will definitely be fun this weekend at Watkins Glen,” Bayne said. “It’s been a while since we’ve raced in the XFINITY Series and I’m really excited to have AdvoCare on board for both races this weekend.”

Add a brand new repave, and Trevor Bayne has his work cut out for him this weekend, but he’ll have a leg up on the other Sprint Cup competitors by the time Sunday rolls around.

“Getting to race in the XFINITY race will be a huge help for Sunday,” he said. “With the track being freshly repaved, it will be very fast and unpredictable. This extra track time will allow me to get as many laps as possible to help us get comfortable and try to gain the most points possible toward the Chase come Sunday.”

Bayne last competed in the XFINITY Series in 2014 before going full-time in the Cup Series for Roush Fenway Racing and finished 29th in the standings as a rookie last year.

Saturday’s race will mark Bayne’s fifth career XFINITY Series start at The Glen, where he has two top-10s.

He finished 22nd in his lone Watkins Glen Sprint Cup start last season.

Shane Carlson is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist

EMAIL SHANE AT shane.carlson@popularspeed.com
TWITTER: @ShaneCarlson4

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Editorial

Analysis: Should NASCAR Reward the Regular Season Champion?

For the second year in a row, Jeff Gordon was asked about the reward, or lack thereof, of finishing the regular season as the championship leader — and for the second year in a row, Gordon said NASCAR doesn’t do enough to reward the so-called regular season champion.

Gordon said it last season but it was largely dismissed because he was the championship leader following the final race before the Chase, but the four-time Sprint Cup Series champion isn’t backing down.

“I’ve always felt that way,” Gordon said. “To me we are not giving near enough credit to somebody who has led the points for 26 weeks. That is a very difficult thing to accomplish. I think it needs to be rewarded in more ways than it is now.”

But what more can be done?

As it currently stands, NASCAR re-seeds the playoff drivers based on the number of wins they accumulate during the regular season. In the rare instance that the “regular season champion” doesn’t have a victory and there are 16 different winners, the points leader would make the Chase at the expense of the winner with the fewest amount of points.

In that respect, the regular season points leader is given plenty of perks.

This season, the regular season champion was Kevin Harvick, who won twice before the Chase reset and was ultimately seeded third on the Chase Grid. Last season, it was Gordon who took top honors after 26 points paying races and did so with three wins, good enough for the second seed entering the Round of 12.

Sure, NASCAR could give the points leader after 26 events a trophy and call him or her the Earnhardt-Petty Regular Season champion or something of the sort, but that likely won’t appease Gordon or those who share his stance on the matter.

ESPN reporter Bob Pockrass suggested pit road choice throughout the final 10 events while Frontstretch.com columnist Mike Neff offered that bonus points in the first round of the Chase typically don’t matter.

They seem to matter to Harvick right now as he’s only 22 points out of the final transfer spot instead of 28 following his incident at Chicagoland Speedway last week. Not that NASCAR needs to adhere to stick-and-ball standards but regular season champions don’t earn that much beyond home field advantages in their playoffs.

By definition, a playoff is supposed to be a reset, placing each of the competitors on equal footing to decide a champion. In that regard, NASCAR probably doesn’t need to give the regular season champion first round byes, bonus points into the second and third rounds or an anything along those lines, unless they wanted stack the deck against the rest of the field throughout the Chase.

Should NASCAR do more to reward the regular season champion? Tell us the comments section below.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

Categories
Editorial

MARGOLIS: Chicagoland Observations

Thoughts, observations and a few questions following the myAFibRisk.com 400, round one of the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup:

