Thursday, Oct 21

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was awarded the victory at the Phoenix International Raceway late Sunday night when the rains came and put a halt to the championship parade of fellow competitors. Following a seven hour rain delay prior to the initial green flag, the cutoff race came up 93 laps short of completion.

It was a caution during the midst of green flag pit stops that allowed the No. 88 team to edge in front of Kevin Harvick. Harvick had led 143 out of the 219 laps in the desert, but Earnhardt pitted a few laps later than the No. 4 and with where his pit stall was slotted only had to beat Harvick to the finish line to be in front of him.

After leading 22 laps on the evening, Earnhardt picked up his third career win in the desert and his first since 2004. This is also the No. 88 team’s third victory of 2015, the other two coming at the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega.

“You like to win them at the checkered flag,” Earnhardt said. “A win is a win, you take it and put it in the record book. My team is very proud of this. They gave me a great car to get me a good qualifying effort. We’ve qualified so poorly all year, and the reason why we won tonight I think is where we qualified this weekend.”

Earnhardt was left questioning what could have been if he had another 100 yards at Talladega where he finished second to Joey Logano, he would be competing for his first career championship at Homestead.

 Instead, Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex, Jr. are the drivers looking to capture the Sprint Cup trophy next weekend. All of them have unique stories in their own right of how they have gotten to this point.

Harvick finished in the runner-up position on Sunday. After having the dominant car, he was unable to get ahead of Earnhardt as there was a lengthy yellow flag prior to the rain down pouring on his chances of getting a fifth-consecutive victory in Phoenix.

However, Harvick is looking to put a second big trophy into his trophy box at Homestead.

“We made great adjustments over night,” Harvick said of his racecar. “We found a little bit of balance that we were looking for in practice. Just the way that the caution fell, I didn’t get all my distance back on the race track under green and Dale was able to beat us out. You win some and you lose some like that, but in the big picture you’re racing for a championship next week.”

“I feel like we’ve overcome a lot of things in the Chase. We’ve survived and advanced, it hasn’t been 100 percent pretty from one end to the other. When you look at the Chase it’s been championship material and that’s proven by making it to the championship race.”

Gordon will be racing for a championship in his final race behind the wheel of the No. 24. In Phoenix, Gordon finished in the sixth position and led four laps through a round of green flag pit stops. This solid run for Gordon builds him confidence going down to Miami as he looks to leave the sport on top. He has six-consecutive top 10 finishes heading into his final race.

“I’m excited about our chances and the opportunity and our team is fired up, they’ve been working hard on that Homestead car ever since we won Martinsville,” Gordon said. “We know we have some tough competitors to go up against, but I love Homestead. I couldn’t be more excited or more determined to go down there and do what it’s going to take with this race team.”

Busch was able to advance to the championship race by having more points than his teammate Carl Edwards. The No. 18 finished fourth on the evening and was able to stay out in front of all the trouble and move toward the front near the end of the race.

After having a subpar 19 second pit stop during one of the two green flag pit stops Busch fell down to ninth in the running order. Over the course of the next 80 laps Busch was able to place himself solidly into the top five and when the rain came, he was in front of his nearest competition in the point standings.

“We did what we needed to do tonight,” Busch said of his night and advancing to Homestead. “I think the biggest thing is just being able to go to Homestead, a place where I feel like I’ve run well at in the past and get an opportunity to race for a championship. I think that you try to limit your distractions heading into that race and just try to do the right things in practice, in qualifying and everything . I’m going to have to lean on my teammates at Homestead, they are really good there. We know that we are going to have to win that thing.”

The fourth team heading to Homestead with a chance at a championship is the single car No. 78 team out of Denver, Colorado. Truex has been consistent all season long with 22 top-10 finishes, and has been on point since the Chase began at Chicago.

At Homestead, Truex has run well. More than likely, he will need to win the race to capture his first championship. For a guy that has overcome a ton of adversity in the past year, he is thankful for this opportunity.

“It means everything to us,” Truex said of advancing to Homestead. “What can I say about the whole team and everyone at Furniture Row Racing, everybody back in the shop in Denver? It’s just a dream come true for us. I’m really proud of what we accomplished this year and to be able to put nine really good weeks together, it was just awesome. I got a little nervous when the caution came out on us tonight, but Homestead is a really good track for me and that’s our kind of race track with this team.”

