NASCAR can be a cruel sport. A driver can score more points than anyone else over the last six regular season races and then, before he even reaches the finish line of the first playoff race, can blow an engine and have his championship aspirations float away in the cloud of smoke billowing from underneath his hood.
Such is the lot of Joey Logano, who entered the Chase as a darkhorse title contender. At age 23, Logano had a breakout 2013 regular season, winning once and racing to more top-five finishes (eight) than he had compiled in the previous two years combined (six). But then late last Sunday night at Chicagoland Speedway, after he started from the pole, the engine in Logano's number 22 Dodge exploded. He finished 37th, the lowest among the playoff drivers, and now he has virtually no chance to win his first championship.
"This freaking sucks," Logano told his team over the radio as he coasted into the garage at Chicago.
Logano wasn't the only driver to essentially be eliminated from the title hunt last Sunday. Shortly after Logano exited the track, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s engine failed. NASCAR's most popular driver came in 35th, and now it appears that the obituaries on both Logano's and Earnhardt's seasons can be written.
Yes, NASCAR is a fickle game. After navigating tens of thousands of miles on tracks across America for more than seven months, a driver can have his season end in a heartbeat with an unlucky parts failure. Such is the nature of motor sports, where luck often plays a bigger role than driver talent or team preparation.
Will any Chase drivers stumble on Sunday at New Hampshire International Speedway in Chase Race No. 2? Most likely. But it says here it won't be any of the following five -- the five I'll be watching most closely when the green flag waves in New England:
1. Kyle Busch
Busch's Chase got off to a strong start with a second-place finish at Chicagoland. A notoriously poor playoff performer, he is now flush with confidence as the series moves to New Hampshire, where he finished second in the spring behind Brian Vickers.
During his career, Busch has competed in 50 Chase races and never taken a checkered flag. He has four victories this season -- at Fontana, Texas, Watkins Glen and Atlanta -- and I think he'll notch win No. 5 on Sunday and seize the championship lead. Busch has long been viewed in the garage as the sport's most gifted driver, and it's already looking as though he'll be a serious player in the championship hunt deep into November.
2. Matt Kenseth
The only driver who was more impressive than Busch at Chicago was Kenseth, who beat him to finish line to win his series-best sixth race of the season. At age 41, Kenseth is experiencing a career renaissance in his first year at Joe Gibbs Racing.
In 27 career starts at Loudon, Kenseth has never reached Victory Lane. But he did lead 33 laps in the spring race at the 1.058-mile flat track and appeared to have a car capable of winning. Expect a solid top-10 run by him on Sunday.
3. Jimmie Johnson
No driver in the Chase entered the playoffs in a bigger funk than Johnson, the five-time champion. Over the final four races of the regular season, he failed to finish higher than 28th. So his mission at Chicago was simple: notch a top-10 to generate momentum -- which is as much of a force in NASCAR as it is in stick-and-ball sports -- for the rest of the Chase.
Well, mission accomplished. Johnson came in fifth last Sunday night and now heads to a venue at which he finished sixth in the spring and second last fall. His best tracks in the Chase are still coming up on the schedule -- he has a combined 21 career wins at Martinsville, Dover and Charlotte -- so he would be content with another top-five on Sunday.
4. Kevin Harvick
In his final season at Richard Childress Racing -- Harvick is moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 -- the man known as "Happy" in the garage has a reason to smile right now. He finished third at Chicago and seems to have the crew and the car he needs to be a factor all the way to the Chase finale at Homestead.
In 25 career starts at New Hampshire, Harvick has one win and an average finish of 13.4. Look for Happy to quietly log a top-10 on Sunday.
5. Jeff Gordon
After finding out that NASCAR was adding him to the Chase field only hours before the first practice at Chicago -- NASCAR ruled that Gordon would have made the playoffs if not for the shenanigans of Michael Waltrip Racing at Richmond in the regular season finale -- Gordon finished sixth last Sunday. It was a solid start for the number 24 team, which essentially is now playing with house money.
Last fall, Gordon sat on the pole at Loudon and then came in third in the race. He has yet to win this season, but this is a team that should feel like it's been gifted a second chance. Will Gordon make the most it? That will be one of the most compelling storylines for the rest of Chase.