2015 Preview: Chase for the Sprint Cup Challenger Round

Jordan McAbeeFantasy NASCAR, News

Kevin Harvick blowing up at Pocono 2015

Kevin Harvick blowing up at Pocono 2015Now that the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway has come and gone, NASCAR’s 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup can begin. First we have the Challenger Round, which consists of races at Chicagoland Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Loudon), and Dover International Speedway. Any Chase driver that secures a victory in any of these races will earn a spot in the next round of NASCAR’s playoffs, and then points will be used to determine which 12 drivers will go on.

With this post, I will be detailing each race in the Challenger Round along with the drivers most likely to win and get into the Contender Round. Also, at the end, you can see which drivers that I believe will be eliminated. The 16 drivers making up this year’s Chase field are: Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex, Jr., Denny Hamlin, Jamie McMurray, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard, and Clint Bowyer.

Chicagoland Preview

Drivers most likely to win: Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick

Matt Kenseth is smiling about this week's race at Bristol. You should, too.Chicagoland Speedway is a relatively rough 1.5-mile tri-oval racetrack that compares most similarly to Kentucky Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Handling is going to be a big factor here in the MyAFibRisk400.com, which means Matt Kenseth should be considered a favorite–especially if he has speed. Typically the #20 team focuses on handling if they have enough speed off the truck. Kenseth went to victory lane here in 2013 and is coming off of a dominating performance at Richmond.

Another driver that could lock himself into the Contender Round right off the bat at Chicagoland is Brad Keselowski. This #2 team put some very strong race cars on the track in August and September and seem to be hitting their stride at exactly right time. Also, you have to take into account the fact that, since joining Penske Racing in 2010, Keselowski has finished 7th or better in four of his five starts at this track, including wins in both 2012 and 2014.

Finally, Kevin Harvick hasn’t been to victory lane since Phoenix back in March, and before that win he went to victory lane the previous week at Las Vegas. As mentioned before, Las Vegas Motor Speedway is pretty similar to Chicagoland, and Harvick led over half of the laps in this year’s Vegas race en route to his victory. Looking at Chicagoland, “The Closer” won both of his first two starts here (in 2001 and 2002) but hasn’t gotten back to victory lane since. He has, however, ended up inside the top 5 in three of the last four races at Chicagoland and you know that #4 Chevrolet is going to be blazing fast pretty much every week.

Loudon 2 Preview

Drivers most likely to win: Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth

We’ve already been to Loudon, New Hampshire once this season, and it was Kyle Busch that went on to win that day with Brad Keselowski finishing 2nd. Those two along with Matt Kenseth have been the hands-down best drivers at Loudon over the last two-and-a-half years, which is exactly why they’re most likely to win the second race of this year’s Chase. New Hampshire Motor Speedway is a 1-mile flat track that typically provides some excellent racing. What should be noted here is that a pit crew mistake could absolutely ruin a driver’s day, as well a penalty such as speeding on pit road.

Kyle Busch walking on pit roadKyle Busch knows all about bumping people out of the way for position, and being aggressive is something I hope to see more out of drivers now that they’re actually racing for something. It took a while for Rowdy Busch to get the hang of this race track but he has been stellar as of late; in the last five races at Loudon, Kyle has finished 1st or 2nd four times and in the other race he ended up 8th–which was actually this event one year ago. Busch is one of nine active Sprint Cup drivers with multiple victories at this race track.

I know NASCAR is trying to create more competition on the track, but it really wouldn’t surprise me one bit if we saw the same drivers finish inside the top 5 at both Chicagoland and Loudon 2 this year. It’s not because they’re similar race tracks, but rather the same drivers have found a lot of success at both. They are both tracks that require a driver with skills and patience, which means Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth are definitely part of the conversation.

We’ll start with Keselowski. No other Sprint Cup driver has a better average driver rating over the last five races at Loudon that Bad Brad, who tops the list with 122.9. He’s only been to victory lane once at Loudon, but that was in the 2014 July race, and as I mentioned before he ended up 2nd to Kyle Busch in the this year’s July event. Brad hasn’t ended up worse than 11th at Loudon since the 2011 season and has finished 7th or better in seven of his last eight starts at this track.

As far as Matt Kenseth, he had his share of struggles at New Hampshire Motor Speedway while he was still with Roush-Fenway Racing. Once he made the move to the Gibbs camp, though, Kenseth’s results drastically improved at this track–and at all short tracks in general. The organization switch was definitely a good move for Matt. In his five starts at Loudon in the #20 Toyota, Kenseth has four finishes of 9th or better and went to victory lane in the 2013 September race.

Dover 2 Preview

Drivers most likely to win: Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick

Dover is another 1-mile race track but it is vastly different than New Hampshire, as it races a lot like an intermediate oval. I personally believe that Dover produces some of the best racing on the Sprint Cup circuit and these are always some of my favorite races to watch. Perhaps the best thing about Dover–from a fantasy perspective anyway–is its overall predictability. There typically aren’t any surprises inside the top 5 when a Dover race is over, although a sleeper might be able to crack the top 10.

Jimmie Johnson ahead of Kyle Larson at Phoenix 2015Jimmie Johnson is basically the king of Dover International Speedway with a career average finish of 7.9 and ten (yes, ten!) wins. He has made a total of 27 career starts at this track which means that Jimmie wins 37% of the time–yet another absolutely ridiculous statistic associated with the driver of the #48 Chevrolet. Johnson won the race here back in May, finished 3rd at Dover last September, and won the two races at this track before that. Basically what I’m saying is that if the #48 team hasn’t locked themselves into the Contender Round by the time we get to Dover, don’t worry because they’ll probably win again at “The Monster Mile.”

