Four Things Learned from the Contender Round

Four Things Learned from the Contender Round

by October 22, 2014 0 comments

Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images

With two rounds and six races down in the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup, four races remain with one major hurdle for the eight remaining Chasers’ title hopes remaining before Homestead – the Eliminator Round.

The road to Homestead includes stops at Martinsville Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, and Phoenix International Raceway for the eight drivers left in the Chase – Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, and Ryan Newman.

Coming out of the Contender Round, the Chase grid lost Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, and Kyle Busch – three Hendrick drivers and one Joe Gibbs Racing driver following Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

So, what did we learn out of the Contender Round? Here are four noteworthy points I took note of from Kansas, Charlotte, and Talladega.

#1. Perhaps this Chase isn’t as predictable as I thought – Exiting the Challenger Round, I didn’t pick up on many surprises to come out of the opening round of the new Chase format. Keselowski, Logano, and Gordon – all strong drivers from the regular season – each secured a win that granted them a berth into the Contender Round. Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, A.J. Allmendinger, and Aric Almirola – four drivers I didn’t project to go deep in the Chase – each found themselves bowing out after race three of the Chase at Dover. All in all, Chicagoland, New Hampshire, and Dover each combined to create a fairly predictable first round.

The Contender Round? Not so much.

Keselowski, Earnhardt Jr., and Johnson – all viewed as contenders for the title – found themselves in trouble after two lackluster runs each at Kansas and Charlotte, placing themselves in a hole entering Talladega. Ultimately, only Keselowski would move on from the Contender Round as he would clinch an Eliminator Round berth with his win in the GEICO 500 at Talladega on Sunday.

On the flip side of that, several names who weren’t expected to go as far in the Chase such as Newman, Hamlin, and Edwards were able to put in strong runs across all three races and would be at the top of the standings by the end of Talladega.

#2. The race winners, however, are still predictable – Through six races in this year’s Chase, four Chase drivers have taken race wins – Gordon, Harvick, Logano (twice), and Keselowski (twice.) In the regular season, each of these drivers were all multi-race winners. Two of the these three drivers, Harvick and Logano, also won at two of the tracks that appear in the Eliminator Round earlier in the year with Harvick winning at Phoenix and Logano at Texas – both drivers also finished in the top-seven at Martinsville earlier in the year.

If this trend is to hold up for the Eliminator Round, the true battle to keep your eyes on will be for the final two or the last ‘open’ spot for a non-winner of the round. As noted in point number one, with some surprising names having the strongest runs in the Contender Round, the battle for these open positions should make for some dramatic battles on the racetrack in the coming weeks.

#3. “If it bleeds, we can kill it” – I’ve always wanted to use that quote from Predator in an article, now I can say that I have – so I’ll go ahead and scratch that one off of my writing bucket list.

Entering the Chase, the two teams viewed as the top contenders for this year’s title were Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske. In the Challenger Round, all six teams from those two shops combined made it through to the next round. In the Challenger Round, only three of those six teams moved on. It’s not the number of ‘survivors’ alone that show that Hendrick and Penske are beatable in the Chase, it’s their overall performance in those final three rounds.

As mentioned earlier, Keselowski, Earnhardt Jr., and Johnson struggled as well as Kahne (although to a lesser degree) in the two races leading up to Talladega – Keselowski, Earnhardt Jr., and Johnson all needing a win to guarantee their spot in the next round. The race at Talladega itself nearly ended in heartbreak for Gordon, who came within four points of being eliminated themselves.

Both of the ‘A’ teams’ struggles in the Contender Round should give hope to the lone Richard Childress Racing, Roush-Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing teams and the two Joe Gibbs Racing teams. With some cracks in the armor for the Penske and Hendrick teams visible, the five non-Hendrick and non-Penske drivers left in the Chase should have some extra confidence heading into the next three races.

#4. Joe Gibbs Racing are starting to making some noise – Speaking of Joe Gibbs Racing, where in the world did they come from? While they lost Kyle Busch to the cutoff post-Talladega by four points, Hamlin and Kenseth were able to advance to the Eliminator Round – 21 and 22 points behind points leader Logano, respectively.

Joe Gibbs Racing (and Toyota as a manufacturer) have only claimed two points victories this season with no victories being recorded since May. In a Chase format where winning is stressed, the JGR unit have been able to show that consistency can still take a team places in this new playoff system. While wins will grant either driver a berth into the next round, three consecutive strong finishes should do the trick just as fine.

If both Hamlin and Kenseth can advance their way to the championship race, either driver would be a favorite to win the title as both are previous winners at Homestead. Hamlin has also consistently pointed to Homestead as the one race left on the schedule that he’s most confident he can win at.

Kyle Pokrefky
Follow Kyle Pokrefky on Twitter at @KPokrefky

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