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Challenger Round Preview: Part 1

Challenger Round Preview: Part 1

by September 16, 2015 0 comments

After 26 long race weekends, the Chase is finally here with Sunday’s MyAFibRisk.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway – the first of three round in the opening round of the Chase, the Challenger Round.

16 drivers are set to do battle at Chicagoland, New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway in a quest to claim one of 12 berths into the next round of the Chase, the Contender Round.

In part one of a two-part preview, I take a look at Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards’s chances to advance on to the next round.

Agree or disagree with my thoughts? Comment below!

JIMMIE JOHNSON: LOCK TO ADVANCE

Four wins prior to the midway point of the season place Jimmie Johnson at the head of the Chase field entering Chicagoland this weekend and despite some inconsistent form leading up to this point of the season, Johnson is a sure bet to advance onwards to the Contender Round.

Even though he enters the Chase coming off inconsistent results of 39th, 4th, 19th and 9th in the last four races, Chase time is where the pairing of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus excel. Even if the duo produce two mediocre results at Chicagoland and New Hampshire, expect a strong Dover run (and likely a win) to push the No. 48 team to the next round.

KYLE BUSCH: LOCK TO ADVANCE

Despite only starting in 15 races this season after suffering several leg injuries in Daytona in February, Kyle Busch quickly established himself as one of the hottest drivers of the year with four wins coming in his first nine starts of the season at Sonoma, Kentucky, New Hampshire and Indianapolis.

Busch has remained in exceptional form since his last race win – scoring five straight top-11 finishes. With consistency on his side and a favorable schedule making up the Challenger Round (Busch is a former winner at each of the tracks that make up the round), expect the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to safely lock up a spot in the Contender Round.

MATT KENSETH: LOCK TO ADVANCE

Slowly but surely, Matt Kenseth has established himself as a major player in this year’s championship battle. Two years removed from his strongest campaign in recent memory, Kenseth is enjoying a resurgence this season with wins coming at Bristol, Michigan, Pocono and most recently at Richmond – a strong improvement over last season’s winless campaign.

In terms of average finish, Kenseth is running roughly the same as he did across all of last year, however, with his team’s proven ability to win this season, it’d be no surprise to see the No. 20 Toyota return to victory lane at either Chicagoland, New Hampshire or Dover.

JOEY LOGANO: LOCK TO ADVANCE

Five top-seven finishes in the last five races has set up Joey Logano with plenty of momentum to smoothly advance to the Contender Round. Going winless for 20 races since his Daytona 500 win in February, Logano finally broke through into victory lane yet again at Watkins Glen and then followed that up with a win in Bristol’s night race in August.

His earlier performances this year at the D-shaped ovals (10th in Vegas, fifth at Kansas and second at Kentucky) and his respective results at New Hampshire and Dover (fourth and 11th) also suggest that Logano should breeze his way towards the next round – likely at or near the top of the standings.

KEVIN HARVICK: LOCK TO ADVANCE

I’d be interested in seeing the odds on Kevin Harvick, the most consistent driver of the 2015 regular season, not advancing out of the Challenger Round. With an average finish of 7.7 throughout the season, Harvick has been the most consistent driver of all through 26 races completed so far.

Unsurprisingly, Harvick had strong performances this year at New Hampshire, Dover and the D-shaped mile-and-a-halves with respective finishes of third and second coming at the two mile-long tracks and an average finish of 3.67 across the three races held on D-shaped mile-and-a-half thus far this year. While a win would automatically place Harvick into the the Contender Round, he has proven that he has enough consistency to complete the feat on points.

DALE EARNHARDT JR: LOCK TO ADVANCE

Hendrick Motorsports may be in a bit of a slump presently, but even with the competition accomplishing more in recent weeks, Dale Earnhardt Jr. should smoothly slide his way into the next round of the Chase. Earnhardt Jr. is currently on a roll of six straight top-11 finishes and has established a rhythm that’ll likely hold up heading into the next three races.

The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet hasn’t set the world on fire at Chicagoland, New Hampshire and Dover in his career, but, he proved last year that you don’t have to do that to advance onwards to the next round. Scoring an average finish of 12.33 across the three races last year, Earnhardt Jr. quietly advanced to the Contender Round – a method he’ll likely repeat in 2015.

KURT BUSCH: LIKELY TO ADVANCE

Kurt Busch’s run up to the Chase leaves me feeling a tad skeptical towards his chances to advance to the Contender Round. In the six races leading up to Chicagoland, Busch only recorded two top-10s with an average finish of 16.16 over the six-race stretch. While the No. 41 team is by far better than they were one year ago, the recent inconsistency is a cause for concern.

His results at New Hampshire, Dover, Kansas and Kentucky this year haven’t been terrible though and suggest that he should be able to string together enough solid runs to advance on points.

CARL EDWARDS: LIKELY TO ADVANCE

Compared to his performance at the start of the year, Carl Edwards has picked up the pace as of late and appears to be on his way towards a Contender Round berth in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Of the 16 drivers in this year’s Chase, Edwards is tied for the fourth-fewest top-10s to his name with a tally of nine, but his form over the last month shows that he should be considered a threat. Perhaps the most important statistic that should have Edwards fans excited is the fact that the driver of the No. 19 Toyota has spent a total of 94 laps in the lead over the last four races. This, coupled with his current run of six straight top-11s, points to a likely advance to the Contender Round.

Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images

Kyle Pokrefky
Follow Kyle Pokrefky on Twitter at @KPokrefky

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