  • So much has been written/said about @DennyHamlin’s “spin and win.” Just in case you’ve never seen the original Danny Sullivan version it’s here.
  • Hamlin’s version, while not as spectacular as Sullivan’s, was pretty damn impressive, nevertheless. Keeping these new Cup cars off the wall in a situation like this doesn’t always work out and is a lot harder to do than it looks. Nice work, Denny!
  • What’s all the fuss about another shove/punch by @KevinHarvick? Do you forget that it was Harvick’s shove of Brad @Keselowski at Texas last fall that started the dust-up between the Penske driver and @JeffGordonWeb? I’m all for some much-needed rivalry in the Cup garage. One up-and-coming young hotshot driver told me “if you wreck me and prevent me from winning then you’re taking food off of my table and you’ll pay.” Does that all go out the window once a driver joins the millionaire’s club? Let’s hope not.
  • Of course, the Monday Morning Quarterbacks are wondering why Harvick’s crew chief didn’t bring him in to check the damage, instead of taking a “my fingers are crossed” attitude. After all, it was still early in the race and going a lap down (see Denny Hamlin) would have been the lesser of two evils.
  • I’m still picking the 4 car to repeat as the champion. Although @KyleBusch does appear to be his toughest challenge. Kyle winning the title would make for one hell of a story, wouldn’t it?
  • But then again, his brother @KurtBusch winning the title would make an equally intriguing story, given all that he’s gone through.
  • The crowd for Sunday’s race was very good considering the Bears were at home; the Cubs were too – playing arch-rivals St.Louis; and there was a FedEx golf tournament in town. There’s nothing I love to see more than a full house at each track for the next nine weekends.
  • I expected the racing, with the 2015 package, to be a lot more predictable given the current aero setup’s propensity to promote aero push. While clean air was King, there was a fair amount of passing going on in the field – even though NBCSN didn’t show much of it.
  • How about that long green flag run at the beginning of the race? It had an impact on team strategies. Did you stay awake the entire (nearly 120 laps) time? And how predictable was that final debris caution with ten laps to go? Why not just make a late-race caution a regular part of the race and have a “final shuffle” caution? Think about it. Television would love it!
  • Representatives from all three manufacturers in NASCAR met with the media at Chicagoland on Sunday. I’m not sure what the formal presser was meant to accomplish as all three were for the most part, tight-lipped about future plans. “We’ll wait to see what NASCAR does,” seemed to be their mantra. Well, we did find out that Chevrolet will continue to race the SS in the Cup series. I was especially “charmed” while reading the transcript of what new Ford’s new motorsports director Dave Pericak had to say. He said absolutely nothing of any value, his answers were clearly rehearsed, designed to be politically correct and then he made some vague references to what was being done to address the issue of a lack of competitiveness at Roush Fenway Racing. Maybe the answers in this situation were a result of the questions being asked. Trust me, they can be pretty lame in these situations.
  • I’ve seen more than one writer say “don’t count out @RyanJNewman.”  While the 31 team does seem to turn up as that proverbial piece of gum on the bottom of your shoe during the Chase, I’m not so sure that the talent in this year’s Gang of 16 will let Cinderella into the ball again this season.
  • Having the restart lines painted on both the walls and on the track surface, along with strategically placed cameras to police the restarts is the only way to end the current controversy.
  • You might have thought that NBC would have at the very least had this first race of the Chase on the main network and not on cable. In their defense, half of the remaining races will be telecast on the NBC network.
  • Seriously, Ludacris at a NASCAR race?
  • After you watch the replay of @DanielHemric’s pit road collision with his jackman and tire changer during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race on Saturday morning, having the over the wall guys wear helmets looks like a stroke of genius, doesn’t it? The mishap wasn’t driver error. Hemric’s brakes failed.
Categories
Editorial

Chicago Inside Track Favors Rowdy, Keselowski and Harvick

The Sprint Cup Series event on Sunday afternoon isn’t the most important race in the Chase but it is one that will likely set the tone for the 16 teams still in contention for the NASCAR championship.

While it’s not mandatory to win the first race of the playoffs, having a strong run at Chicagoland Speedway will certainly establish momentum and send all the right messages to the rest of the sport about who will eventually vie for the ultimate prize.

In seasons past, a driver could falter at Chicagoland (or any other race for that matter) and still contend over the course of a 10 race playoff. But now that the MyAFibRisk.com 400 is just one of three races in the opening round, the margin for error has diminished greatly. A single DNF or bad finish will more than likely force a contending driver into a must-win scenario at New Hampshire or Dover so simply posting a top-10 in the Round of 16 is vital.

On the other hand, the race in North Illinois is also an opportunity for those capable of winning. Getting to Victory Lane on Sunday means an automatic berth into the second round and being able to use the next two events as a glorified pressure-free test session.

WEAVER: Ranking Each of the 2015 Chase Contenders

So again, while this race isn’t everything, it has the great potential to speak volumes about the complexion of the 2015 championship battle.

With that in mind, Brad Keselowski has to be the overwhelming favorite to get to Victory Lane on Sunday. In seven starts, the 2012 champion has won twice (two in the last three events) and has an average finish of 10.67.

