New format has created drama in NASCAR
As usual, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Talladega race meant elation for some and heartbreak for others. Brad Keselowski was on cloud nine after his win, as was team owner Roger Penske. Not so happy were Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the Junior Nation millions, and Kyle Busch and his dozens of fans. The new Chase format has created more drama than I’ve ever seen in a NASCAR championship run, and there’s more to come.
This week the Sprint Cup drivers transition from NASCAR’s longest track to one of the shortest, Martinsville Speedway. And as always with short track racing, there will be lots of banged-up race cars and frayed tempers. Martinsville marks the first race of the Eliminator round, with eight drivers and three races to determine the final four who will compete for the 2014 Sprint Cup Championship at Homestead.
So how do we handicap the Eliminator round? A win in any of the three races is a free pass to the title round. So will we see three drivers advance on wins with only one getting to the final race on points? Or will a non-Chase driver throw a monkey wrench into the works by winning one of the next three races? Well, so far no non-Chase driver has won a Chase race in 2014. So the odds are this is going to hold true for the next three. So if a different Chase driver wins at Martinsville, Texas, and Phoenix? That means five drivers will be battling to get in on points. So the chief strategy of every team left in the Chase is to win.
So what’s the track record of our eight Eliminator round drivers? Brad Keselowski has never won a race at any of the next four tracks on the schedule, but he leads the pack with six wins this season. His teammate Joey Logano has five season victories and two so far in the Chase. Logano has also won at Texas, the next track on the schedule. Jeff Gordon, going for his fifth NASCAR title, has to be the favorite this weekend He has an amazing eight wins at the Martinsville track, including last fall’s race there. Denny Hamlin has four wins at Martinsville, two at Texas, and one at Phoenix. This gives him a bunch of confidence coming into the Eliminator round. Kevin Harvick, who would probably have eight wins on the season if not for bad luck, has scored one Martinsville win, and is the driver to beat just about every weekend. Ryan Newman is also a past Martinsville winner, but hasn’t yet won a race in 2014. On the plus side, he’s the only driver to score top-10 finishes in all three races in the Contender round. Matt Kenseth is another driver who’s winless on the season, but still in the Chase. He needs to find the magic that propelled him to seven wins in 2013. Carl Edwards made the Eliminator round, but his Roush-Fenway Ford just doesn’t have the speed of the Penske Fords of Keselowski and Logano.
Harvick will have his work cut out for him Sunday, as he’s mired in the 33rd place starting position after an awful qualifying session. Six of the other seven Chasers will start in the top 12 with Jeff Gordon 11th. Getting a good qualifying run at Martinsville is critical, not only for the starting position but also for pit selection. Jamie McMurray’s pole gives him an excellent chance to become the first non-Chase driver to win a Chase race this year. Of course, he’ll have to hold off Logano, who will start alongside. It should be an interesting race.