Say this much for the folks at NASCAR: They know branding. They know that “Sprint Cup playoffs” is a pretty lame name for an A-level postseason series. So they call it, quite simply, the Chase.
That short-and-sweet handle cuts well past the mechanics of the event—how it snakes about the country (starting with this Sunday’s race in Chicago, which airs at 3 p.m. Eastern on NBCSN), how a field of 16 top drivers is winnowed over three rounds down to four, how the 10th and last event (in Homestead, Fla., on Nov. 22) pits that final four in a winner-take-all glory grab—and gets right to the action. Or the promise of action, anyway. NASCAR has quite the yeoman task ahead, putting on a spectacle as exciting as last year’s edition—which saw Kevin Harvick rally in thrilling fashion to win his first Cup. Since then? The series, frankly, has been a bit of a snooze.
Through 26 regular-season events, only 11 winners have emerged—a total that might feel more significant if there weren’t 43 drivers on the grid vying for a checkered flag each week. What’s more, this is a “usual suspects” lineup; as ever, the person of greatest interest is Jimmie Johnson. The 15th-year Cup veteran, freshly re-signed to Hendrick Motorsports through 2017, has been stuck on six titles for little more than a year now. One more big trophy, and he would tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. for the most ever.
No. 48 Chevrolet
No. 18 Toyota
No. 20 Toyota
No. 22 Ford
No. 4 Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
No. 88 Chevrolet
No. 41 Chevrolet
No. 19 Toyota
No. 2 Ford
Martin Truex Jr.
No. 78 Chevrolet
No. 11 Toyota
No. 1 Chevrolet
No. 24 Chevrolet
No. 31 Chevrolet
No. 27 Chevrolet
No. 15 Toyota
Johnson seems well positioned to make history. In 2015 he notched a series-leading four wins, three on tracks (Texas, Kansas and Dover) that recur in the Chase. Also working in his favor is NASCAR’s new policy of assigning each regular-season victory an added value of three first-round bonus points. In other words, Johnson has a 12-point margin of error before the first transfer race at Dover. He may well need it. Over his last nine regular-season races, he finished about 12th on average while leading zero laps.
Yet despite that late-season swoon, Johnson remains the most formidable challenger at Hendrick, whose year-to-year Chase representation has dropped to three from the full quartet. Bringing up the rear, strangely, is the retiring Jeff Gordon. He made the playoffs on points after failing to record a victory this year and seems at risk of becoming a lame-duck driver by round two.
Just ahead of Gordon is Dale Earnhardt, Jr., whose two superspeedway wins give him a nice points cushion going into round 1 and also an advantage for the second transfer race at Talladega—which, incidentally, is where his title pursuit died last October. (This year, he goes an extra round.)
Kyle Busch’s 2014 met a similar demise in Alabama. His 2015 nearly ended before it began, in a violent crash in the season-opening Xfinity race at Daytona; he sustained a compound fracture in his lower right leg, a small fracture in his left foot and a sprained left finger. Busch returned after a three-month convalescence, won four races and posted a high enough average finish in his last five starts (6.0) to activate an exemption entry into the Chase. It was an incredible run, one for the ages.
And yet … his luck always seems to run out down the stretch. This makes him one of the riskier picks at Joe Gibbs Racing, which slotted all four of its drivers into the Chase. Better to go with Matt Kenseth, a pre-Chase champion (in ’03) who has gone from 0-for-2014 to four victories this year, the last coming in the season finale at Richmond.
That turnaround says as much for Kenseth as his team’s manufacturing partner, Toyota. (Gibbs drivers have not hesitated to cite the brand for being too slow.) None of Kenseth’s wins came on tracks he’ll see again this season. Save for the few laps he led in Martinsville (11) and Charlotte (26), none of his regular-season visits to Chase tracks were especially memorable.
In Charlotte, Kenseth was overshadowed by Carl Edwards, his first-year teammate. Edwards claimed one of his two wins this season at NASCAR’s home track. That gives him the same number of wins that he had in 2014—his last season at Roush-Fenway, the only Cup team he had driven for until his free agent migration. He concluded his tenure there nobly, points-racing his way to the penultimate round. It doesn’t look like he’ll get much farther than that again this year. His rapport with crew chief Darian Grubb is still too young.