From a loop data perspective, Kevin Harvick is the man to beat on Sunday even if the standard stats don’t indicate it. Sure Harvick hasn’t won in Joliet since the 2003 season but he has the third highest closing rate in the sport with a 1.5 average spots gained late in the race and is third in the sport in green flag passes at the Illinois speedplant.

He’s posted three top-5s in his last four starts at the track, and oh by the way, was fastest in practice and will start the race from the pole on Sunday.

And then there’s Kyle Busch.

It’s become a cliché statistic at this point but it’s worth repeating that Busch is currently sitting on a 0-for-69 winless streak for races inside the Chase for the Championship as an active playoff candidate. But over his last three starts, Rowdy has posted two top-5s in his last three starts and has led laps in three of the last four races.

Combine his affinity for this package and the speed shown by Joe Gibbs Racing and it just might be Busch that bucks the trend and finds Victory Lane to start the Chase.

Ultimately, change is the only constant in NASCAR so anything can happen — especially with so much on the line.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

Categories
Editorial

WEAVER: Ranking the Chase Contenders

A similar design graced 16 Sprint Cup Series cars on Friday morning at Chicagoland Speedway, noted by a yellow splitter, spoiler and roof number.

The design marks drivers that qualified for the Chase for the Championship and will spend the next 10 weeks fighting for the chance hoist the Sprint Cup championship come November at Homestead Miami Speedway.

While the Field of 16 is likely four cars too many, the roster does represent the best in Stock Car Racing. It represents all three manufacturers and eight teams — and seven former champions. Due to the deep field, not all Chase drivers are created equal however and some teams have a stronger shot than others to reach the Final Round at South Beach.

Joe Gibbs Racing has entered the NASCAR playoff as the overwhelming favorites with Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart Haas Racing all working to close the gap. The field also includes drivers from underdog organizations like Richard Childress Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and one from Furniture Row Racing.

Much can change over 10 weeks in terms of momentum, research and development but here is how the Chase stacks up entering Race 1 and Round 1 this weekend in North Illinois.

  1. Kevin Harvick

To be the man, you must first beat the man.

At this juncture, Kevin Harvick is the only driver in the field that has proven that he is capable of winning the championship under the elimination format. Even more frightening for the rest of the field is that his No. 4 team is even better than they were last year — 7.7 average finish through 26 starts.

The assumption on Kevin Harvick was always that he would win multiple championships once he got the first one out of the way. Even with a wild card championship format that encourages parity, Harvick seems completely capable of creating a dynasty with crew chief Rodney Childers.

The path to a championship, just as it did in 2014, runs through Harvick and Stewart Hass Racing.

  1. Kyle Busch

From the moment that NASCAR announced it was shifting to a low horsepower and high downforce, momentum-based competition package, Kyle Busch was the easy favorite to win his first career Sprint Cup championship.

After all, this is virtually the same package that Busch has dominated the NASCAR XFINITY Series with the past several seasons. Despite missing the first 11 races of the season due to his violent crash at Daytona, Busch proved just as adept with these configurations in the Cup Series as well, winning four times in 15 starts and posting an 11.4 average finish.

Combine his familiarity with this package with the overall prowess of JGR right now and there are very few reasons that Busch can’t win his first race in the Chase and contend for his first career championship.

  1. Matt Kenseth

Simply put, the Chase Grid format was made for a driver like Matt Kenseth. It rewards sheer consistency while allowing for automatic advancement each time a driver wins a race. The 2003 champion has proven that he can win on any given weekend especially provided the current might shown by Joe Gibbs Racing.

Consistency won him a championship over a decade ago and it can also carry him to his second title – with most in the garage believing the 43-year-old to be the de facto favorite entering the final 10 events.

  1. Joey Logano

After winning the Daytona 500 in February, Logano went dormant for most of the regular season. It’s not that the No. 22 team was bad — they were a consistent presence in the top-10 each week, but they just weren’t challenging for the win until late in the summer.

But it appears that Logano and company flipped the switch — winning two of the final five events and contending each one. If momentum is the most important factor entering the Chase for the Championship than no one has more of it than Logano.

Logano showed the moxie necessary to survive from round to round last year and made it all the way to Homestead and will once again have the speed to execute again starting this weekend.

  1. Brad Keselowski

Much like his teammate, Keselowski won early and vanished from the top-5 until late in the season. Despite not winning again during the regular season. Keselowski has never shown any degree of concern and appeared to biding his time for this most vital stretch, beginning this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.

