2014 Stock Watch for Drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase: Week 30 Edition
The Chase Challenger round is history. Bring on the Chase Contender round.
And while you're at it, take stock of the 12 drivers who are left in this 2014 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup as well as the four who just left it.
Jeff Gordon obviously is one whose stock is on the rise at just the right time. Seeking his fifth championship—but first in 13 years—Gordon rolled to his fourth victory of the season at Dover last Sunday. And afterward, he made it clear what it was all about and how important it was to his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team.
"It was about making a statement. I don't know how you make a bigger statement than what this team just did right there," Gordon said after the race, per Fox Sports.
Read on to see which other drivers' stock is on the rise, who's in a holding pattern and which ones need to be sold off as the Chase prepares to open the next round in this new elimination format this weekend at Kansas Speedway.
1st 4 Out
Goodbye, AJ Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch. It was nice knowin' ya in the 2014 Chase.
While the early exits of these four was no huge surprise, there were a couple times this season when it looked like Kurt Busch's No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing team might turn the corner—especially after he won early in the season at Martinsville Speedway, a short track where he had historically struggled. Alas, it was not to be.
Biffle simply never found the speed he needed in his No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford to stay alive in the Chase, while Allmendinger and Almirola were underdogs from the outset. Still, it pained Allmendinger to learn that he had narrowly missed advancing after finishing 23rd at Dover.
"We gave it everything we had," Allmendinger told Fox Sports after the race. "It just wasn't good enough."
Verdict: Sell (if you hadn't already)
Yes, again. Since winning a pair of races early in the season in dominant fashion (at Phoenix and at Darlington, where he led a combined 472 laps), Harvick has led 63 or more laps in a total of eight races without winning any of them. In seven of those he led 75 laps or more, and in five of those he led 100 laps or more.
This time, was it just bad luck or another of the pit-road mistakes that have plagued the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet team all season? Truthfully, it was a little of both. After leading 223 of the first 252 laps at Dover—or over half the race—he suffered a flat left-front tire that ultimately relegated him to a 13th-place finish, one lap down.
What caused the flat was a lug nut that had bounced off the chest of the tire changer during a stop and gone back down into the wheel-well hole. Later, as Harvick was motoring along under green, it came free and tore the valve stem off the tire, causing the flat.
"It's a freak issue," insisted crew chief Rodney Childers to Fox Sports. "Lug nut bounces off the chest of the changer and goes back in the hole. I don't know how you can fix that unless you have someone sit there and catch them."
Hey, maybe that's what it will take to get this freaky-fast car to start earning the finishes it and its driver seem to deserve. That would make them dangerous for the duration of the Chase, but they will have to break this feeling that they are cursed.
Johnson's third-place finish at Dover was his best since he won at Michigan in mid-June. But if you're doubting his ability to end up being included in the season finale, winner-takes-all race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, think again.
The average finish for the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team over the last seven races is 6.4, which should be good enough to get him there and give him a real chance at successfully defending last year's title while also tying Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for most career Cup championships with seven.
The only thing a little concerning about Johnson is the fact that he failed to lead a single lap at Dover for the first time since 2007, snapping a string of 14 consecutive races there where he had led at least one lap. In 10 of those races, in fact, he led 143 laps or more—and in seven of them he led 207 or more.
The point is this: Johnson hasn't led a single lap in any race for going on seven weeks now. That's very un-Johnson-like and not a great indicator that he's ready to make his usual serious run in the Chase. But it's also way too soon to count him out in this new Chase elimination format.
Next 4 Out
OK, so four drivers have been eliminated from the Chase. Who's next to get kicked off the island?
Logic says it will be Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards and either Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin. We're giving the edge to Hamlin here only because of the resolve he showed last week when he raced himself into the next round by qualifying third and finishing 12th at Dover.
Yes, Busch finished better with a 10th-place run there. But there is the sense that maybe Hamlin has had his one bad Chase race now, plus he likes the next three tracks up on the docket—Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega. So the edge between the two Joe Gibbs Racing drivers to advance goes to Hamlin.
As for Kahne, he and his No. 5 team just aren't clicking and haven't really for most of the season. And Newman has been a consistent top-10 finisher—but he'll need to ramp up into top-five territory if he wants to keep advancing, which isn't likely to happen.
Hamlin keeps telling everyone he likes the next three tracks, so we'll take him at his word. (Truthfully, his career records at all three are only OK, with one win apiece at Kansas and Talladega, none at Charlotte and the combined total of only 11 top-five finishes in 47 career starts at all three.)
