Friday October 10th, 2014

In NASCAR’s old playoff system, a slip-up at Kansas Speedway might go unremarked upon. Now? It could potentially mean the end of the road for many Chase favorites. Their best hope for a rebound is this Saturday at Charlotte (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC), where half of the top 12 drivers have scored victories and the other half have finished on the podium. Otherwise, it’ll have to come down to Talladega and, really, who wants that?

HOW THEY STACK UP
 
  • 16

    16Michael Waltrip
    Actual rank: 45 (48 pts)
    He might not be the best hoofer, having just barely made the most recent cut on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. But give him points for sentimentality. Working within an episode theme called “My Most Memorable Year,” Waltrip elected to quickstep out to Delbert McClinton’s “Giving Up For Your Love” to honor his late friend and mentor Dale Earnhardt Sr. Waltrip owns the dubious distinction of winning the Daytona 500 race in which Earnhardt died in 2001. “When we were on the back of the boat singing loud and off-key,” Waltrip says, “it was more often than not [to] this song.”

  • 15

    15Sam Hornish Jr.
    Actual rank: 26 (242 pts, Nationwide)
    After a forced four-year sabbatical from Cup racing, Hornish makes his return with Petty Motorsports as the replacement driver for Marcos Ambrose, who will continue his stock car racing career in his native Australia. A three-time IndyCar series winner who left open wheel racing for the greener grass of stock cars in the late-aughts, Hornish wasn’t nearly as formidable in a closed cockpit as he was out in the open, notching just three top fives in three Cup seasons while racing full-time for Penske. But his recent progress in the Nationwide Series, where he’s collected 30 top fives and two wins during the last three years, bodes well for his Cup return.

  • 14

    14Martin Truex Jr.
    Actual rank: 24 (719 pts)
    His regular season was fairly unremarkable, but his last four starts stand out. The last, at Kansas, ended with a fourth-place showing—a high-water mark for both the Jersey boy and his modest outfit, Furniture Row Racing.

  • 13

    13Kasey Kahne
    Actual rank: 9 (3023 pts)
    Like his Hendrick teammates Kahne didn’t have the greatest weekend in Kansas, finishing 22nd. Things should go better for him in Charlotte where his driver rating (101.67) is significantly higher than his season rating (88.73). His four career wins there—third among active drivers behind fellow Hendrickians Jimmie Johnson (seven) and Jeff Gordon (five)—likely has something to do with that.

  • 12

    12Dale Earnhardt Jr.
    Actual rank: 11 (3006 pts)
    The No. 88 car’s best days would seem to be in the rearview mirror. In seven races Earnhardt has finished in the top-10 only once. At Charlotte he’s finished in the top 10 just twice in his past 11 starts. Suddenly title hopes that once seemed bright in July are as dim as ever.

  • 11

    11Matt Kenseth
    Actual rank: T-7 (3031 pts)
    Eleven years and 22 events separate Harvick’s second win at Charlotte (Oct. 2011) from his first (May 2000). But two podium finishes in his last two outings there suggest that his next Victory Lane stop could come ahead of schedule.

  • 10

    10Denny Hamlin
    Actual rank: 5 (3037 pts)
    His weekend at KC was uneventful: a seventh-place finish. That should go down as progress considering that Hamlin started 25th. But, really, it’s just in keeping with Hamlin’s survival MO. Another top-10 at Charlotte, where he’s grabbed 10 in 18 starts, should leave him in good stead heading into Talladega, where he won earlier this year.

  • 9

    9Ryan Newman
    Actual rank: T-3 (3037 pts)
    On a topsy-turvy weekend Newman nearly came out on top at Kansas, pacing the field late before Joey Logano blew past him on a late restart. The six laps that Newman led marked the fifth race in which he had taken the lead this season. He’ll need that momentum in Charlotte where he hasn’t led more than two laps during the past three years.

  • 8

    8Jimmie Johnson
    Actual rank: 12 (3004 pts)
    When a guy wins six Cup championships, you tend not to worry about him much. But Johnson hasn’t looked like that guy lately. Last week at Kansas he got sucked into a wreck with Greg Biffle that resulted in a 40th-place finish. This week at Charlotte he was frank about his prospects of winning title number seven, calling it “a fading chance.” Pitiable as JJ might seem, sorry, we’re not taking the bait. His seven wins at Charlotte are the most by any active driver, after all. An eighth would put him right back in the hunt.

  • 7

    7Kyle Busch
    Actual rank: 2 (3042 pts)
    He didn’t just survive Kansas. He finished third—a result that Busch, a serial DNFer in KC, equated to a win. His history at Charlotte isn’t as dubious. In fact, if you throw out his engine-plagued 38th-place finish in May of 2013, his average finish in his last five races there is a sturdy 4.8. The fact that he’ll be starting Saturday’s race on the pole further proves his prowess.

  • 6

    6Carl Edwards
    Actual rank: T-3 (3039 pts)
    Two weeks ago Edwards was on the brink of elimination. Now … he’s third in points? Well, yeah. A fifth-place showing at Kansas, where he had been a 10.5-place racer, will do that. He’s fairly steady at Charlotte, too, finishing 11th there on average. Still, be warned: If he surprises again and finishes above his average in Charlotte this weekend, you won’t be able to call him a Chase underdog much longer.

  • 5

    5Kyle Larson
    Actual rank: 17 (901 pts)
    Every time Larson sneaks to the front row late in a race and makes a charge for the checkered flag, it’s hard not to think of how much more impact his efforts would have if he hadn’t crashed in Michigan in August. Still, that’s not to say that when his first career Cup win comes—and, make no mistake, it is coming—that it won’t be significant. If it comes in Charlotte on Sunday, the 22-year-old Larson would be eight months and 13 days younger than the track’s youngest ever winner—Jeff Gordon (May 1994).

  • 4

    4Jeff Gordon
    Actual rank: T-7 (3031 pts)
    The last time Gordon entered the grid at Charlotte, he was battling a back injury that was serious enough to have him genuinely considering retirement. Somehow, he gutted his way through to finish seventh and win three more races. With recovery skills like that, how could he not bounce back from last weekend’s 14th-place showing at Kansas?

  • 3

    3Brad Keselowski
    Actual rank: 10 (3009 pts)
    All of a sudden the strongest driver in the Chase looks shaky after a blown tire in Kansas resulted in a 36th-place finish. Still, his track record in Charlotte, where he won last year this time, offers hope of a rebound.

  • 2

    2Kevin Harvick
    Actual rank: 6 (3033 pts)
    Harvick’s Chase campaign is playing out like a bad reboot of Groundhog Day. For yet another week he had the best car and was giving the field of full view of its backside until his tire blew in Kansas. His afternoon could’ve gone with it, but Harvick nonetheless rallied to finish 12th. After capturing the pole in consecutive weeks, he’ll start seventh at Charlotte. Given his recent luck, this feels like a break somehow.

  • 1

    1Joey Logano
    Actual rank: 1 (3048 pts)
    While the big names struggled at Kansas, Logano bided his time and then, on a late restart, seized the lead and fended off a charge from Kyle Larson en route to securing his fifth win of 2014. The victory is as much a testament to Logano’s knack behind the wheel as it is to the resiliency of the No. 22 team, which will be on a mission this week to redeem last May’s 12th-place showing at Charlotte. The fact that they’ve booked a spot in the next round just means that Logano and Co. can go at it even harder.

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