Grubb, too, is an immigrant of sorts. Before pairing with Edwards, he was a senior advisor to Denny Hamlin. Without Grubb, Hamlin won one race, which was as many as he won last year. It was enough to get him into the Chase, where he hung around until the final round. In fact, he was leading the Homestead final late. Old tires, which Grubb insisted Hamlin keep to maintain his track positioning, provedto be the driver’s undoing.
This year, Hamlin’s challenge is a right ACL tear, which he suffered in a pickup basketball game this week. He says he plans on racing with the injury, but the pressure of the Chase may well put too much strain on him and leave him crying uncle by the second round.
That would set things up nicely again for Kevin Harvick, the man who passed Hamlin (and three other cars) on the way to locking up his first series championship last year. Harvick, one of two entries for Stewart-Haas, rolls into the postseason much as he did in 2014: with a pair of early season victories (at Las Vegas and Phoenix), a bunch of near misses (16 other top-fives), and a staggering number of laps led (1,450).
Harvick’s brilliance at Phoenix alone, where he’s lost just once in his last six trips, would seem plenty justification to ignore the field and mark him down for a repeat. But then again, there’s Kurt Busch. After serving a three-race suspension for, um … let’s call it “detrimental conduct,” he won two races and was much speedier overall that he was last year. He could just as easily knock out Harvick as knock himself out, so volatile is his talent.
Brad Keselowski of Team Penske is another intense talent. His lone win (which came all the way back in March at Fontana) was by his own admission an act of larceny, and Kurt Busch was the victim. But there is a peril in counting out Keselowski. If there was one great takeaway from last year’s Chase, it’s that he saves his very best for when his back is firmly against the wall. If there was one from the end of this year, it’s that Keselowski didn’t finish worse than 10th in his last nine races.
Still, Keselowski seems as if his magic will run out again in the third round and that his teammate, Joey Logano, will be the one who keeps going. Logano bagged three wins this season. His average finishing position of 8.6 is a mark second only to Harvick’s 7.6.
Logano is also the closest driver to Harvick in laps led (862). His best chance of closing this gap is on race restarts, a feature of the game where he excels. He times them so well in fact that when he lost one in the regular-season final at Richmond, to Kenseth, team owner Roger Penske wondered aloud whether race officials who were observing on high from the track tower had “closed the window and pulled the blinds down.” Only a man of Penske’s heft gets to criticize the refs. The question is whether it will come back to bite his team in the end.
Perhaps karma will be as good to him as it has been to Martin Truex Jr. After suffering through a gamut of professional and personal setbacks, Truex has overcome and guided his tiny single-car operation, Furniture Row Racing, back into the Chase. He got it in with a win at Pocono and while scoring top-10 finishes in all but nine races. To hear him tell it, the turnaround began last year at Kansas, though he wasn’t in the Chase at the time. Given how comfortable Truex feels circling that speedway, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him hang around past the second round. And if he were to go no further? His season would be no less of a success.
The same goes for Clint Bowyer—who points-raced his way into the Chase with his team, Michael Waltrip Racing, quite literally crumbling around him. He’ll likely be among the first batch of drivers who are eliminated along with Paul Menard—a first-time Chaser who, like Bowyer, is also winless. The best hope for Menard’s team, Richard Childress Racing, is Ryan Newman, the runner-up to Harvick last year. Newman’s road back has been bumpy. Not only was he winless again in 2015, he and his team had to overcome a Deflategate-esque points penalty just to make the grade. Still, of the drivers in the mix, he is the port in a storm—always there.
Sometimes, Jamie McMurray, of Chip Ganassi Racing, is a bit like that too. His winless streak (66 races) is nearly as long as Newman’s (78 races). Even though he didn’t qualify for it, McMurray really showed up in last year’s Chase; he landed on the pole in Martinsville and collected a handful of top-five finishes, one of them in the Homestead final. Making the final four would be a big ask, though. Perhaps too big of one.
Not so for Harvick, Kenseth, Logano and Johnson—SI.com’s bracket for the championship round. As for who the big winner will be at Homestead, look for Johnson to join the seven-timers club. He has the advantage of experience and the expertise of longtime crew chief Chad Knaus, who netted him two wins with late track position gambles alone.
Johnson also just signed a two-year extension days before turning 40. His new deal feels a bit like a deadline (even if he’s said that it won't be his last contract with Hendrick) especially with Gordon, his 44-year-old teammate and friend, bowing out after this year. And we all know how well Johnson performs under pressure.
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