But he really needs to look to just get strong finishes at the first two—Kansas and Charlotte—to set him up for Talladega, where he earned his only win of 2014 earlier this season. Of course, he could wreck out there; anyone can. But the feeling is that if he can get to that race inside the cutoff for advancement to the next round, he'll find a way to at least get whatever finish he needs to move on.
It was important for Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb to put together a fairly solid weekend at Dover—not only to advance, but to prove to themselves and the competition that there was no lingering hangover from the previous week when they exchanged harsh words over the team radio.
Let's see if they can hold it together and build some momentum over the next couple of weeks. It's doubtful but still possible.
Logano won the second Chase race at New Hampshire and still rates as one of the favorites to reach the final four at Homestead after finishing fourth in the other two Chase events at Chicagoland and Dover respectively.
In fact, Logano ranks as one of the favorites to win it all because he's finished outside of the top six in only one of the last 10 races, with two wins, two thirds, two fourths and an average finish of 4.7 over that stretch. Those are the kinds of numbers that win Chases—or at least used to under the old format.
Time will tell if this new format favors Logano (odds are that it will favor drivers with a little more experience). But he's bound to be there at the end battling for the title, and he deserves to be there.
The chemistry he currently has with crew chief Todd Gordon and even his Team Penske teammate and fellow Chase competitor, Brad Keselowski, will help him get to the end too, but then, at least as far as Keselowski is concerned, it will be every man for himself.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
What's happening with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team lately? It seems they've lost much of the momentum they spent all season building up.
Earnhardt hasn't finished better than ninth in the last six races—a clear indication that he needs to pick it up or he will be in danger of failing to make the next round of the Chase, let alone qualify as one of the final four drivers who gets to race for the championship at Homestead. In fact, he's led laps in only one race (for a total of just four laps) since winning his last race at Pocono in early August.
Those are not good signs for NASCAR's most popular driver. But again, Earnhardt wants to go out in memorable fashion in crew chief Steve Letarte's final year atop his pit box. And they've got time to pull a Chase run together.
They will have to be much better in this round, though, than they were in the last one if they are going to keep advancing.
It seems somewhere between suffering a tweak to his chronically sore back that had him admitting he might have to contemplate retirement soon and winning yet again at Dover last Sunday, Gordon discovered his own personal fountain of youth.
The back pain occurred in May and was bad enough to keep Gordon out of his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy for the final practice before the Coca-Cola 600—and it was the next week during the Sprint Cup circuit's first trip to Dover that he admitted retirement might have to be considered sooner rather than later, per Sporting News' Bob Pockrass.
All of that seems long forgotten now, and the latest Dover win, his first at that track since 2001, was his fourth of the season.
At this point, it will be shocking if Gordon isn't one of the last four drivers left going for the title at Homestead. Gordon has been making a habit of doing things this season he hasn't done since 2001—the year he won his fourth and last championship.
Maybe Matt Kenseth hasn't won a race yet this season, but this guy is sneaky good.
It's no secret that the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas have lacked the speed to match their counterparts from Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports this season, but somehow Kenseth has mustered just enough each week to keep himself on the edge of relevancy in the championship mix.
Now he's one of the last 12-men standing, and it's enough to get folks to start wondering if he might not ultimately prove to be NASCAR's worst nightmare under this new Chase elimination format where wins are supposed to mean everything.
In other words, can Kenseth run just well enough to keep advancing through the Chase—and then pull off the major upset by finishing ahead of all other Chase competitors at Homestead? Could he even win a title under this new format without ever winning a race?
It's not likely, but after a fifth-place run at Dover, Kenseth at least has some people wondering. That's good for him.
Based on the last six races—except for one aberration when he crashed out at Atlanta—Keselowski still rates as the odds-on favorite to win the 2014 championship in his No. 2 Team Penske Ford.
Aside from the poor 39th-place finish at Atlanta, Keselowski has over that stretch won two races and finished a strong second in two others. He's led 62 laps or more in four consecutive races and 46 or more in five of the last six.
Bottom line: Keselowski's communication and chemistry with crew chief Paul Wolfe may be better now than even in 2012, when he won his first championship. That's good news for him and bad news for the rest of the Chase field.
Unless otherwise noted all information obtained firsthand.
Joe Menzer has written six books, including two about NASCAR, and now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report while also covering NASCAR as a writer and editor for FoxSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.