Wow…that’s really the only word I came come up with to describe the Challenger Round of the Chase. In the first three races of this year’s playoffs, we saw Denny Hamlin win at Chicago and then Matt Kenseth take home the checkered flag at Loudon. By Dover, defending Sprint Cup champion, Kevin Harvick, was faced with a near must-win situation–and that’s exactly what he did. “The Closer” dominated the AAA 400 at Dover and punched his ticket to the next round of the Chase: the Contender Round. Meanwhile, six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was forced out early from this year’s playoffs after rear-axle woes at “The Monster Mile.” Joining JJ with an early exit were Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, and Clint Bowyer.
If the first round of NASCAR’s 2015 playoffs were any indication, fans should be in for a great treat in the second round. Don’t forget, even though he’s eliminated, Jimmie Johnson is more than capable of winning pretty much any race and could shake things up a bit for those remaining in the Chase. With this post, I will be detailing each race in the Contender Round along with the drivers most likely to win and get into the Eliminator Round. Also, at the end, you can see which drivers that I believe will be eliminated. The 12 drivers that are still in the hunt after advancing from the Challenger Round are: Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Martin Truex, Jr., Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Kevin Harvick.
Charlotte 2 Preview
Chaser most likely to win: Kevin Harvick
Charlotte, North Carolina is basically the hub for NASCAR. Most teams have their shops set up there, the NASCAR Hall of Fame is there, etc. We also run quite a few races at this venue. First there’s the non-points paying qualifying races and All Star Race, and then the weekend after that is the prestigious Coca-Cola 600. Carl Edwards won that race this year. And then we’re back here at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Bank of America 500 in the Chase.
After finally pulling through with the must-have win at Dover–and having an absolute dominant race car for the last two weeks–the #4 team and Kevin Harvick will be riding high with momentum as they pull into Charlotte. Not to mention they will have a pretty large amount of confidence. The Contender Round of the Chase is no joke and being in a must-win situation at Talladega–the third and final event of this round–is something the #4 crew definitely does not want to be in. So I’m sticking with the hot hand and saying that Harvick goes out and wins the first race in the Contender Round before cruising into the third leg of the playoffs.
Typically with these posts I list a few drivers that have a possibility to win, but I just don’t see anyone else in Kevin Harvick’s lead heading into the Bank of America 500 race weekend. In addition to having dominant race cars at both Loudon and Dover (and possibly even Chicago), Harvick has won two of the last five points-paying races at Charlotte Motor Speedway–including this event one year ago–and has averaged a driver rating of 120.0 over that span. He has also finished 2nd in each of the last two All Star Races. Hands down, the #4 Chevrolet has been the best car at Charlotte over the last two-and-a-half years and that’s not suddenly going to change now. One driver that might give Harv a run for his money could be Joey Logano, who despite never having won at this track has the best average finish among active drivers (10.2). Matt Kenseth probably deserves to be in the conversation as well, but as I type this my mind is set on Harvick winning.
Kansas 2 Preview
Chasers most likely to win: Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano
This will be the second race of the 2015 season at Kansas Speedway, and the first one saw Jimmie Johnson go to victory lane. As I mentioned before, he could make things very interesting for the Chase field in this round. Another win at Kansas would definitely shake things up a bit, and there’s no reason to count the #48 team out of this race consider Jimmie has won three times at this venue. Kansas is your typical cookie cutter race track, and it should be noted that when we raced here back in May it was a Saturday night race. This time around, the Hollywood Casino 400 will be ran in the middle of the afternoon.
As far as contenders to win in the second Kansas race, you have to immediately think of Kevin Harvick once again. I don’t know about you, but after their dominating performance at Dover, I could definitely see this #4 team rattling off a couple victories in a row now. Winnings helps many things, remember that. Also, it’s hard to bet against the best driver at Kansas. Over the last four Sprint Cup races at this track, Harvick has finished 1st or 2nd three times and has led a total of 371 laps. No other driver even comes close to that amount. Kevin has also averaged a driver rating of 130.0 over those four races, which is pretty damn impressive at an intermediate track like this.