Those were the winners on Sunday. There were many disappointing drivers who either just missed the championship round or unable to finish the remaining 93 laps under the green flag.

Edwards came up five points short of advancing to his best track and competing for a championship. If the race went back green Edwards was in the 12th position with Truex back in traffic and thought he could have made up those five points. Unfortunately, for Edwards it was not to be and will have to wait for next year to try to win the Cup. Edwards thought that he had the car to get up there and gain those points.

Kurt Busch had to overcome adversity from Lap 1 of the race. The No. 41 beat the No. 48 of Jimmie Johnson to the green flag and was then penalized for doing so. In a race that was a must-win, Busch came up seven positions short of a victory.

Joey Logano was also in a must-win situation and his night was very steady as he ran second to Harvick for the majority of the longest green flag fun of the season. After finishing multiple laps down in the first two races, the No. 22 team finished third, but was two positions short of his alluded victory. After having six wins in 2015, he will have to wait until 2016 to try and win his first championship.

The last competitor who had a shot at a win-and-in scenario was Brad Keselowski. After leading 312 laps in Texas, but ultimately losing the race with four laps to go, his championship hopes looked to slip from his grasp. Keselowski struggled all weekend in Phoenix and finished with a disappointing ninth.

There is no doubt about it that the anxiety leading up to Homestead will be through the roof. There are many stories that could have a perfect ending depending on the driver who wins the championship in one of the most competitive championship battles in recent memory.

 

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was awarded the victory at the Phoenix International Raceway late Sunday night when the rains came and put a halt to the championship parade of fellow competitors. Following a seven hour rain delay prior to the initial green flag, the cutoff race came up 93 laps short of completion.

It was a caution during the midst of green flag pit stops that allowed the No. 88 team to edge in front of Kevin Harvick. Harvick had led 143 out of the 219 laps in the desert, but Earnhardt pitted a few laps later than the No. 4 and with where his pit stall was slotted only had to beat Harvick to the finish line to be in front of him.

After leading 22 laps on the evening, Earnhardt picked up his third career win in the desert and his first since 2004. This is also the No. 88 team’s third victory of 2015, the other two coming at the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega.

“You like to win them at the checkered flag,” Earnhardt said. “A win is a win, you take it and put it in the record book. My team is very proud of this. They gave me a great car to get me a good qualifying effort. We’ve qualified so poorly all year, and the reason why we won tonight I think is where we qualified this weekend.”

Earnhardt was left questioning what could have been if he had another 100 yards at Talladega where he finished second to Joey Logano, he would be competing for his first career championship at Homestead.

 Instead, Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex, Jr. are the drivers looking to capture the Sprint Cup trophy next weekend. All of them have unique stories in their own right of how they have gotten to this point.

Harvick finished in the runner-up position on Sunday. After having the dominant car, he was unable to get ahead of Earnhardt as there was a lengthy yellow flag prior to the rain down pouring on his chances of getting a fifth-consecutive victory in Phoenix.

However, Harvick is looking to put a second big trophy into his trophy box at Homestead.

“We made great adjustments over night,” Harvick said of his racecar. “We found a little bit of balance that we were looking for in practice. Just the way that the caution fell, I didn’t get all my distance back on the race track under green and Dale was able to beat us out. You win some and you lose some like that, but in the big picture you’re racing for a championship next week.”

“I feel like we’ve overcome a lot of things in the Chase. We’ve survived and advanced, it hasn’t been 100 percent pretty from one end to the other. When you look at the Chase it’s been championship material and that’s proven by making it to the championship race.”

Gordon will be racing for a championship in his final race behind the wheel of the No. 24. In Phoenix, Gordon finished in the sixth position and led four laps through a round of green flag pit stops. This solid run for Gordon builds him confidence going down to Miami as he looks to leave the sport on top. He has six-consecutive top 10 finishes heading into his final race.

“I’m excited about our chances and the opportunity and our team is fired up, they’ve been working hard on that Homestead car ever since we won Martinsville,” Gordon said. “We know we have some tough competitors to go up against, but I love Homestead. I couldn’t be more excited or more determined to go down there and do what it’s going to take with this race team.”