Having defeated the Jimmie Johnson Championship Buzz Saw back in 2012 — Keselowski has the poise needed to win his second crown even if he is more under the radar than ever before.

  1. Kurt Busch

Kurt Busch looks every bit like the driver that won the inaugural Chase for the Championship back in 2004 — and maybe even better. His 10.9 average finish is a career high and his chemistry with Tony Gibson is similar to the one he enjoyed with Jimmy Fennig at Roush Fenway Racing during the first half of his career.

  1. Martin Truex Jr.

This is an interesting team to analyze in that Furniture Row has certainly developed the speed to contend deep into the Chase but the lack of experience in Big Race situations from Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn might hold them back when the pressure is at its heaviest.

At their best, Truex and team is capable of historic runs. He posted 14 top-10s through his first 15 starts – tying a mark set by Richard Petty back in 1969. Should they set a similar mark over the next 10 races, they will make it to Homestead.

  1. Jimmie Johnson

This is a complicated forecast for Johnson. On one hand, the No. 48 team has won four times and enters the Chase for the Championship as a top seed alongside Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth. On the other hand, they just haven’t been able to consistently reel off top-5s the way they were when they won six championships in eight seasons.

Johnson has admitted that Hendrick Motorsports is behind and is looking for speed. But is that really the case or is Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus employing a smoke screen in advance of their latest Chase run?

  1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

In many ways, Earnhardt and the No. 88 team is the most consistent force in the Hendrick Motorsports stable and likely their number one bullet if not for the championship pedigree of Johnson and the No. 88 team.

Earnhardt still needs to prove that he can win on a track other than a restrictor plate venue this season but they’ve also been so consistent over the course of 26 starts that a few more wins feels inevitable. Hendrick certainly has work to do in order to catch Gibbs and Penske but Earnhardt, and his 10.9 average finish, feels more than capable.

  1. Carl Edwards

Even though the results don’t show it, Carl Edwards has been just as fast as Busch and Kenseth this season but just hasn’t been able to avoid crashes or costly DNFs. That could be a factor in the Chase or could be completely the byproduct of luck. Based entirely on speed and veteran savvy, Edwards is certainly a trendy pick to win it all given the speed of Joe Gibbs Racing.

  1. Denny Hamlin

While most around JGR and the garage are discounting the ACL injury, it has the potential to play a factor into some of the races — especially high load tracks like Dover, New Hampshire and Martinsville.

  1. Jeff Gordon

Certainly, there are few reasons to believe that Jeff Gordon is a championship contender at this point of his final season. Twenty-six races into the 2015 campaign and Gordon has yet to go to Victory Lane and has looked downright off the pace.

Make no mistake, they are scuffling and Gordon has admitted it.

But like Hendrick Motorsports as a whole, Gordon should have additional speed when he needs it come the final 10 races. Those tracks are amongst some of his career best and all he has to do during this playoff is win Dover, Kansas, Martinsville and Homestead.

That’s certainly not an easy task, but Gordon winning at those tracks and securing the storybook ending wouldn’t be the biggest upset in the history of the Sprint Cup Series.

  1. Clint Bowyer

Even though Bowyer scuffled for much of the first half of the season, the swan song championship effort of Michael Waltrip Racing and the No. 15 team has picked up in the second half of the regular season. They are routinely cracking the top-10 and have a favorable schedule to advance from round to round. It’s a long shot but few drivers maximize his equipment quite like Bowyer.

  1. Paul Menard

The strength of the No. 27 Richard Childress Racing team this season has been avoiding bad finishes and consistently finishing just outside of the top-10. That’s enough to squeeze into the playoffs but not likely enough to get all the way through it based on his 16.7 average finish.

  1. Ryan Newman

Much like his teammate above, Newman should be given credit for making the Chase. He was dealt a heavy blow earlier in the year with his tire tampering infraction but top-15’d his way into the title picture. But a 13.8 average finish likely won’t be enough to replicate what he did last season, surging all the way to Homestead and taking runner-up honors in the Chase for the Championship.

  1. Jamie McMurray

With a 15th place average finish, McMurray made the most of his equipment but just isn’t capable of running any closer to the front this season. He has only led 14 laps and needs to pick up the pace considerably should he have any hopes of advancing to the Round of 12.

Matt McCall is a brilliant crew chief and McMurray is a solid veteran but the Chip Ganassi Racing organization as a whole just isn’t where it needs to be right now.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

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