Thursday September 11th, 2014

NASCAR’s postseason—the Chase for the Sprint Cup—begins on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway (2 p.m. Eastern, ESPN) and it’s a brand new game. Unlike past editions, which unfolded more like a smaller series of points races, this year’s 10-race playoff is an elimination contest. (Maybe the Cut from the Cup would be a more appropriate name for it now?)

Four drivers from a field of 16 Cup contenders will be pruned after the first three races, then four more after the next three, and four more after the ninth race. The highest finisher among the “final four” at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 16 wins the whole enchilada. With points resetting after each round, there’ll be no coasting on an early lead. It’s anyone’s Chase.

The Chase Field
 
Seed driver team car Best track
1. Brad Keselowski Penske No. 2 Ford Loudon (9/21)
2.   Jeff Gordon Hendrick No. 24 Chevy Martinsville (10/26)
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Hendrick No. 88 Chevy Talladega (10/19)
4. Jimmie Johnson Hendrick No. 48 Chevy Martinsville (10/26)
5. Joey Logano Penske No. 22 Ford Charlotte (10/11)
6. Kevin Harvick Stewart-Haas No. 4 Chevy Phoenix (11/9)
7. Carl Edwards Roush Fenway No. 99 Ford Homestead (11/16)
8. Kyle Busch Joe Gibbs No. 18 Toyota Dover (9/28)
9. Denny Hamlin Joe Gibbs No. 11 Toyota Martinsville (10/26)
10. Kurt Busch Stewart-Haas No. 41 Chevy Loudon (9/21)
11. Kasey Kahne Hendrick No. 5 Chevy Charlotte (10/11)
12. Aric Almirola Richard Petty No. 43 Ford Homestead (11/16)
13. AJ Allmendinger JTG Daugherty No. 47 Chevy Homestead (11/16)
14. Matt Kenseth Joe Gibbs No. 20 Toyota Texas (11/2)
15. Greg Biffle Roush Fenway No. 16 Ford Kansas (10/5)
16. Ryan Newman Richard Childress No. 31 Chevy Loudon (9/21)

Even with everything so wide open, there is a team that has the inside track and—surprise, surprise—that team is Hendrick Motorsports, which has won the Chase in six of the 10 years that it has existed. All of those titles were delivered by reigning champion Jimmie Johnson, who enters this postseason as the No. 4 seed and looks a bit more vulnerable than usual. Not only has he finished 14th or worse in five of his last nine races, he also had a physical breakdown at Richmond last Saturday, collapsing in the pits with dehydration after the race.

The scene, while stunning, was more confusing than anything because Johnson is one of NASCAR’s resident fitness freaks. In fact, he was scheduled to participate in a sprint triathlon for his foundation the next morning. Instead, he sat and watched after receiving five liters of IV fluid treatment on Saturday night.

By Wednesday, Johnson had a definitive cause for his condition: a defective helmet ventilation system. (“Basically, it was blowing warm air," he said.) And now that he will be operating with a cooler head, look for him to move boldly through the first round. He’s landed on the pole in Chicago twice (most recently in the 2012 Chase), finished in the top six in four of his last five trips to Loudon (New Hampshire), and damn near owns Dover, where he’s won a staggering three of the last five races.

Jeff Gordon, the No. 2 seed, seems like another shoo-in for the second round—a big surprise considering that the back injury he suffered in Charlotte in May had him seriously contemplating retirement. His No. 24 Chevy, though, has been in fine fettle, ranking among the fastest in the field week in and week out. Also, his chemistry with crew chief Alan Gustafson harks back to his symbiosis with Ray Evernham, the architect of his four series titles. Gordon's chances of winning a fifth, though, have never looked better. Victories at Kansas City, Indianapolis and Michigan catapulted him to the top of the point standings, a post he held for 17 of the regular season's 26 weeks.

And when Gordon wasn’t on top, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was holding the spot. The No. 3 seed has enjoyed a resurgence in 2014, winning once at Daytona and twice at Pocono. Like Gordon, he shares a special connection with his crew chief, Steve Letarte, who will retire from the pit box after the season to become an analyst with NBC. Junior would love nothing more than to send him out on a high note while claiming a career capstone for himself.

Junior has never won a Cup series title, and neither has teammate Kasey Kahne—another talent who seems poised to deliver on his considerable promise. The No. 11 seed has made the playoffs the last two seasons; his 2012 victories at Talladega and Kansas helped him to a career-high fourth-place finish. Still, to survive the first cut and advance to the next round this year, Kahne will have to conjure his magic much earlier. His late-August win in Atlanta, which got him into the Chase, suggests he can.

If there’s a team that can challenge the Hendrick cars, it’s Penske, which couldn’t have looked more out of it back in mid-June. Hendrick drivers were riding a five-race winning streak—a roll that Penske's Brad Keselowski attributed to Hendrick’s superior engine technology. “They’re probably a full season ahead of everyone,” he said.

But, boy, did the 2012 Cup champion speak too soon. By mid-July he was three checkered flags to the good (at Phoenix, Kentucky and Loudon). In the season finale at Richmond, he absolutely dominated the field—leading all but 17 laps—on the way to scoring Penske's 400th victory and locking up the top seed in the Chase.

