Former teammates face off for right to advance to Bracketology final
The points leader is gone and so is Cinderella, but the Final Four in NASCAR Bracketology boasts two drivers who have won this year, one who has come close and another who is off to the best start in his Sprint Cup career.
Adding a bit more intrigue to these matchups is that former teammates are paired against one another on each side.
Former Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. meet in a semifinal matchup, while former Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin meet in the other semifinal. The driver who finishes the highest in each pairing in Saturday night's race at Texas Motor Speedway advances to the championship, which will be determined the following weekend at Kansas Speedway.
None of the four remaining drivers had an easy path to the Final Four.
In the Elite Eight Stewart faced Harvick in a matchup of the two Martinsville winners last year, but Stewart advanced with his seventh-place finish.
Earnhardt eliminated Jimmie Johnson. Earnhardt was on the verge of elimination running third while Johnson was second in the final laps, but Johnson was spun on a restart and finished 12th, nine places behind Earnhardt.
Truex's fifth-place finish beat points leader Greg Biffle. Hamlin's sixth-place finish eliminated Cinderella Aric Almirola, the lowest seed remaining, who finished eighth.
No matter who wins, all four drivers remaining this year could be in for quite a season. All the Final Four drivers in last year's NASCAR Bracketology -- Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Earnhardt -- made the Chase.
One difference this year is that every driver in the Final Four is seeded in the top 10. Seedings are based on where a driver was in the point standings after Las Vegas, the last race before this tournament started. Last year, each of the Final Four drivers were seeded 10th or worse.
Earnhardt, the defending champion of NASCAR Bracketology, remains undefeated in the two years of this tournament. Last year, he defeated Brad Keselowski, David Ragan, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth to win the title. This year, Earnhardt has bettered AJ Allmendinger, Keselowski and Johnson to get to this point.
Truex, who was upset in the first round last year, has reached this point with victories over Kasey Kahne, Jamie McMurray and Biffle.
It will be interesting to see if Earnhardt and Truex can revive their battle from the last race at Texas. In that race last November Earnhardt finished seventh with Truex eighth.
Earnhardt has an average finish of 14.1 in 19 races at Texas. He has one victory -- the first in his career, which came in 2000 --along with three top-five finishes and 10 top-10 finishes.
Truex has an average finish of 16.9 in 13 races at Texas. He has no wins, one top-five finish and six top-10s there.
Earnhardt has finished better than Truex in each of the last four races and six of the last eight races at Texas.
Also, since the start of last year's Chase, there have been six races run on 1.5-mile speedways similar to Texas. Earnhardt has finished ahead of Truex in five of those races with the exception being last year's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
This is a matchup of drivers who have combined to win three of the last four races at Texas.
Hamlin, upset in the first round last year, has reached this point by defeating Casey Mears, Jeff Burton and Almirola.
Stewart, upset in the second round last year, has made it this far by eliminating David Gilliland, Juan Pablo Montoya and Harvick.
Hamlin faces the last driver to win at Texas. Stewart was dominant there last November, leading a race-high 173 laps en route to victory. Hamlin finished 20th that day.
Hamlin has an average finish of 10.1 in 13 races at Texas. He's scored two victories, five top-five finishes and eight top-10s. Stewart has an average finish of 12.5 in 20 races there. He's collected two victories, five top-five finishes and 11 top-10s.
In the last 10 Texas races, each has finished better than the other five times.