Busch was able to advance to the championship race by having more points than his teammate Carl Edwards. The No. 18 finished fourth on the evening and was able to stay out in front of all the trouble and move toward the front near the end of the race.

After having a subpar 19 second pit stop during one of the two green flag pit stops Busch fell down to ninth in the running order. Over the course of the next 80 laps Busch was able to place himself solidly into the top five and when the rain came, he was in front of his nearest competition in the point standings.

“We did what we needed to do tonight,” Busch said of his night and advancing to Homestead. “I think the biggest thing is just being able to go to Homestead, a place where I feel like I’ve run well at in the past and get an opportunity to race for a championship. I think that you try to limit your distractions heading into that race and just try to do the right things in practice, in qualifying and everything . I’m going to have to lean on my teammates at Homestead, they are really good there. We know that we are going to have to win that thing.”

The fourth team heading to Homestead with a chance at a championship is the single car No. 78 team out of Denver, Colorado. Truex has been consistent all season long with 22 top-10 finishes, and has been on point since the Chase began at Chicago.

At Homestead, Truex has run well. More than likely, he will need to win the race to capture his first championship. For a guy that has overcome a ton of adversity in the past year, he is thankful for this opportunity.

“It means everything to us,” Truex said of advancing to Homestead. “What can I say about the whole team and everyone at Furniture Row Racing, everybody back in the shop in Denver? It’s just a dream come true for us. I’m really proud of what we accomplished this year and to be able to put nine really good weeks together, it was just awesome. I got a little nervous when the caution came out on us tonight, but Homestead is a really good track for me and that’s our kind of race track with this team.”

Those were the winners on Sunday. There were many disappointing drivers who either just missed the championship round or unable to finish the remaining 93 laps under the green flag.

Edwards came up five points short of advancing to his best track and competing for a championship. If the race went back green Edwards was in the 12th position with Truex back in traffic and thought he could have made up those five points. Unfortunately, for Edwards it was not to be and will have to wait for next year to try to win the Cup. Edwards thought that he had the car to get up there and gain those points.

Kurt Busch had to overcome adversity from Lap 1 of the race. The No. 41 beat the No. 48 of Jimmie Johnson to the green flag and was then penalized for doing so. In a race that was a must-win, Busch came up seven positions short of a victory.

Joey Logano was also in a must-win situation and his night was very steady as he ran second to Harvick for the majority of the longest green flag fun of the season. After finishing multiple laps down in the first two races, the No. 22 team finished third, but was two positions short of his alluded victory. After having six wins in 2015, he will have to wait until 2016 to try and win his first championship.

The last competitor who had a shot at a win-and-in scenario was Brad Keselowski. After leading 312 laps in Texas, but ultimately losing the race with four laps to go, his championship hopes looked to slip from his grasp. Keselowski struggled all weekend in Phoenix and finished with a disappointing ninth.

There is no doubt about it that the anxiety leading up to Homestead will be through the roof. There are many stories that could have a perfect ending depending on the driver who wins the championship in one of the most competitive championship battles in recent memory.

 

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will travel to Las Vegas, Nevada this week for the Kobalt Tools 400.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway is considered a “Cookie Cutter” race track, but it is much different than other 1.5-mile tracks. It is a fast and very aero-sensitive race track. Having a loose race car is a common problem at Las Vegas. This makes passing very difficult so track position will be at a premium this week.

The key to winning this race will be to have a car that has balance through turn four. Most of the wrecks in the race involve cars trying to carry too much speed through the tricky turn. Teams will push the limits to have a car that is fast through this turn, but teams who go over the limit will find their car in the garage.

Keep in mind the teams who had success last week at Atlanta will be the favorites Sunday. Although the race tracks are nothing alike, teams that figured out the new down-force and aero-packages last week will be the teams which will be fast Sunday.

Here are my picks for the Kolbalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas…

 

Yahoo Group A Picks

The drivers in Group A of the Yahoo Fantasy Auto Racing game are placed into this group because they have had a lot of success at the 1.5-mile race tracks. It is impossible to be considered an elite driver in the Sprint Cup Series without being able to navigate the race tracks which make up a majority of the race schedule.

Team Penske will be the team to watch this week. Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano started on the front row last year with Keselowski finding his way to Victory Lane. Logano is off to a great start this season and there is no reason why he should cool off in the desert. Both drivers would be excellent selections for your team.