Another driver you should have on your radar for the Hollywood Casino 400 is Joey Logano. His career average finish of 18.6 at Kansas is going to scare a few fantasy racers away, but you should know by now that NASCAR is a sport that thrives on “what have you done for me lately?” To answer that question, let’s look at the last four events at Kansas Speedway. I mentioned earlier how good Kevin Harvick has been at this track over that span, but Joey Logano has been right there with him. Logano has started and finished inside the top 5 in all four of those races and led a total of 247 laps. He’s the defending winner of the fall event at Kansas (meaning he won this Chase race in 2014) and Joey was the pole winner for the spring race here this season. The #22 Ford will be a surefire top 5 pick for the Hollywood Casino 400 and should be mentioned as a potential race winner as well.
Talladega 2 Preview
Chasers most likely to win: Anyone, really…but Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has the advantage
Talladega is going to be the huge wildcard race in this round of the Chase, although I really think that people get too hyped up about this event. Yeah, restrictor plate tracks are totally unpredictable, but it seems like the Talladega Chase race is always super calm. Also, thus far in 2015, the plate races have actually been a little predictable, as the best drivers on these huge tracks have usually finished up front. Which brings us to the Chaser that has the best shot at winning this year’s CampingWorld.com 500…
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is simply the best when it comes to restrictor plate racing, and he has some of the best equipment in the series to back him up. That is a bad combination for the competition. Looking at the plate races we’ve ran thus far in 2015, Junior finished 3rd in the season-opening Daytona 500, won the race here at Talladega in May, and then won the second event at Daytona in July as well. Not too shabby. Whenever a race team is doing this well on a particular track type for an entire season, it’s usually not very wise to bet against them, and I wouldn’t recommend doing so here.
Looking at other drivers that have performed well on the restrictor plate tracks in 2015…Denny Hamlin has ended up top 10 in all three, including top 5s at both Daytona races. Kevin Harvick has those same statistics on the plate tracks as well. Martin Truex, Jr. finished 8th in the season-opening Daytona 500 and then came home 5th in the first Talladega race, so if you’re looking for a sleeper pick the #78 Chevrolet might be an option. Finally, Jeff Gordon won the pole for the Daytona 500 and the first Talladega race, so you know this team has speed in their restrictor plate package. The only race he actually had a good finish, though, was the second Daytona race, where Gordon ended up 6th.
So, who will be eliminated after the Contender Round?
To make it to the Eliminator Round without a win, a driver is going to need great runs at both Charlotte and Kansas and then at least a decent run at Talladega. As I said earlier, anything can happen at ‘Dega, so it’s hard to say who might win there. But I feel like the historical data from Charlotte and Kansas that we have now, along with how teams have ran at similar tracks in 2015, can give us a clear indication of who is going to be on the hot seat heading into the third race of the second round of the playoffs.
The first cut of the Contender Round that I have is Kurt Busch. This team just hasn’t been that great since the calendar page turned to August, and you need to be great now that we’re down to 12 drivers remaining to duke it out for the championship. Heading into the first race of this round (Charlotte), Kurt has just three top 10s in the last nine Sprint Cup races. At Charlotte, Kurt did finish 10th here back in the Coca-Cola 600, but that’s his only top 10 in the last four points-paying races here. At Kansas, Kurt has just two top 10s in his last eight starts, and he has just one top 10 in the last ten Talladega races. So, to me, this is an easy cut. Kurt Busch is done after the second round.
Next on my list of probable drivers that won’t make it past the second round is Jeff Gordon. Although many didn’t have faith in the #24 Chevrolet, I predicted that he would get past the first round, and he proved my guess right. However, now that we’re in the Contender Round, it’s going to take more than 10th- to 12th-place finishes for Gordon to advance, and I just don’t see the #24 team being capable of that. Gordon finished 15th in this year’s Coca-Cola 600 and just hasn’t been super fast on the intermediate tracks as a whole in 2015. The good news is that Gordon has three top 5s in the last four Kansas races, but one top 5 in this round isn’t going to save you. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, the #24 Chevrolet has been fast on the restrictor plate tracks this year, but Gordon hasn’t been able to finish. For whatever reason, that doesn’t seem to change over the course of a season at places like Daytona and Talladega. Next!
