Challenger Round Preview: Part 2by Kyle Pokrefky September 18, 2015 0 comments
Part two of The Fourth Turn’s Challenger Round preview, continued from Part 1.
BRAD KESELOWSKI: LOCK TO ADVANCE
The Challenger Round proved to be very kind to Brad Keselowski last year as the 2012 Sprint Cup champion kicked things off at Chicagoland Speedway with a win followed by a seventh at New Hampshire and a runner-up finish at Dover.
Flash forward to one year later, Keselowski may not have had as great of a regular season with a lone win at Auto Club Speedway, but his current string of nine straight top-10 finishes indicates that the driver of the No. 2 Ford should have no issues advancing into the Contender Round.
MARTIN TRUEX JR: QUESTIONABLE
Martin Truex Jr. may have been the story of the season leading up into the middle of the summer, however, a noticeable dip in the strength of the results being brought home by the Furniture Row Racing crew leave several big question marks to be answered regarding how the No. 78 team will perform in the Chase.
After turning in top-10s in 14 of the first 15 races of the season, the No. 78 team has an average finish of 20.81 in the 11 races held since. It’s unclear as to whether Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde will show up come Chase-time, and I can’t get quite make out as to what to expect out of the No. 78 crew in the Challenger Round.
DENNY HAMLIN: LIKELY TO ADVANCE
ACL injury and all, a sixth-place finish at a demanding Richmond International Raceway proved that Denny Hamlin can not be counted out in the Challenger Round.
Hamlin has the Joe Gibbs Racing horsepower that he needs in order to put in a strong effort at each of the three tracks that comprise the Chase’s opening round. With the quality of cars the JGR stable is putting out and the ability he showcased in Richmond to overcome the challenges that his knee injury gave the driver of the No. 11 Toyota. The only thing that could possibly derail a Contender Round berth is if Hamlin further aggravates the injury.
JAMIE MCMURRAY: UNLIKELY TO ADVANCE
Jamie McMurray has certainly been consistent throughout the regular season with only five finishes coming outside of the top-20, however, the results needed to advance in the playoffs could have the driver of the No. 1 car’s Challenger Round chances going either way.
McMurray’s chances to move on to the Contender Round in his first Chase appearance could come down to whether his competition has any issues out on the track. Throughout the regular season, McMurray has had a knack for avoiding trouble out on the race track – but, in the Chase, that just might not be enough.
JEFF GORDON: QUESTIONABLE
Leading up to what will be his final Chase, a relatively lackluster season compared to the rest of the Chase field has Jeff Gordon possibly in jeopardy of advancing to the Contender Round.
The speed has been there for the No. 24 bunch, but top-10 performances have been littered amongst multiple finishes outside of the top-15. Top-10s at Dover and New Hampshire earlier in the year should serve as a light of hope for members of ‘Gordon Nation (#Gordon24).’ While there have been said strong runs earlier in the year, it’s unclear as to just how well Gordon will perform in the Challenger Round.
RYAN NEWMAN: UNLIKELY TO ADVANCE
Advancing all the way to the Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway last year, you’d think Ryan Newman would be set to repeat the feat this year; after all, nobody expected him to even make it to the Eliminator Round in the first place.
A similar run to the one he made last year may not be in the cards this year as his average finish in the regular season is down compared to his figure from 2014 (12.5 in 2014 to 13.8 in 2015.) If he is to move on to the Contender Round this year, he may have to rely on other drivers falling out around him.
PAUL MENARD: UNLIKELY TO ADVANCE
Paul Menard has been consistent throughout the season, but, in terms of strong performances, those have been few and far between for the driver of the No. 27 Menards Chevrolet.
Menard has a mere two top-fives and four top-10s to his credit this year; and while his average finish is a total that is near the best of his career, an average finish of 16.7 likely won’t be enough to elevate a driver to the Contender Round.
CLINT BOWYER: QUESTIONABLE
In what will be Michael Waltrip Racing’s last hoorah, Clint Bowyer is sure to turn in a performance that’ll make his fans and his team proud; after all, to make the Chase with the team
While Bowyer has 11 top-10s, Michael Waltrip Racing has experienced quite the downturn in terms of performance this season. While Toyota ‘stablemates’ Joe Gibbs Racing are off to one of their best seasons in recent memory, Michael Waltrip Racing are still floundering with it having been over two years since the organization last went to victory lane.
As Kevin Harvick proved last year, wins will be essential to advancing to the next round (more importantly in the later rounds.) But, with 16 spots being whittled down to 12, there’s plenty of room for a winless berth into the Contender Round. With the downturn in pace out of MWR though, we’ll have to wait and see if Bowyer moves on.
Photo Credit: Sarah Crabill/NASCAR via Getty Images