My sleeper pick for Group A this week is Dale Earnhardt Jr. He had this race won last year. Earnhardt started 14th and led 51 laps before running out of gas on the last lap. Earnhardt is off to a good start this season with two top-five finishes. He may not qualify up front, but he will be one of the drivers competing for the win at the end of the race.

Here are the two drivers I selected for Group A…

Jimmie Johnson

Another name for Las Vegas Motor Speedway could be Jimmie’s Playground. Johnson four wins in his 13 career starts in Sin City. He will have momentum after winning the race last week. The No. 48 team is back and fantasy NASCAR players must consider Johnson a favorite at each race track.

Kevin Harvick

I had a hard time selecting the last driver for Group A. The Team Penske drivers would have been great for qualifying points. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth are almost locks for a top-10 finish. I went with Harvick, although his stats here are not great. Harvick was running down Kyle Busch for the lead last year when he had rotor problems. He is too hot to ignore right now.

Other good choices: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth

 

Yahoo Group B Picks

I learned three things from last week’s race at Atlanta about Group B… 1. Carl Edwards will be the best driver in this group so fantasy teams need to use their allocations wisely with the No. 19 team. 2. It is sad to say, but Tony Stewart looks like he should be retiring at the end of the season. 3. There are many sleepers in this group including Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola, AJ Allmendinger and Casey Mears.

My sleeper pick this week is Brain Vickers. Some teams may forget about him since this is his first race back in the car. Last week Brett Moffitt finished eighth in the no. 55 car. Vickers should be able to run up front this week too.

Here are the four drivers I selected for Group B…

Carl Edwards

Las Vegas is Edwards’s third-best race track. He has two wins and six top-10 finishes in his 10 career starts at the race track. Edwards has a streak of four consecutive top-five finishes at Las Vegas. These stats are with Edwards driving for Roush Fenway Racing. He should be one of the favorite to win in his No. 19 Joe Gibbs racing Ford.

Kasey Kahne

It is hard to trust Kahn on your fantasy team. Last week he looked like a lock for a top-10 finish, but barely finished in the top 15. His stats at Las Vegas are good, so it may be wise to give him another chance. Kahne finished the last two races at Las Vegas in the top 10. Hendrick Motorsports looks like the team to beat, so Kahne should have a fast car Sunday.

Martin Truex Jr.

If there is one thing I learned the first two weeks of these season it is that the No. 78 car looks like the car Kurt Busch drove two years ago. Truex is off to a great start this season. He finished second in the Sprint Unlimited, fifth in the Budweiser Dual, eighth in the Daytona 500 and sixth at Atlanta. If you need some luck in Las Vegas, grab Truex for your team.

Paul Menard

Las Vegas is Menard’s second-best race track. He has a streak of three consecutive top-10 finishes, including a third-place finish in last year’s race. Menard always runs well on the 1.5-mile race tracks early in the season. This is the time to use Menard for your team.

Other good choices: Brian Vickers,Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer and Jamie McMurray

 

Yahoo Group C Picks

Selecting a driver for Group C is not as difficult as it looked on paper entering the season. Danica Patrick has shown improvement this season. David Ragan and Regan Smith are providing teams an option while the Busch brothers are out of their cars. Some unknown drivers (Brett Moffitt and Matt Crafton) have came out of nowhere provided some help for fantasy teams.

My sleeper pick for Group C this week is Ryan Blaney. He will be driving the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford. The team has an alliance with Team Penske and he should be able to learn a lot from Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski this week.

Here are the two drivers I selected for Group C…

David Ragan

Ragan has not had much success at Las Vegas. When he drove for Roush Fenway Racing he finished most of his races in the top 25. Ragan did have a seventh-place finish at the race track in 2008. Last week was his first race with the No. 18 team and he finished 18th. Ragan should be able to learn from last week’s race and finish in the top 20 this week.

Regan Smith

Smith has not been great while filling in for Kurt Busch, but he has not been too bad either. Smith has two consecutive top-20 finishes this season and there is no reason to believe he cannot finish in the top-20 again this week. It will be important to use Smith to save allocations for other drivers later in the season.

