2014 Stock Watch for Drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Week 26 Edition
There is one race left before the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup field is set.
So with a nod to the fact that anything can and probably will happen this Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, who besides Kasey Kahne—the latest to drive himself into the Chase—is making a move in what has become a volatile NASCAR stock market?
"We have had kind of a downer year at times and then we started running good. .. It's kinda been one thing after another, but now we're in the Chase with my teammates," Kahne told the SportingNews.com after winning in Atlanta and securing a spot in NASCAR's playoffs alongside Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Based on not only victories compiled over the season's first 25 races, but momentum of late, current state of chemistry between drivers, crew chief and pit crews and what lies immediately ahead, see who's up, who's down and who's on hold as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Richmond.
Logano heads into Richmond as one of five drivers who are tied for the series lead in victories with three.
He has won this year on the 1.5-mile track at Texas Motor Speedway, which has a repeat race date in the Chase, as well as on the short tracks of Richmond and Bristol. He has been competitive everywhere, on all types of tracks, and his chemistry with crew chief Todd Gordon seems to be growing in strength every day.
Do not count Logano out in this Chase. Odds are that at least one of the Team Penske drivers (Brad Keselowski is the other) will make the Final Four and race for the title in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
The Cinderellas and the Busch Brothers
Remember the feel-good stories when underdogs Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger made the Chase by winning races—Almirola in July at Daytona and Allmendinger a month later on the road course at Watkins Glen?
Yes, they were great stories and it's super to have them in the Chase. But odds are that they will make up half of the first foursome out in the Chase Challenger round under the new format introduced by NASCAR last January.
And the other half? Don't be surprised if the drivers are related. Neither older brother Kurt Busch nor younger bro Kyle has displayed the kind of consistency or chemistry with their teams this year to last long once the 10-race Chase commences.
Verdict: Sell, sell, sell and sell
There have been many times this season when it seemed like the driver-crew chief combination of Kevin Harvick and Rodney Childers would be tough to beat once the Chase commences.
But then Harvick makes a pit stop in his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet, and pretty soon he's cussing and everyone else is shaking their heads, wondering how a team that makes so many pit-road mistakes can possibly keep pace in the Chase when every error will be magnified and that much more costly.
In what has been a recurring theme throughout this season, Harvick was upset at his pit crew again in Atlanta.
"We have some things we need to work on," Harvick told SportingNews.com. "Our cars are really fast and doing all the things we need to do, but we lost control every time we came to pit road tonight. I thought we had that a little bit better, but we just got absolutely murdered every time we came to pit road. We've known that all year and we need to fix it."
So Harvick has the speed in his car to win a title and a crew chief who seems to make the right calls. But the problems with his pit crew that have continued to persist prevent him from being one of the favorites heading into the Chase.
Even if he cannot avoid the type of calamity that befell him in Atlanta, where he finished 39th after getting involved in a crash with a lapped car, something tells us that he will do whatever it takes to keep advancing deep into the Chase.
Under the new format, one poor run can become moot if a driver gets to Victory Lane before the next three-race cutoff. Keselowski has a nose for Victory Lane when the chips are down. His crew chief, Paul Wolfe, has been communicating with him well during races and delivering the driver fast race cars.
He also has won three races this season, and as recently as two weeks ago finished second at Bristol. He's not on a roll—yet. But you get the feeling he might be on one very soon and at just the right time.
Carl Edwards and Jimmy Fennig
One lame duck is tough enough. Two is way too many.
Just weeks after driver Carl Edwards finally made it official that he's leaving the No. 99 Ford team and Roush Fenway Racing at the end of this season, crew chief Jimmy Fennig told Jay Pennell of FOXSports.com that this likely is his final season atop the team's pit box.
Sure, Edwards owns two race victories this season—against all odds, really. But one came on the short track at Bristol and the other on the road course at Sonoma. Neither track is on the Chase schedule and, like all the other drivers of the Roush Fenway Fords, Edwards has not run well this season on the 1.5-mile tracks that make up half of the Chase circuit.
Finally, despite the best efforts of Edwards and Fennig to act like it's business as usual down the home stretch of their time together, it won't be.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
It has been quite a farewell tour this season for Steve Letarte, the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. who announced before the season that he would be leaving the No. 88 team's pit box for the NBC broadcast booth beginning next year.
Earnhardt and Letarte have won three races together and have had a superb time doing it. They've been solid all year long, consistent even when they haven't been winning. And quite honestly, Earnhardt has displayed a level of determination and calmness in the car under all circumstances that often escaped him earlier in his career.
