There are two weeks left in the NASCAR season, the first season with the new Chase for the Cup format. Rather than the system that was used the past ten years, there is instead a new knockout system. This has left die hard NASCAR fans upset, as the top drivers of the season have already been eliminated from the playoffs. Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, and Dale Earnhardt Jr are the most prominent names that have already been eliminated. Johnson and Earnhardt also have 4 wins each this season, which in the past would have kept them both in the running in prior seasons.
The main gripe of the new system is that someone without a single victory this season can still win the championship. That has been the loudest complaint. The last time someone won with 1 victory was 2003, or the final year of the no playoff scoring system. Matt Kenseth won that season based on a year long run of consistency. Kenseth finished in the top 10 in 25 of 36 races, and had 11 top 5’s. Despite the fact that he only had one victory, he had the best season. Kenseth won the “points” title by 90 points, and had it sewn up before the final race. Because of that, the playoff system was born the next year.
The Chase for the Cup has been tweaked over the years for the same reason any sport does anything. To pull in the casual fans, hence increasing ratings. Unfortunately for NASCAR, the ratings are down during the Chase this year, as the elimination of the aforementioned Earnhardt & Johnson has led their fans to stop watching. I expect a good rating Sunday as this is the final elimination race, but the star power is lacking.
Points are awarded as follows: 1st place = 43 pts, 2nd place = 42 pts, and so on. Bonus points are also awarded for leading a lap (1 pt), leading the most laps (1 additional pt), and winning the race (3 points). The Chase rules stipulate that anyone who wins a race automatically advances to the next round. So all eight drivers have a chance to still make it to next week’s winner take all championship race next week. Here are the eight drivers that remain.
1 and 2)- Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin. 4072 points each. Logano has been the better driver all season, with 5 wins and 16 top 5’s. Both drivers are in good positions, and are guaranteed spots in the next round if they finish in the top 10.
3)- Ryan Newman. 4070 points. Newman is one of the two drivers who are causing all of the Chase controversy. Newman and Matt Kenseth are both still alive for the championship despite not winning a race this season. Newman is 11 points ahead of the cut off line, so he needs to finish in the top 7 to guarantee a berth.
4)- Jeff Gordon. 4060 points. Gordon is one point ahead of the cut off line, so he will be racing for it all on Sunday. Gordon would be in first place had it not been for his incident with Brad Keselowski last week. Gordon was wrecked on the second to last lap while in second position. After the crash, he finished in 29th position, losing 26 points in the process. Gordon was very upset, and it led to the pit road fight with Keselowski after the race. Gordon is a veteran and an excellent driver. It’s hard to bet against him this week.
5)- Matt Kenseth. 4059 points. Much like Newman, Kenseth hasn’t won a race this season. Unlike Newman, he has to climb over drivers to make the next round. Kenseth is close enough that he will likely get in with a top five finish, but he does need one of the four ahead to struggle in the race.
6)- Carl Edwards. 4059 points. Edwards has had an up and down year, with only 14 top 10’s, the lowest number of the remaining drivers. Like Kenseth, a top 5 finish should get him in, but with only 7 of them this season, it’s not a smart bet. Edwards will likely be eliminated.
7)- Brad Keselowski. 4055 points. Keselowski is the most hated man in NASCAR at the moment. His wreck with Gordon last week was the latest in a season long list of incidents. What he does have, though, is a flair for the dramatic. After finishing 36th and 16th in the first two races of round two of the chase, his only chance to advance was to win at Talladega. Keselowski went out and did just that. Now in the same position again, expect Keselowski to take any and every chance he can to win this race.
8)- Kevin Harvick. 4054 points. Harvick finished second last week, just missing his ticket to the championship round. Unfortunately, he finished 33rd the previous week, so he is at the bottom of the standings. He only has six points to make up, but hoping to jump the other drivers with anything other than a top three finish may be wishful thinking.
It will be interesting to see how this race plays out this Sunday. NASCAR has never had a situation like this before, but it has what it wants. Any of the 8 drivers can either make it to the next round, or miss the championship entirely. Tensions will be high, the racing will be hard, and I can’t wait.
PREDICTION- Keselowski wins and advances along with Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, and Ryan Newman.