Other Good Choices: Danica Patrick, Ryan Blaney and Justin Allgaier

 

Fantasy Live Picks

One of the biggest misconceptions for Fantasy Live is that fantasy teams must select drivers who start in the back of the field. Fantasy teams get too caught up in where a driver starts the race and overlook the best drivers for the race. Track position is so important at Las Vegas that it will be important to select the best drivers in the field, regardless of where they begin the race.

Last season three drivers led over 50 laps at Las Vegas. Each of these drivers scored at least 25 bonus points for their fantasy teams. If a driver qualifies up front and has a dominant car in the Saturday practice there is a good chance the driver will lead many laps in the race Sunday. These drivers must be on your team at Las Vegas.

Here are the five drivers I selected for Fantasy Live for the race at Las Vegas:

Driver 1: Kevin Harvick $27.50

Driver 2: Jimmie Johnson $27.00

Driver 3: Carl Edwards $22.50

Driver 4: Martin Truex Jr. $17.00

Driver 5: Regan Smith $5.00

Pick to Win: Jimmie Johnson

* Driver prices based on prices at Atlanta

 

Fox Fantasy Racing

Fantasy teams will have a tough decision to make for Fox Fantasy Racing this week. This games awards fantasy teams for finding the drivers who start in the back and finish up front. The problem is there usually are not many drivers who can make their way through the field at Las Vegas.

As we saw at Atlanta, anything can happen during qualifying. If for some reason the best drivers have difficulties in qualifying and start in the back of the field it will be important to select the driver for your team. My picks this week are based upon recent success at Las Vegas and drivers with an opportunity to win the race.

Here are my selections for Fox Fantasy Racing for Las Vegas:

Driver 1: Dale Earnhardt Jr. $12,900

Driver 2: Jimmie Johnson $10,500

Driver 3: Brad Keselowski $11,500

Driver 4: Carl Edwards $9,400

Driver 5: Regan Smith $5,200

* Driver prices based on prices at Atlanta

 

*Stats from Driveraverages.com and career stats from Racing-Reference.Info

 

Win or go home. Sounds simple, right? Well, maybe not.

Less than a week after being fined $50,000 for a post-race battle at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the No. 2 car is back in Victory Lane.

With some wild moves to block his competitors, Brad Keselowski charged to the front in an intense battle during a green-white-checkered finish at Talladega Superspeedway. Keselowski won his sixth race of the year with the victory in the Geico 500 over a hard-charging Matt Kenseth in what was arguably the most intense race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.

 “Obviously this win is huge,” Keselowski said. “We feel like we have been one of the strongest teams all year here, especially the second half of the season. This team has worked hard and I feel like they deserve a shot at a championship. The issues we had at Kansas put us behind and having to fight all the way back, everyone executed and did their job today.”

After receiving damage to his right side door panel from a wreck with Michael McDowell on Lap 59, the 2012 Sprint Cup Series champion faced adversity throughout the day. However, without any major repairs needed, he worked his way through the field and led five different times throughout the race for a total of 12 laps.

With eliminations on the line, Jimmie Johnson led a race-high 84 laps on Sunday afternoon. For the No. 48 team, that was not enough to send him onto the Eliminator Round of the Chase. Johnson used the low line throughout the day, and threw countless blocks to maintain the lead. However, prior to the final round of green-flag pit stops, Danica Patrick swerved around the six-time champion to take the lead. Johnson dropped back a few spots in the midst of the first green-white-checkered stint and had to save gas during the caution period as well. But on the final restart of the day, the pre-season favorite slipped back to finish 24th at Talladega – eliminating him from championship contention.

Besides Johnson, two of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates did not advance to the next round of NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ran up front throughout the 500-mile event. Yet even with 31 laps led, the No. 88 Chevrolet could not survive the chaos at Talladega. On Lap 187, David Gilliland tapped Earnhardt on the backstretch; causing major damage to his vehicle. Entering Sunday, he had to win in order to advance to the next round of the title. After having his first multi-win year since 2004, he will not contend for the championship.

Kasey Kahne, who made the Chase with a win at Atlanta, was also eliminated from the Chase after Talladega. Although he was inside of the top-eight in points, with Keselowski’s win – he was sent back one position in the Chase Grid. Kahne finished 12th at Talladega, and was just three points behind teammate Jeff Gordon after the sixth race of the Chase.