But when you look at the rest of the Chase field and how it is all likely to stack up, it still seems that Earnhardt might be right on the outside of the Final Four looking in when the series finally gets to Homestead for the season finale.
There is still some hope that he could contend until the end for his first Sprint Cup championship. Junior Nation, hang in there and unite (as if y'all haven't done enough of both already). Let's see what happens.
Gordon hasn't looked this spry since the day he married model Ingrid Vandebosch.
Seriously, he's winning races again, with three victories so far. And even when he's not winning, he's running well and leading laps. The chemistry he's currently displaying throughout race weekends with crew chief Alan Gustafson is reminiscent of when Gordon won three of his four championships with Ray Evernham as his crew chief earlier in his career.
Gordon was 27 years old when he won the last of his three titles with Evernham. Despite a balky back that had him contemplating possible retirement earlier in the year, Gordon, now 43, seems to have found the fountain of youth somewhere along the line this season and looks every bit the strong Chase contender.
This just isn't Matt Kenseth's year.
One season after recording a career-high seven victories and finishing runner-up to eventual champion Jimmie Johnson, Kenseth heads into the final regular-season race without a single win this season. He's run consistently well enough to secure a Chase spot by virtue of having the most points of all the drivers who have yet to win, but that's a distinction all the drivers in that position would like to shed, Kenseth included.
Much of it is not his fault. The engines being delivered to Joe Gibbs Racing by Toyota Racing Development have been down on horsepower all year long, putting all of the JGR drivers at a decided disadvantage every week.
Despite a pledge by TRD president and general manager David Wilson, via FOXSports.com that help is on the way in that department, it won't arrive in time to salvage Kenseth's disappointing season.
Put those stories of Kasey Kahne's lost 2014 season on hold. Perhaps he has just salvaged it.
Kahne's dramatic victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway last Sunday earned him a spot in the Chase field, and he's just the type of streaky driver to possibly get on a roll and do some damage once it commences. Kahne's longtime relationship with crew chief Kenny Francis has been tested this season, but they've stuck by each other and it paid huge dividends in Atlanta.
It was enough to make Kahne at least temporarily forget the rough road he has traveled most of this season—one in which he has scored only two other top-five finishes.
Will it be enough to turn his entire season around and make him a contender in the Chase? It's hard to say. But with the resources of Hendrick Motorsports behind him, he might be "Most Likely to Go on a Tear Like Tony Stewart Did in 2011."
That was the year when Stewart snuck into the Chase with zero wins but went on to win half of the 10 Chase race to claim his third championship.
Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus
Well, the Chase for the Sprint Cup is almost here.
Yes, the format has been altered, and there will be 16 participants this time, more than ever before.
But that doesn't mean the golden rule for the Chase has changed one iota. When it's Chase time, it's Chad's time, and when it's Chad's time, it's Jimmie's time too. That would be Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson, crew chief and driver, respectively, of the No. 48 Chevrolet fielded by Hendrick Motorsports.
Johnson gets the lion's share of the credit for the six championships they've won together, including last year's, and rightly so. But the always-intense Knaus seems to be able to turn up his laser-like focus just a hair more in the 10-race Chase, and he and Johnson feed off each other.
Don't bet against them. Not now. Not ever. And certainly not when the Chase is beckoning.
Thanks to a rather generous ruling by NASCAR, Tony Stewart could still race his way into the Chase by winning at Richmond.
But it's not likely to happen. Stewart raced in Atlanta last Sunday for the first time since sitting out three races in the aftermath of the terrible tragedy on Aug. 9, when the sprint car Stewart was driving in a non-NASCAR-sanctioned event on dirt in upstate New York struck and killed fellow racer Kevin Ward Jr., who was only 20 years old.
Some, such as Tom Jensen of FOXSports.com, rightly questioned NASCAR's announcement prior to Atlanta that Stewart would be permitted to possibly race his way into the Chase despite a rule that seemingly required drivers to routinely attempt to participate in all 26 regular-season races "except in rare instances."
Jensen wrote: "If you're a casual fan or just a sports fan in general, you might be scratching your head, wondering what in the bloody heck NASCAR is thinking, especially with the accident investigation not completed."
True enough. Either way, Stewart did not display pre-race or during the race at Atlanta the kind of usual focus required to make a Hail Mary-type winning run at Richmond.
Unless otherwise noted, all information was obtained firsthand.
Joe Menzer has written six books, including two about NASCAR, and now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.
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