Power Rankings: Only eight NASCAR drivers with championship hopes remain in the Chase as it hits Martinsville.
Only eight drivers with a shot at the championship remain in the Chase, which rolls into Martinsville on Sunday (1:30 p.m. EDT, ESPN). And while some of NASCAR’s biggest names are no longer challenging for the Cup, they were not sent home—the custom in stick-and-ball postseason formats. Nor were they permanently banished from this list, which has been further reduced by four. Those drivers will be in the grid, as always, but racing for pride the rest of the way. That alone should worry the Chasers who have endured, because many of their recently cut rivals are just as capable of winning down the stretch as they are. If you thought things were interesting before, look out: The first non-contender could be on his or her way to Victory Lane.
The truck series phenom returns to the track where he made history at this time a year ago as the first black driver since Wendell Scott in 1963 to win a national touring series race. And the heir apparent to Scott, the driver on whom the Richard Prior film Greased Lightning was based, could well strike again at the same place. He’s been trending toward a victory for a month, finishing second three times in the last six races. In the March race at Martinsville, Wallace won the pole and finished second.
Yeah, he’s been out of the Chase for a while, but he never would’ve been in it if he hadn’t won at Martinsville back in March. Also, he’s performed better on short tracks on the mean than on any other oval this season, logging a top-5 and a top-10 in addition to his Martinsville victory. And then there’s the fact that Busch is swapping crew chiefs with Danica Patrick for this race. Instead of first-year pit boss Daniel Knost, he’ll be listening to the sweeter sounds of Tony Gibson, whose productive two-year partnership with Patrick earned him a contract extension with Stewart-Haas racing last week.
He led more laps (84) than anyone at Talladega last Sunday, but just not at the end. While that put the defending series champion out of the Chase mix, it doesn’t mean he can’t be a factor at Martinsville—where he’s won twice in the last four years. If you’re looking for an outsider who can break up the Chase drivers’ monopoly on playoff wins, look no further than this eight-time victor.
His 18th-place showing at Talladega was exactly what the game plan called for—a strong enough finish to get him off of the bubble and into the final eight. This weekend, though, don’t expect him to drive so conservatively. Besides eight-time victors Johnson and Jeff Gordon, Hamlin has the most wins at Martinsville (four). If he scores another this weekend, the only race he’ll have to worry about the rest of the way is Homestead—a prospect that would be tremendous for a Joe Gibbs Racing franchise bent on avenging last year’s near miss at the Cup title
After he points-raced his way through the first two rounds of the Chase, you have to wonder how much longer Newman can survive without snatching a playoff victory. It’s not that he hasn’t been close. At Talladega he was in control of the field late in the race until the Penske cars got the jump on him and consigned him to a fifth-place finish—an effort that was in some jeopardy after Newman failed the post-race inspection. (NASCAR cleared him on Tuesday.) It simply doesn’t look as if he can get close again this week. His only win at Martinsville was two years ago, as a Stewart-Haas pilot. In his four races since he’s finished 25th on average.
We know what you’re thinking: How did Edwards, who is as winless in the playoffs as Newman and who finished 16 spots lower than his Roush teammate at Talladega last week, earn right of way here? Simple. He’s the better driver on short tracks. In fact, only Gordon and Joey Logano have been better than Edwards, who at Bristol in March notched one of his two wins this year.
One week Kenseth is jumping Brad Keselowski in an alley at Charlotte; the next he’s pushing him on to victory at Talladega. The assist—which also benefitted Kenseth, who finished second as a result—would seem to suggest that the two rivals have squashed their beef. But if anything, Kenseth had to make that move to guarantee his playoff survival. Furthermore, retaliating against Keselowski at Talladega, where everyone races so close together, could've had disastrous consequences for the field. Still, make no mistake: This was a détente. At a .5-miler like Martinsville, where the field isn’t quite as packed together, a driver can take payback shots at a rival without worrying about bringing the whole grid down around him. So there’s another reason to keep an eye on the No. 20 car.
His streak of five consecutive top-6 finishes came to an end last weekend at Talladega, where he finished 17th. Still, the fact that he survived the afternoon virtually unscathed is noteworthy in its own right. Although he didn’t mount the strongest of charges last spring at Martinsville (27th), Larson has proved to be a better performer the second time around all season. As non-Chasers go, he’s as solid a bet to win this week as Johnson or Busch.
Harvick hasn’t been shy about sharing how the new Chase format has kept him awake at night thinking about the thin margin he has for error. Finally afforded a brief relaxation window at Talladega after securing a bye into the final eight the week before at Charlotte, Harvick finished ninth. If that’s his idea of a breather, one shudders to think how much sharper he’ll be this week at Martinsville—where he finished seventh just six months ago.
As surprising as it is that there are no other Hendrick drivers left in the Chase, who wouldn’t have bet that Gordon could be their last man standing? He’s had the better car all season and the better luck, which was on his side again at Talladega when Dale Earnhardt Jr. wiped out late in the race. After saving his season with a 26th-place effort last week, Gordon should be back in midseason form at Martinsville, where he shares the record for most victories among active drivers (eight) with JJ.
He had one mission at Talladega: get Keselowski into the Chase. And he did so with alacrity, pushing his teammate to the front and blocking all comers from threatening his lead. While that effort, just an 11th-place finish, wont look like much in the record book, it was easily the most impressive display of teamwork in the Chase so far. This weekend, though, Logano will approach his Martinsville start as selfishly as he has all short track races in ’14—and why not? He’s hoarded more points there—198, on the strength of two wins, three top-5s, four top-10s and 173 laps led—than any other driver.
As victories go this Cup season, his rally at Talladega for win No. 6 was every bit as thrilling as AJ Allmendinger’s rowing duel triumph over Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen back in July. Afterward, Keselowski would liken his season-saving performance to scoring two touchdowns in the last two minutes for a win—which was fitting given the Steve Young-level of excitement he stirred as he weaved through traffic like a scrambling quarterback. That said, he’d probably be much happier to sit on a big lead this week at Martinsville. There’s little reason to believe that he can’t. He’s led more laps on short tracks (583) than any other driver. All he has to do is steer clear of sparing with Kenseth or Busch. Back in March, the ’04 Cup series winner sucked Keselowski into a protracted conflict that resulted in the Penske driver’s second-lowest finish of the season (38th). Another win would not only give Keselowski a second back-to-back streak in ’14, it would also make him the unquestioned man to beat at Homestead for the Cup.