Kyle Busch entered Talladega as the highest-ranked driver without a win in Round 2. For the majority of the day, he worked with Kenseth at the rear of the field – approximately four to five seconds behind the lead pack. The strategy was working, but then chaos erupted with “the big one.” On Lap 102, with cars wrecking in front of him, Busch checked up and was hit by rookie Austin Dillon. Busch’s car slammed into the wall and received major cosmetic damage and injured the toe of his race car. Although he was able to get back on track – 49 laps down – Busch was able to gain just three positions. He was four points behind Kahne and trailed Gordon by seven markers.

Team Penske drivers Keselowski and Joey Logano will advance to the next round of the Chase. Gordon will be the lone HMS driver in Round 3. Ryan Newman was just four points behind Logano after Talladega, and represents Richard Childress Racing as their only driver in the Chase. Kevin Harvick will advance to the next round along with Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Kenseth and Denny Hamlin. Carl Edwards will also advance for Roush Fenway Racing.

Here are some notables from the Geico 500:

-Terry Labonte finished 33rd in his final Sprint Cup Series start (890th total) for Go FAS Racing.

-Landon Cassill finished fourth on Sunday for Hillman Racing. Prior to this race, his best career-finish was 11th at Talladega earlier in the year.

-Travis Kvapil ended the day in the sixth position for Circle Sport Racing in the No. 33 car. The finish marks the first top-10 for Kvapil since an eighth-place finish at Talladega in 2012.

-Casey Mears earned his third top-10 of the year for Germain Racing with a 10th-place finish.

-Cole Whitt finished 15th for BK Racing. His previous best career-finish was 18th-place at Auto Club Speedway earlier in the year.

-Martin Truex, Jr. led his first lap of the year for Furniture Row Racing, but finished in 27th.

Joseph Wolkin can be followed on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase for the Sprint Cup has finally arrived. However, things are quite different this year.

In a move to have more drama to NASCAR’s version of the playoffs, there will be four drivers eliminated after every three races. At the end of the season, four drivers will battle it out for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway for a one-of-a-kind duel.

With no way to know what to expect, the 16 drivers in the Chase will be gunning it out to make sure they don’t get eliminated. If a driver is out of contention, they can only contend for a position in points within the group they were eliminated with. But this is going to making things eccentric for the sport over the final 10 weeks of the season.

The 16 drivers in the Chase are now set. Here are my expectations for those drivers:

