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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.