Not far behind Keselowski, in the fifth seed, is Joey Logano, who is finally living up to the lofty expectations that greeted him when he arrived on the Cup scene in 2008. This year he scored as many wins (three) as he had through the first six years of his career. And he might have grabbed a fourth if Gordon hadn’t beaten him on the final restart at Michigan, which Logano had led for a race-high 86 laps. If it comes down to those two again at Homestead in November, you have to like Logano’s odds.

If you're looking for a sleeper pick, you really can't say you didn’t see Denny Hamlin coming. His name recurs at the top of the charts of statistical splits heading into the Richmond race, in categories such as Fastest Green Flag Speed (116.676 mph), Fastest on Restarts (118.065 mph), and Fastest Drivers Late In a Run (115.164 mph). Those numbers should improve now that the Joe Gibbs pilot has recouped crew chief Darian Grubb and car chief Wesley Sherrill—both of whom were suspended for six weeks for racing an illegal trim at Indy that, among other things, could have created an unfair aerodynamic advantage. Additionally, Grubb was fined $125,000 and Hamlin was docked 75 points, which resulted in his No. 9 seed.

Despite a 21st-place finish Richmond, Hamlin likes the Gibbs team’s chances going into the Chase. “We’ve got a lot of pieces of the puzzle put together for a championship run,” he said. One of those pieces is Kyle Busch (seed No. 8), a driver as talented is he is mercurial. Which is to say he’s just as likely to win as he is to take himself or another driver out of the playoffs—whether by racing to the edge or well past the point of contact.

The Chase Schedule
DATE/TIME RACE TRACK TV
9/14 (2 pm ET) Myafibstory.com 400 Chicagoland ESPN
9/21 (2 pm ET) Sylvania 300 Loudon, NH ESPN
9/28 (2 pm ET) AAA 400 Dover ESPN
10/5 (2 pm ET) Hollywood Casino 400 Kansas ESPN
10/11 (7:30 pm ET) Bank of America 500 Charlotte ABC
10/19 (2 pm ET) Geico 500 Talladega ESPN
10/26 (1:30 pm ET) Goody's 500 Martinsville ESPN
11/2 (3 pm ET) AAA Texas 500 Texas ESPN
11/9 (3 pm ET) Quicken Loans 500 Phoenix ESPN
11/16 (3 pm ET) Ford Ecoboost 400 Homestead ESPN

 

 

Roundtable: Who will make an early exit?

Busch is certainly good enough to be a factor at some of the Chase stops. Heck, he’s already won at Phoenix and Dover in the Nationwide Series. The question is whether his team can give him a Cup car that’s fast enough to stay up front. Along with Hamlin, Busch also has his older brother, Kurt—the No. 10 seed—with whom to reckon. After a tumultuous first half of the season marked by mechanical issues and a maiden attempt at the Memorial Day double, Kurt has quietly found some consistency down the stretch of his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing. He finished third in the second Daytona race, and was in position to grab late leads at Watkins Glen and Michigan.

The other Stewart-Haas newbie, Kevin Harvick, the No. 6 seed, is an even bigger threat. Not only has he already won at Phoenix, which will host the last Chase race before the Homestead finale, he’ll also swap pit crews with boss Tony Stewart, who failed to make the field. Harvick had been critical of his crew’s sluggishness during stops, and this upgraded five-person platoon—which helped Stewart win the championship in 2011—would seem to address his biggest gripe.

At least Harvick’s issues with his team were reconcilable. Carl Edwards, the No. 7 seed, still has his differences with Roush Fenway—differences that are largely a product of having spent his entire 10-year career in that garage.

Last month Edwards announced that he will be leaving Roush for Joe Gibbs Racing after the season. It doesn’t seem like Edwards has a car that’s fast enough to avoid a repeat of his fate in 2011, when he lost the Cup title on a tiebreaker after finishing behind Stewart at Homestead. But there’s no reason to believe that Edwards’ run with Roush will end on a completely sour note.

The same, however, can hardly be said for the last five drivers in the Chase—the top two of whom are rookies. AJ Allmendinger might have a shot if one of the Chase races were a road course event like Watkins Glen, where in August he scored the first and only win of his career. But his track specialty and small team, JTG Daughtery, put the No. 13 seed at a serious disadvantage against the big boys.

Aric Almirola, the No. 12 seed, scored his first Cup victory in the second Daytona race, which played out over two days because of heavy rainfall and featured two double-digit car pileups. But it’s tough to see him making a deep run without a few more acts of God.

Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle—the No. 14 and 15 seeds, respectively—have the consistency to stay in the game, but lack the horsepower to really shake it up. Ditto for the No. 16 seed, Ryan Newman. It could be a rather uneventful postseason for them this year.

For Joey Logano, though, expect things to end much differently. All season he's raced more like a driver who has more to prove to himself than the rest of the field. That's not just a sign that this 24-year-old has matured. That's the sign of a driver who is on the cusp of a big breakthrough. Logano was once called "Sliced Bread" (as in the greatest thing since). When this Chase finally settles, he'll be called something else: The Champ.

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