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Four Things Learned From the Challenger Round

Four Things Learned From the Challenger Round

by September 30, 2014 0 comments

Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

DOVER, Del. — Three races down, seven to go.

With the Challenger Round concluding at Dover International Speedway on Sunday with the AAA 400, 12 of the 16 drivers initially entered for the Chase will advance to Kansas, Charlotte, and Talladega looking to advance to the Eliminator Round.

With three races and one full round down, here are four things that I feel are noteworthy that came out of the first round of the 2014 Chase.

#1. Team Penske are the Team to Beat — With two out of three races going to them in the Challenger Round, it’s quite clear that Team Penske are the top team on the Chase grid entering the Contender Round.

Both Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano were able to punch their tickets into the Challenger Round early with their respective wins at Chicagoland and Loudon and both were also able to run well in the top-four at Dover.

While Hendrick Motorsports were able to grab a win at Dover with Jeff Gordon, overall, the team as a whole has not been able to keep pace with the Penske duo. Over the last three races, Gordon has an average finish of 9.6, Jimmie Johnson an average of 6.6, Dale Earnhardt Jr. an average of 12.3, and Kasey Kahne an average of 18.6.

In comparison, Keselowski has an average of 3.3 and Logano possesses an average of 3.0.

While the regular season being what appeared to be an even match between the Penske and Hendrick factions, the first round of the Chase has clearly belonged to Team Penske.

With a majority of the remaining schedule taking place on mile-and-a-half tracks (like Chicagoland) and with Phoenix being a mile-long track (like Loudon), Penske are sitting in the catbird seat for the rest of the Chase.

#2. Stewart-Haas Still Need to Pick it Up — Down to their last of two bullets in the Chase, Stewart-Haas Racing are going to need to step up their game with Kevin Harvick if they are to contend for their second title.

If it’s not pit issues one week, it’s mechanical issues for the No. 4 team. An opportunity for Harvick to win his first race in Darlington went up in smoke at Dover as he would suffer a cut left front tire while leading with less than 150 laps to go in the AAA 400. The driver of the No. 4 Budweiser Chevrolet would be unable to fully recover after his tire issue and would thus be relegated to a 13th-place finish.

With winning still being emphasized in the first three rounds of the Chase before Homestead to automatically lock oneself into the next round, Harvick is going to need to grab a victory in order to secure his advancement to the championship round.

If Harvick is to have further reliability issues (whether they be with the crew or whether they be mechanical in nature) at either Kansas or Charlotte and then run into even more trouble at Talladega, Stewart-Haas Racing will very likely be 0-for-2 with their drivers in this year’s Chase. If there was any time for SHR to ramp up their effort – it’d be right now.

#3. Races 1-and-2 Most Vital — If you take a look at who was eliminated after the AAA 400, you’ll notice that three of the four drivers eliminated were already in the bottom-four of the standings entering Dover. A.J. Allmendinger would be the only driver from within the top-12 to be eliminated from the Chase.

Aric Almirola would put himself in a hole early at Chicagoland with a blown motor while Kurt Busch would have his share of issues at Loudon. Greg Biffle would be put in his 14th-place position entering Dover after two mediocre finish at both Chicagoland and Dover.

Several drivers who were able to have strong runs in both races would easily manage to hold on to their Chase spots despite having some issues at Dover. Earnhardt Jr. would have a rather pedestrian day but would be safe due to being in the Chase by 28 points entering Dover; Harvick would also never find himself in jeopardy of dropping out of the top-12 after his tire issue midway through the race.

For the Contender Round, a hot start at Kansas and Charlotte will be especially vital ahead of the final race of the round at Talladega. With the unpredictable nature of Talladega, two strong runs at the intermediate tracks will be imperative to advancing to the Eliminator Round as drivers will need a large enough safety cushion in case trouble occurs at the final race of the round.

#4. New Format is Not as Unpredictable as Expected – If you think about it, the first round of the new Chase format didn’t yield any real surprises at all – Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports were still the two best teams, Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing were able to hang around near the top of the standings, and the four drivers to be eliminated after Dover were all considered long shots for the championship.

Through three races under the new format, there have been new real comers and no real goers as for the most part, the teams have been running as well as they were during the regular season.

With Talladega on the schedule for the Contender Round, we could see a much less predictable round this time around. For the rounds leading up to Talladega, however, we’ll likely get more of the same performances that we witnessed from Chicagoland through Dover.

Kyle Pokrefky
Follow Kyle Pokrefky on Twitter at @KPokrefky

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