One of the best cars at Dover over the last couple of races without a 48 on the side is the #4 Chevrolet driven by Kevin Harvick. He’s definitely had the speed to get to victory lane, but for whatever reason this team hasn’t been able to put it all together. In fact, it’s not just this #4 team–Harvick himself has never been to victory lane at Dover. It’s bound to happen eventually, though, and with the speed that this team has had at this track lately, I have a feeling it might be soon. Hell, it might even be this year. Harvick finished 2nd in this year’s May race at Dover and led 223 of the 400 laps in the 2014 September race here, but had a tire issue and ended up finishing 13th. I’m expecting another strong showing out of the #4 team at Dover this year.

So, who will be eliminated after the Challenger Round?

It’s going to take something major for the top teams in the Chase to be eliminated in the first round. And by something major I mean wrecking at two of the three races, and even then those elite drivers could grab a victory at Dover. So, let’s assume that the following are pretty much locks to advance: Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, and Brad Keselowski. Okay, great, half of the next round is set. That leaves: Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Martin Truex, Jr., Denny Hamlin, Jamie McMurray, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer to duke it out for the last six spots.

Paul Menard at KentuckyPaul Menard is my first cut in the Challenger Round. The first three races just aren’t very good race tracks for Paul Menard, and while he could sneak past if a few elite drivers have problems, let’s be honest that that’s not going to happen. Chicagoland is Paul’s 2nd-worst track on the circuit, as he has just one top 10 in eight career starts there. Loudon is his 3rd-worst track, with an average finish of 23.8 and zero top 10s in seventeen total starts. Once we’re at Dover, it’s going to take a miracle for Menard to make it to the next round, and while he’s finished top 10 in two of the last three races at “The Monster Mile,” it’s sure to be too little too late for the #27 team.

My next predicted driver that won’t make it to the second round of the Chase is last year’s runner-up, Ryan Newman. Take a look at the statistics of the drivers than have finished 2nd in points for the last ten years or so. Most of the time, they struggle mightily. Last year, Newman got into the Chase based on his consistency and almost won the damn championship because of it, too. That simply won’t happen two years in a row. The #31 team hasn’t been a legitimate race contender all season long and that’s probably not going to suddenly change now that we’re in the Chase. Another note to consider is that in the nine races before Chicagoland, Newman only posted two top 10 finishes. The good news for “Rocketman” fans is that he has won three times each at both Loudon and Dover, and Newman has also visited victory lane at Chicagoland.

Jamie McMurray racingJamie McMurray is one driver that I was really excited about seeing in the Chase after the first 20 races of the season. This #1 team was performing very well and showing promise, but now that we’re getting down to crunch time, they’ve actually regressed quite a bit. I just don’t like teams that don’t have momentum heading into the Chase. Jamie Mac is great at finishing in the teens on a consistent basis but I just don’t see that working in the Chase; if he somehow makes it to the Contender Round, it definitely isn’t going to work there. Jamie’s career average finishes in the first three races of the Chase are: 21.3 at Chicagoland, 20.7 at Loudon, and 17.8 at Dover. Sorry Jamie Mac, but I just don’t see other drivers having enough bad luck and you having enough good luck to make it to the next round of NASCAR’s 2015 playoffs.

Here’s my first surprise cut in the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup…drumroll please…Martin Truex, Jr. Yep, everyone’s “feel good” story of the season is going to run into a rough patch, I believe. Martin just hasn’t been the same since that head-on wreck at Sonoma, and I really believe that it’s affecting his driving. Also, this #78 team is having much more bad luck than they did in the first half of the year. To put it in a numbers perspective, Truex has 17 top 10s in 2015 thus far. He notched 14 of those in the first 15 races of the season. Therefore, if you can do simple math, in the 11 races ran since then, Truex has had just 3 top 10s. No bueno. The good news for Martin Truex, Jr. fans is that he is very good at Dover, and might be able to squeeze out a surprise win. It probably won’t happen but you never know. At Chicagoland, Martin is typically a mid-teens pick, and at Loudon Truex hasn’t finished better than 10th since the 2011 season.

Jeff Gordon car 2015This, of course, means that I think Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon will make it to the second round of this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup–two drivers that have struggled quite a bit in 2015. Hear me out on this one.

Clint Bowyer has 11 total top 10 finishes entering the Chase this year. Now, it has to be noted that 5 of those were earned in the last 7 races before the playoff cutoff. We’ve seen this before out of Bowyer–the guy is actually pretty good under pressure. What I like about the #15 team in this first round, though, is how they perform at these first three tracks. Clint owns seven top 10s in nine career starts at Chicagoland. At New Hampshire, he’s a two-time winner and has three finishes of 6th or better in the last seven races. And at Dover, Bowyer is on a nine-race streak of top 10s. So, when the final spots for the Contender Round are determined based on points, Clint is going to have to be quite confident in his history at Dover. Now hopefully he can get through Chicagoland and New Hampshire unscathed.

Finally, let’s talk about Jeff Gordon. I think we’re all waiting to see this #24 team get back to their 2014 form, and for some reason I still think there’s some slight possibility of that happening. Looking at the first three races of the Chase, I think Gordon will perform pretty well if he can avoid the bad luck that seems to strike every other week in 2015. He finished 2nd at Chicagoland last season and 6th the year before. At Loudon, Jeff has been to victory lane on three occasions and ended up 9th in the spring race this season. Finally, at Dover, Jeff has four top 10s in the last six events there, and he’s a five-time winner at “The Monster Mile.” His last win? In last season’s Chase race.

There you have it.

Obviously things are going to change on a week by week basis, but this is how I see the first round of the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup playing out. What’s going to make things very interesting is if a guy like Kevin Harvick or Jimmie Johnson wrecks or has mechanical issues at Chicagoland, which we saw happen to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. last year. One bad race with this format pretty much forces you to get a win to make it to the next round.