Predicting the First 4 Drivers Who Will Be Eliminated from 2014 Sprint Cup Chase
For the first time in its 11-year history, this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup will have three elimination rounds through the course of the 10-race playoff.
Four drivers each will be eliminated after the third, sixth and ninth races, leaving four drivers to contend for the championship in a winner-take-all format in the season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in mid-November.
While this year's Chase field has been expanded from 12 to 16 drivers, the full playoff roster won't be complete until after next week's race at Richmond International Raceway.
Still, there's enough of a baseline already put down of who's in and who's still on the bubble that we can pick the first four drivers we likely expect to be eliminated after the third race of the Chase.
As with any sports playoff, there will be first-round surprises and potentially a Cinderella-type story that will come out of nowhere to advance to the second and potentially third and fourth rounds.
As the Chase sits right now, here's the four drivers we see as being the first cuts, along with a potential alternate in the event the field makeup changes in any way following this Sunday's race at Atlanta or next week's Chase cutoff at Richmond.
We'd like to say Kurt Busch would be a legitimate contender to finally earn the second Cup crown of his career.
But it won't happen this year.
Other than his win earlier this season at Martinsville, the elder Busch brother has had a less-than-inspiring year. In the first 24 races, he has the afore-mentioned win, and only five other top-five finishes.
Oh, and did we mention that Busch's average finish in the first 24 races this season is just slightly above 20th place (19.9 to be exact)?
Not exactly a stellar performance mark.
Granted, there has been some progress of late, with top-five finishes in two of his last three races. But even if he keeps that stretch going, it's going to be tough—if not downright impossible—for Busch to be one of the 12 drivers to advance after the first round.
Sure, he could pull off a surprise win in the first three races that would move him into the next round, but that's going to be a very tough order to fill.
Kyle Busch isn't having a much better year than big brother Kurt. In 24 starts, the younger Busch brother has just one win, six top-five and nine top-10 finishes.
But it's his recent record that, unless he turns things around in the final two Chase qualifiers, that makes Busch a first-round cut.
Consider this: In the last 10 races this season, starting with the mid-June race at Michigan, Busch has three runner-up finishes.
That's the good news.
But he also has finishes of 25th or worse in those other seven races, including showings of 42nd, 40th, 39th and 36th in his last four starts.
Plus, there's trouble in paradise with crew chief Dave Rogers, who after Bristol told his driver to "take your whiny little ass to the bus."
In addition, Busch has a history of tanking early in the Chase.
I've often said that KyBusch is a Sprint Cup champion waiting to happen. Unfortunately, we'll be saying that again in 2015 because he won't be getting that title in 2014, for sure.
Clint Bowyer has had a decent season thus far, with three top-five and 10 top-10 finishes.
But will that record be strong enough to get him into the Chase? Right now, Bowyer is 15th in the 16-driver Chase field. Greg Biffle is close behind in 16th and rookie Kyle Larson is lurking not far behind.
Even if Bowyer indeed makes the Chase, it's unlikely he gets past the first round unless he has some dramatic uptick in his performances and finishes.
As in wins.
Richmond is a good track for Bowyer. He's won there twice and has nine overall top-10s in 17 starts. If he can once again reach Victory Lane, it would be a great momentum boost heading into the Chase.
And where Bowyer goes from there will be up to him. Who knows, maybe he can be the Cinderella of all the lowest-ranked Chase drivers. But something tells us Bowyer won't get the glass slipper, no matter how hard he tries.
For now, call him Greg "Bubble" Biffle.
With two races left prior to the Chase, the 16th-ranked Biffle is in the most precarious position of any driver that is "in" the Chase for now.
If he has bad finishes at Atlanta and/or Richmond, Biffle could very easily find himself on the outside looking in once the final 16-driver field is set.
That's why instead of being offensive and go for the win, Biffle may be the only driver in Sprint Cup that has to play defense in these next two races just to assure he'll make the Chase.
In other word, the more he gambles and tries to go for a win, the less his chances become. It's better for him to go for a top-5 or maybe a top-10 finish than worry only about wins. Sure, a win will get him in the Chase, but if he gambles and things go south, not only will the gamble prove foolish, it'll leave him on the outside looking in.
That being said, if Biffle does make the Chase, and if he doesn't get any significant momentum coming out of Richmond and/or Atlanta, he's likely not to go very far as well in the first round.
(Alternate) Kyle Larson
Right now, Sprint Cup rookie Kyle Larson is on the outside looking in. In other words, he's not one of the 16 drivers that are currently in the running for the Chase.
While 12 drivers are locked in, four aren't, and that is Larson's best hope to make the Chase.
But that comes with a big string: He likely will have to win at either Atlanta or Richmond, or come up with outstanding top-5 results at both places and hope he can overtake Greg Biffle, and potentially Clint Bowyer.
Those are a lot of "ifs," for sure, but Larson is a momentum driver. If he can get the Big Mo going at Atlanta and carry it on into Richmond and beyond, he'll make the Chase.
But even if that happens, will that be enough to carry him through the first round of the Chase and advance to the second?
That's questionable, at best.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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