This still has the potential to be one of the wildest Chase finishes ever.
Three down, seven to go.
The 2013 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup already has offered us unexpected twists and uncharted turns, despite the fact that these race cars always are turning left on race days (remember, there are no road courses in the Chase, but we'll get to that later, too).
Current Chase points leader Matt Kenseth took early control by winning the first two post-season races at Chicagoland and New Hampshire, respectively, but Jimmie Johnson followed that by winning at Dover to remind everyone why he's a five-time Cup champ. Johnson is second in the standings after the first three events in the 10-race Chase, a scant eight points behind Kenseth.
Meanwhile, Kyle Busch lurks in third, just 12 points behind Kenseth and only four behind Johnson after finishing second in each of the first two Chase races and a solid fifth at Dover.
Those are lots of numbers to digest, but all they've really led to are 10 burning questions with seven races remaining in this Chase.
Joey Logano's high Chase hopes faded fast.
Whatever happened to Joey Logano?
Leading right up to the Chase, Logano appeared to be one of the hottest drivers in Sprint Cup. Even when he stumbled to a 22nd-place finish in the final regular-season race at Richmond, jeopardizing his place in the Chase, it seemed an aberration when he followed by winning the pole for the Chase opener at Chicagoland.
Then disaster struck in the form of engine trouble. After leading 32 laps early in the Chicagoland race, he was forced to the garage for good after Lap 175 of the 267-lap, rain-delayed event, relegating his No. 22 Penske Racing Ford to a 37th-place finish. A 37th-place finish is a killer for any championship contender.
At least Logano is not giving up. Even though he's a distant 12th in the points now, with no chance of winning his first Cup title, he ran strong at Dover, finishing third in the Cup race after winning the Nationwide event at the Monster Mile.
He got booted out of the Chase, creating questions about his future.
What's up with Martin Truex Jr.?
Wait. He's not in this Chase, right? Well, not now—not after getting booted from the original Chase field following massive penalties levied by NASCAR on Michael Waltrip Racing for driver Clint Bowyer's alleged intentional spin late in the Richmond race. Bowyer ostensibly staged the spin for Truex's benefit in an attempt to bring out a caution that initially aided the Chase berth chances of young Martin.
It all backfired with 48 hours, when NASCAR booted Truex from the Chase in favor of Ryan Newman as part of the penalties unloaded on MWR for Bowyer's alleged transgression (in addition to GM Ty Norris ordering a third MWR car to pit unnecessarily to also gain Truex a valuable point).
Now Truex, who did nothing wrong in any of this, has had his once-secure future thrust into limbo. His primary sponsor, NAPA Auto Parts, has pulled out of the last two years of its deal with MWR. Team owner Michael Waltrip is trying to piece together another sponsorship deal for Truex in 2014, but has given the driver permission to shop himself around.
If Truex can take NAPA with him, he might come out of this OK—perhaps at Richard Childress Racing or even as a last minute fourth team addition at Joe Gibbs Racing. If he can't, he's destined for a 2014 that likely will have him behind the wheel in a lesser-funded car either at MWR or at the single-car Furniture Row Racing operation.
Carl Edwards led the points after 26 races, but received nothing for it.
Where was the love for Carl Edwards when he led the point standings at the end of the 26-race regular season?
Granted, it could be argued that Edwards' victory from seemingly nowhere in the final regular-season race at Richmond was tainted. Television replays clearly showed that he jumped the final restart according to the NASCAR restart rules at the time (in true NASCAR fashion, they were changed before the following week's Chase-opening race at Chicagoland).
Nonetheless, Edwards won the race and the victory stood—giving him for a few brief moments the Sprint Cup points lead before they were reset for the Chase and he was dropped to the No. 5 seed.
The real point is this: should the leader of the Cup point standings at the end of the rigorous regular season receive a little something for that honor? The answer is a resounding yes.
Give him three bonus points for the Chase, a check for $500,000 or the Dale Earnhardt Trophy signifying he was the regular-season points leader. Better yet, give him all three. It would add another interesting subplot to the final regular season free-for-all at Richmond, and more importantly, the guy leading the points after 26 races deserves something more than a 26-second pat on the back for his trouble.
Infineon Raceway is one of just two road courses on the Sprint Cup circuit.
Where's the road course?
This is an old argument, of course, but it never gets tired. Why run two road-course races during the regular season, but none during the 10-race Chase that determines a season's champion?
That makes no sense, of course, but NASCAR consistently refuses to see the logic of adding one road-course event in the Chase. They could have current Cup road courses at Sonoma and Watkins Glen rotate each year or try a number of other seemingly viable options: Mid-Ohio, Road Course America, Iowa Speedway, to name just three.
And it should be in addition to, and not instead of, one of the road course races already on the schedule. Two during the regular season is perfect, but having none in the Chase obviously is lacking if the goal is to truly determine the top all-around driver on the Sprint Cup circuit.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finishes second at Dover, giving hope to Junior Nation.
Is Dale Earnhardt Jr. poised to win one of the final seven Chase races?