  1. Brad Keselowski: Keselowski should make it to the final round in the championship. He is on a tear as of late, especially in qualifying. Through just 26 races, he has led a career-high 1,278 laps; that’s more than 17 percent of all laps that he has completed. However, he has to make sure the team is not only contending for wins, but that they are also consistently up front in case someone else gets into trouble.
  2. Jeff Gordon: Gordon is having his best season in quite some time. There is something different about the driver of the No. 24 this year. He has developed an unbelievable relationship with crew chief Alan Gustafson. Throughout the year, he has been one of the five quickest cars at just about every single event. If he can take the momentum he had from pacing the Sprint Cup Series during the regular season to the Chase, he will undoubtedly become a five-time champion.
  3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: He has had a good season, but that’s to his standards – not to Hendrick Motorsports standards. There is no doubt that he is one of the most consistent drivers in the Chase as he has a 10.9 average finish. However, it seems like he races inside of the top 10 for approximately two to four races at a time, and then has something go wrong that causes a setback. Expect him to be right on the border of making it to the final round at Homestead, but he might make it as Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix are each strong tracks for him.
  4. Jimmie Johnson: Johnson has not been known as the clear favorite this year. It’s likely because of the annual summer drought that the No. 48 team has gone through. However, this team is going to be just as strong in the Chase. Over the past four races, he has four top-10 finishes. A key to winning the title in this format will be consistently running up front, and Johnson did just that last year with just one finish worse than ninth. But Chad Knaus and he have had some awful luck at Homestead. If he can stay out of trouble at Homestead, he will probably be crowned the champion once again.
  5. Joey Logano: By far, 2014 has been the best year of this young man’s career. It’s hard to believe he is just 24 with six full-time seasons in the Cup Series. However, with his first multi-win season, he has begun to learn how to be a factor for wins on a weekly basis. The intermediate tracks have been insanely strong for the No. 22 Ford. He has never been in a position to win a championship like he is this year, and that could hurt him down the road as he deals with pressure against the veterans. With Team Penske’s speed this year, there is no reason why Logano can’t battle for his first career title.
  6. Kevin Harvick: This week, Harvick swapped pit crews with his owner, Tony Stewart. The move will likely take away the No. 4 team’s inconsistency on pit road, which has taken away valuable track position for the team throughout the season. Even though he only has two victories this year, Harvick has been in position to win about seven races. If he can have luck on his side for once, he will be right there with Johnson, Gordon and Keselowski at Homestead.
  7. Carl Edwards: Even though switching teams after the season is completed is not a distraction for the No. 99 team, the entire Roush Fenway Racing organization is going through some blatantly obvious struggles. However, he has been the strongest driver with the team, and with some solid results – he will be there for the Eliminator Round. After that, it’ll be tough for him to make it to the final round, especially with Martinsville and Texas; two tracks he somewhat struggled with this year.
  8. Kyle Busch: It has been a roller coaster year for all of Joe Gibbs Racing. Clearly, Busch can win a few races given the right circumstances. Things are cleared up with Dave Rogers and he. However, with just nine top 10s this year, he hasn’t shown this is going to be a championship caliber season. With Loudon and Dover in the Challenger Round, Busch can easily make his way into the Contender Round. It’ll be quite the challenge to get past that round, but if he can come out of Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega with a top 10 in each race, he’ll be able to advance.
  9. Denny Hamlin: Hamlin has been extremely inconsistent all year. However, he has been running rather well lately. If he can have some luck in the Chase, he can get rather far. He had a rough start to the season, but with 11 top 10s to this point, there is hope that Hamlin can at least get by the first round.
  10. Kurt Busch: Busch finally returned to Victory Lane this year and has shown speed nearly every week. In the Chase, there are a few tracks that he has struggled at. He should race his way into the second round, but beyond that is unlikely with a season full of inconsistency as he has just seven top 10s this year.
  11. Kasey Kahne: Besides his win at Atlanta, 2014 has been a season to forget for Kahne. With 10 top 10s this year, he hasn’t been horrific, yet there is plenty of room for improvement. The No. 5 team will make it past the first round, but since they have been so inconsistent, it’s unlikely that they’ll go past that.
  12. Aric Almirola: Almirola was extremely lucky with his win at Daytona. Without that, there was not a shot that he would’ve been in the Chase. Even if he does awful in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs, he’ll finish 16th at the worst, which would be a career-best for the driver of the No. 43 car. Chicagoland and New Hampshire have been good tracks for him. Although he is a long shot to make it past the first round, there is a slight chance that he can do so with a little bit of luck.
  13. AJ Allmendinger: Allmendinger’s situation is similar to that of the No. 43 team. It’s unlikely that he’ll get past the first round, but stranger things have happened. With four top 10s this season, he has the potential to do well if he can get the most out of the limited equipment that he has. Running with an alliance with Richard Childress Racing has certainly helped JTG Daugherty Racing, but it has not solved all of their on-track issues. Worst case scenario – Allmendinger will finish 16th in points instead of outside the top 20.
  14. Matt Kenseth: Kenseth has yet to score a win this year. He has run better than his JGR teammates all season, but just hasn’t had the luck he’s needed. With his 16 top 10s, Kenseth should make it far into the Chase. However, he won’t make it to the final round. Even if he can score a victory before the end of the season, it is going to be difficult for the No. 20 team to consistently be right there for wins as the entire crew has struggled somewhat this year.
  15. Greg Biffle: Biffle probably won’t make it past the first round of the Chase. He has had a brutal year. Somehow or another, the No. 16 team made the Chase based on points, albeit he has just three top fives. However, with five straight top 10 finishes prior to Richmond, he jumped six positions, which led him to 10th-place. If he can race like that, Biffle will make it past the first round. But if he struggles at the intermediate tracks like he has, then he won’t last too long in the Chase.
  16. Ryan Newman: This year, Newman has made a quiet, yet steady transition at RCR. He has 10 top 10 finishes, but he hasn’t really shown he is capable of winning races. Newman’s average finish is 14.1 through 26 races. Unless he earns a top five in one of the races in the first round, it’s going to be tough for him to advance. For the majority of the year, he has been a 15th-20th-place car, and he will need to improve upon that now. 
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