Two races into the 2013 Chase, themes and patterns already have started to emerge. As the series heads to Dover International Speedway this weekend, here are the five biggest burning questions -- and answers -- in NASCAR:
1. Who has been the biggest surprise of the playoffs?
It's hard to pick one of the pre-Chase favorites as the biggest surprise, but few in the garage envisioned Matt Kenseth winning the first two races of the playoffs and holding a 14-point lead over Kyle Busch and an 18-point margin over Jimmie Johnson. Yes, Kenseth entered the Chase as the No. 1 seed by virtue of his series-high five regular season victories, but he did not power his way to back-to-back checkered flags in the first 26 events of 2013.
What's been most surprising about Kenseth was his performance last Sunday at New Hampshire. In his previous 27 starts at the 1.058-mile flat track, he had never won. He hadn't even had a top-five run at Loudon since 2005. But clearly the No. 20 team has found a setup that allows Kenseth to cruise through the corners just a tick faster than the rest of the field, with near perfect balance.
The fact that he reached Victory Lane five times during the regular season -- and built a big points cushion in the standings -- allowed his team to work on cars for the Chase during the last few months. That work is now paying off. And what's scary for the rest of the field is this: Kenseth has always been one of the top racers in the sport on 1.5-mile tracks, and four of the last six races take place at these intermediate-length venues.
2. Who has been the biggest disappointment?
Heading into playoffs I really thought Joey Logano would challenge for his first championship. I was so confident in him and the No. 22 team that I pitched a story to the SI magazine editors: a "Case for" Logano winning the title. (It turned out we didn't have the space). After all, Logano scored more points than any other driver in the Cup series over the final seven races of the regular season.
Once the Chase began, he won the pole at Chicagoland. He appeared to be on his way to top-five finish, but then a rainstorm swept through the area and delayed the race for more than five hours. Once it resumed, with the temperature significantly cooler, his engine promptly blew and he finished 37th, the lowest among the Chase drivers.
Then on Sunday in Loudon, the site of his first win in 2009 when the then 19-year-old became the youngest driver in NASCAR history to take a checkered flag in the Cup series, Logano led only one lap and finished a ho-hum 14th. He's now 12th out 13 Chase drivers (only Kasey Kahne is behind him in the playoff standings) and has essentially been eliminated from title contention.
Logano is going to have a long, successful career in NASCAR. In the big picture, this has been good year for him at Penske Racing -- especially considering that Joe Gibbs Racing, his former home, wanted to put him in the Nationwide Series this season -- but it won't be a great one.
3. What race are we most looking forward to after Dover?
This is a no-brainer for me: Talladega.
Every year 'Dega is regarded as the great unknown among the drivers because it typically takes more luck than skill to pull off a quality finish at NASCAR's biggest, fastest track. Because of the possibility of the Big One -- the multi-car crashes the track is famous for -- lurking around every corner, the top drivers tend to be cautious for the first three-quarters of the race and lay back in the field.
Then, in what is annually the most arresting 30 minutes of the season, the leaders in the standings will make their move with about 25 laps remaining. Which drivers emerge with a top-10 finish and which ones get caught up in a wreck at Talladega on Oct. 20 will go a long way to determining who will be in contention for the title in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 17.
4. Which dark horse could rise and steal the championship?
Though the title race is quickly shaping up to be a three-man battle between Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Johnson, there is one other driver who has the car, the crew and the talent to surprise during the next eight weeks: Carl Edwards.
Though he's won only two races in 2013, Edwards did, in fact, capture the regular season points title. So far in the Chase, he's come in 11th at Chicagoland and ninth at Loudon. He currently trails Kenseth by 36 points, which is roughly the equivalent of 36 positions on the track.
No doubt, the is a substantial hole to be in after only two races, but if Edwards can stay close to the leaders during the next six weeks, there's a very real possibility of him winning the final two races of the season, at Phoenix and Homestead. After all, he took the checkered flag at Phoenix in March and Homestead is statistically his best track on the entire Cup schedule (6.0 career average finish in nine starts).
Plus, Edwards, like Kenseth, normally runs well at the intermediate-length venues. The championship road map for Edwards seems clear: consistently finish in the top-five over the next six races and then aggressively go for wins in the final two.
5. Who will win the championship?
I'm sticking with my preseason pick: Jimmie Johnson.
The least worried person in NASCAR about him currently being in third place in the standings is Johnson himself. He's thrilled that he came in fifth at Chicagoland and fourth in New Hampshire because neither of those tracks have traditionally been strong ones for him. On the next five stops on circuit -- Dover, Kansas, Charlotte, Talladega and Martinsville -- Johnson has an astounding 25 combined wins. If he doesn't reach Victory Lane at least three times during these next five weeks, I'll call it an upset.