This is where it started to get tricky, and this is going to be somewhat of a surprise elimination pick for the second round: Kyle Busch. I guess it’s time to prove me wrong, Rowdy. The knock on Busch his entire career is that he isn’t clutch. When you add that characteristic with the fact that he has a bad temper when things start going even remotely wrong, you don’t have a very reliable pick to make it to the next round of the Chase. Looking at track statistics, Rowdy is pretty good at Charlotte and should run top 10 with a decent chance at pulling off a top 5. At Kansas, however, the story is completely different. This track is Kyle Busch’s achilles. In 15 career starts at Kansas, he has just one top 5, which is part of just three top 10s. His career average finish there is 21.4. The good news for Rowdy fans is that that lone top 5 came in this October race one year ago. I still don’t trust Kyle, though. At Talladega, Busch has five finishes outside of the top 20 in the last nine races. So I’m axing both Busch brothers at the same time in this year’s Chase…ouch.
My final cut of the Contender Round is Martin Truex, Jr. Yeah, I predicted that he would be done after the first round, but an 11th-place run at Dover gave him enough to get into this year’s second round of NASCAR’s playoffs. But like I said before, 10th to 12th-place runs aren’t going to be enough as we get deeper into this Chase, and it sure seems like that’s all that this #78 team is capable of right now. Truex ran 5th in this year’s Coca-Cola 600 (and probably had the best car), but this is a different team now that they were back in May. The same goes for his 9th-place run at Kansas, where Truex led a race-high 95 laps. The good news is that he has three top 10s in the last five Talladega races, but who knows how that race is going to play out. Also, I don’t trust Truex to come through in a clutch situation like that, simply because he hasn’t really had that much pressure before.
The three drivers I had on the bubble of being eliminated in the second round of this Chase were Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, and Ryan Newman. So let’s just go down the line here.
Denny Hamlin is a constant top 10 threat at Charlotte, and although he has never won there in 20 career starts, he’s one of the most consistent drivers at that track and owns the 5th-best average finish among active drivers (13.2). Going into the Bank of America 500 race weekend, I see the #11 Toyota as a top 5 threat. Now, the Kansas race is going to say a lot about this #11 team, as Denny hasn’t had a top 5 finish there since his win back in 2012. He finished 7th in last year’s fall race at Kansas. Finally, in terms of Talladega, Hamlin has been one of the strongest restrictor plate racers this season, and although nothing is guaranteed at those venues, I’ll take the #11 over many other drivers in a “hot seat” situation. My main concern with Denny is Kansas, but he won at Chicago so I guess it’s not all that crazy to think he might turn things around there.
I probably over-reacted a bit by putting Brad Keselowski on the bubble here but he had less than stellar runs at both Loudon and Dover so it’s hard not to. Looking at the three races in this round, BK has won at Charlotte and should be at least a top 10 threat in the Bank of America 500. At Kansas, Keselowski also has one victory and he finished 7th in this year’s spring event at the track. Also, Penske has been very fast at the intermediate race track so it’s probably good for Brad and Joey that we’re hitting two of them this round. At Talladega, BK has won three times, including a victory in last year’s Chase race to get him to the Eliminator Round. I know Brad doesn’t want to be in that position again, and I don’t think he will this time around–although it might be close.
Finally, Ryan Newman is one of the drivers that most people are going to have eliminated after the Contender Round, but I don’t think that will happen. This guy just has a knack for doing exactly enough and he’s super calm and focused when doing so. What you need to advance in NASCAR’s playoffs if you can’t challenge for wins is confidence and calmness, and Ryan Newman has that. At Charlotte, “The Rocketman” has finished 8th or better in four of the last five points-paying races, and Newman has ended up 11th or better in each of the last three Kansas races. As far as Talladega goes, it’s easy to put Newman in the “avoid” category when making your fantasy picks, but he’s actually turned things around at these restrictor plate tracks lately–to the tune of four top 10s in the last six Talladega races. I could go either way with the #31 but I think Newman is going to squeak by once again in the Contender Round.
There you have it.
Pretty much everyone’s “brackets” were busted when Jimmie Johnson failed to advance in the first round of this year’s playoffs, but I don’t think we’re going to have any craziness go on in the second group of races. Obviously you can’t predict mechanical issues or the Talladega race, but Charlotte and Kansas should be pretty straightforward.
Who’s your surprise pick to be eliminated in the second round? Leave your answer (and any feedback) in the comments section below!