His strong, if slightly flawed, second-place finish behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson at Dover has Junior Nation fans buzzing. It seems his No. 88 Chevrolet team is peaking—albeit a little late since a slow start in the Chase already has him mired 10th in the points, well out of the 2013 championship hunt.
One respected NASCAR source even suggested Earnhardt might be poised to win "multiple races before this Chase is over."
But why? Why should he be expected to win multiple races in this Chase when he hasn't won a single Chase race since 2004—the very first year of NASCAR's current post-season format? How is he going to win two of the last seven races of this season when he's won only two in the last seven YEARS?
It was a nice run at Dover, folks. And he might have another top-five finish or two left in the 2013 tank. But winning? Anything can and might happen at Talladega, but the real championship contenders likely will prevent him from getting to Victory Lane there or anywhere else no matter how strong he runs.
Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman are making the most of their second chances.
What about late Chase additions Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman?
These second-chancers have made their presence felt in the Chase. While neither is going to win the championship, Gordon has ascended to fifth in the point standings after three races and Newman is a respectable seventh.
Following Bowyer's controversial and allegedly deliberate spin late in the final regular-season race at Richmond, both Gordon and Newman initially were left out of the original 12-driver Chase field.
Newman was added first, as Truex Jr. was removed per NASCAR's penalties levied against Michael Waltrip Racing. Gordon became the unprecedented 13th Chase driver a few days later as NASCAR continued to try to figure out what was fair in the aftermath of SpinGate.
Both have proven they belonged in the Chase all along.
Bristol at night early in the Chase could be special.
Where the heck is Bristol Motor Speedway when it comes to the Chase?
Now that the spring race at NASCAR's greatest short track has become almost a non-event because of lame crowds, why not shake up the schedule a little? That date could perhaps be swapped to late July or early August and the traditional August night race at Bristol could be moved a few weeks back into the Chase. Martinsville Speedway is another great short track, but should it be permitted to hog the lone short track spot on the Chase schedule every year?
In a perfect world, which doesn't exist and never will (in general for the world, but especially in NASCAR), the Chase would include both Bristol and Martinsville and some of the 1.5-mile tracks currently on the schedule would be bumped either into the regular season, or better yet, at least in some cases, off into oblivion.
But at the very least, NASCAR should consider rotating a Bristol night race early into the Chase schedule every other year on a date before it gets too cool in the Tennessee foothills. It could make for a spectacular evening and build momentum for the rest of the Chase to come.
Daytona as the beginning and the end to the Sprint Cup season? Why not?
While we're at it tweaking the schedule, why not really shake it up?
Traditions come and traditions go. The night race over July 4 weekend at Daytona International Speedway is nothing like when NASCAR's top series used to run at 11 a.m. on the Fourth of July and then retire to the beach for the rest of the afternoon as a collective group, carrying on like Elvis and his throng of admirers in one of his beach movies.
So why not think about moving Talladega's Chase race to the July 4 weekend and move Daytona's current July race to the last race of the Chase? That's right. Begin AND end the season on NASCAR's most iconic track.
Too crazy? Why possibly stage the outcome of a championship at a superspeedway that admittedly can be a crapshoot? Because it would be exciting. Attendance and television ratings would far exceed what is being pulled now at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which is the wrong Florida track on which the season's final race should be hosted.
After only three Chase races, is a really down to these three guys?
After only three post-season events, is the Chase really already down to a three-man show?
Afraid so. While it can be argued that Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon are "only" 39 points back, that's nearly an entire race's worth of points, and Gordon, who has not won a race all year, likely would have to win something like four or five out of the last seven to have any chance at all. Even Harvick, who has two race wins on the season, most likely would have to win two or three of the final seven to have any shot.
On top of those highly unlikely scenarios, it still might not be enough unless all three of the stout drivers in front of them in the standings—Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch—stumble badly in one or more races while Gordon and Harvick encounter no stumbles at all. One of those drivers out in front might falter, maybe. But all three? No way.
The only consolation/fear for all of the above is that everyone still has to race at Talladega, where no one can be sure of what will happen.
Jimmie Johnson won at Dover and has momentum heading forward to tracks he likes.
So, when it's all said and done for 2013, who will take home the championship trophy?
Sorry, 48 haters (there are more than a few). But Five Time looks poised to become Six Time very soon, which will make Jimmie Johnson, his own legion of fans, his sponsors and team owner Rick Hendrick of Hendrick Motorsports very pleased.
Johnson rolled to victory in the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway and sits second with eight points fewer than Matt Kenseth in the point standings with seven races remaining.
Johnson has won a total of 24 times and has an overall average finish of 10.4 in his career at the seven tracks left on Chase schedule. That compares favorably to the career numbers at those venues for both Kenseth (nine wins, 15.1 average finish) and Busch (three wins, 18.4.)
History confirms that the 48 team simply is likely to make the fewest mistakes when it counts the most.
All quotes in this article were obtained first-hand by the writer unless otherwise attributed.
Follow Joe Menzer on Twitter @OneMenz