After seven races, the young NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is now well underway. The level of competition has proven to have been dramatically improved from a 2013 season in which NASCAR received much criticism for a lack of passing.
This year, there has been only one race which has had fewer passes for the top position compared to last year, and that race was Las Vegas with one less pass for the lead this year. Clearly, NASCAR's new aero package is working well. However, NASCAR wants parity, and they have that. But something is missing, and that is the reward for consistency - something that helped a driver win championships until this season.
Last season, there were seven winners throughout the first 10 races. However, it was not so much easier for a driver to dominate a race, but a car simply had a lot more speed at the front of the pack over racing for position which was a part of why there was a lack of passing.
Jeff Gordon, the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, currently leads the points standings. It is the first time that Gordon has been atop the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings since the 2009 Coca-Cola 600 - 174 races ago.
NASCAR plans on awarding victories once the Chase for the Sprint Cup starts in September. However, just for the sake of an argument - what the heck happens if Gordon has a giant points lead with limited finishes outside of the top-10, but he has no wins? He would make the Chase, yes, but he would be put back a drop because he wouldn't have any bonus points from wins.
Fortunately, NASCAR's new championship format will actually benefit Gordon, or any other driver that is high in points, if they were not to have any wins at the time of the Chase cutoff at Richmond.
What NASCAR has done is actually great for the sport. A playoff based system that is being compared to the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament, or several other major sport's playoff formats for that matter, has entered NASCAR. If a driver finishes very well (without winning) during the multiple elimination rounds - a driver can win the championship.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Gordon's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, would have edged out their partner in crime, Jimmie Johnson, last season if this new system were in place. NASCAR has aimed for awarding drivers for wins, and that they are doing, but consistency still plays a factor. However, as long as a driver such as Gordon continues to run up front, they will get a win.
Through the first seven races this season, Gordon has five top-10 finishes, and no finish worse than 13th at Auto Club Speedway. He is showing everyone that even though NASCAR wants drivers to have wins to get into the Chase, there will likely be a handful of slots open to drivers that do not have wins. Having the points lead, or being within the top-10 at Richmond without a win should lock a driver into the Chase.
By then, most of the top-10 in points should have wins. However, there will be a few exceptions to that such as in 2013 where Clint Bowyer, Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch and Gordon did not have any wins come Richmond, but were high enough in points to continue on - competing for the championship in NASCAR's version of the playoffs.
Gordon has been extremely close to winning a race this year. He finished runner-up to Joey Logano at Texas due to a risky move by his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, and has led 67 laps to begin the year. Although there is room for improvement (as there always is in any sport), Gordon is extremely close to scoring his 89th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win.
In 2010, he had already signed a four year contract to drive for Rick Hendrick starting in 2012. It was clear that Mr. Hendrick saw a star in the then 30 year old. Since joining Hendrick Motorsports last season, Kasey Kahne already has two wins, including the Coke 600, four poles and a fourth place appearance in the Chase. Sitting second in points as the series heads to Richmond; Kahne might just be Hendrick’s next big thing.
Kahne acquired himself a full time Cup ride in 2004 with Evernham Motorsports at the ripe young age of 24. Ten seasons, five teams and now 15 wins later, he is one of the favorites for the Sprint Cup Series Championship this season. Second in points behind teammate and 5-time Champion Jimmie Johnson, Kahne already has a win at Bristol this season on his record.
This season, along with his win at Bristol, Kahne has two second place finishes including the one this past weekend at Kansas Speedway. His average finish in 2013 is just outside the top 10 due to a 36th place finish in the Daytona 500. With five top-10 finishes, Kahne does not look like he will be slowing down any time soon.
In an interview he did back in 2010 about his eventual move to Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne was very optimistic.
"I have a comfort level with Mr. Hendrick, my future teammates and the culture of the organization," Kahne said. "For me, it's the right fit on every level, and I think it gives me a great chance to win races and compete for championships.”
Kahne seems to fit in really well with his teammates even if they have their differences on the track. He and Jeff Gordon share a side of the race shop back at Hendrick Motorsports headquarters and you often see Kahne and one of the other drivers talking on pit road before qualifying or the race. Hendrick Motorsports is such a strong organization with drivers and teams capable of winning multiple races in a season which puts Kahne on the right path to becoming the next Sprint Cup Series Champion.
They started off the season by taking home a win in the biggest race of the season. They followed that up with a second place finish in Phoenix and then a sixth place finish at Las Vegas. Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and the rest of the Lowes No. 48 team have already begun to prove that they are going to be the team to beat, and we are only heading into the fourth race of the season.
After barely missing out on his 6th championship last season, everyone in the racing industry knew that Johnson, Knaus and their crew were going to be fighting harder than ever to not let that happen again. With Johnson’s recent luck at Super Speedways, it was quite a shock to see him win the Daytona 500; his first with Crew Chief Knaus. He had the highest running average out on the track: 5.0. The only one who came close to that was pole sitter Danica Patrick. After a disappointing end in Homestead-Miami in 2012, it didn’t come as a surprise to see the No.48 team well ahead of everyone else in the new Gen.6 car.
During Daytona Winter Testing and even Speedweeks, Johnson was the only car to NOT run in the draft. He had absolutely no drafting practice in the new car until he took to the track for the Duels (he wrecked out early in the Sprint Unlimited). Many drivers and fans thought he was foolish for not getting out there and testing the limits of the new car, but for Johnson, his reasoning was simple: he didn’t want to ruin a great racecar. This is why he and Knaus are 5-Time Champions.
Johnson went from a win in Daytona to a runner-up finish in Phoenix. He chased race winner Carl Edwards for the final 70 laps but just couldn’t close the deal. Johnson also partnered with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and drove the No. 5 Great Clips Chevy for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series race. It was his first Nationwide Series start since 2011. The reasoning behind this decision was simple: more track time. Since its reconfiguration, Johnson hasn’t performed as well as he would like to at Phoenix. He finished 12th in the Nationwide race and all of that extra track time ultimately paid off. Look for Johnson to make a run for the win when they return in November.
Las Vegas was no different. Although he didn’t finish in the top-5, Johnson still had an impressive showing in Sin City. Johnson led 66 laps during the Kobalt Tools 400 and looked like he might just take his Kobalt sponsored Chevy to Victory Lane once again. Johnson didn’t fall out of the top-5 until the closing laps of the race after a few late cautions caused him to fall just outside the top-5. Matt Kenseth went on to win followed closely by Hendrick teammate Kasey Kahne: Johnson finished 6th.
Can Jimmie Johnson’s top-10 streak continue at Bristol this weekend? It’s definitely possible, but not entirely likely. Bristol ranks in the bottom four tracks for Johnson in NASCAR’s driver rating system but he has performed well there lately. His last win was in 2010 and he has recorded a few top-10 finishes since. While Bristol might be a bit of a challenge for the No. 48 team, don’t look for Johnson to be slowing down at all. He is more than ready for that 6-pack of Championships and if his season ends anything like it’s starting, I can see him holding up that shiny Sprint Cup Series trophy in Homestead-Miami.