The Biggest Challenge Each 2014 Chase Driver Must Overcome to Win the Title

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistOctober 24, 2014

The Biggest Challenge Each 2014 Chase Driver Must Overcome to Win the Title

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    The pressure really ratchets up on the eight remaining drivers in the Elimination Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, including sentimental favorite Jeff Gordon.
    The pressure really ratchets up on the eight remaining drivers in the Elimination Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, including sentimental favorite Jeff Gordon.Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    Borrowing a well-worn line from Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s 1970s hit, when it comes to the remainder of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

    Eight remaining Chase contenders will begin the penultimate Eliminator Round this Sunday at Martinsville (Virginia) Speedway.

    Each one of those drivers has to overcome specific challenges—for some, it may be past demons—if he hopes to be one of the final four drivers remaining in the winner-take-all season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway a little over three weeks from now.

    What the remaining drivers won’t have to worry about is Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola, AJ Allmendinger or Greg Biffle stealing their title hopes away. All eight of those drivers are already eliminated. But at the same time, they could still create havoc for the other eight drivers who are still left in the game.

    Let’s explore what’s in store.

Joey Logano: Overconfidence

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    Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

    Joey Logano has been arguably the biggest surprise of the Chase, if not the entire season.

    But something we’ve noticed over the last three or four weeks concerns us: While Logano is confident and chipper, his attitude in interviews seems a little bit overconfident, if not slightly arrogant.

    Joey, a bit of advice: There’s still four races left in the Chase. Anything can happen in that time. The charmed life you’ve led in the playoffs up to this point could come crashing down as early as Sunday at Martinsville.

    Another bit of advice, lad: Ratchet back slightly on the confidence. The last thing you want to do is have to eat your words.

Brad Keselowski: Learning from His Mistakes

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    We love the color and emotion Bad Brad Keselowski has brought to this year’s Chase. While we don’t condone what he did in his own personal demolition derby two weeks ago at Charlotte, the fact remains that there is probably no harder-driven driver in this year’s Chase than Kes.

    His biggest challenge is to learn from Charlotte and move forward. He can’t let something like that happen again and distract him from his task of winning the championship.

    He also has to let go of the 2012 versus 2013 business. Keselowski is doing everything he can to prove his championship in 2012 was not a fluke and that failing to defend his crown and not even making the Chase in 2013 was the real fluke.

    Let’s be frank: If Keselowski hadn’t won Sunday at Talladega, we wouldn’t be writing about him, because he would not have advanced to the Eliminator Round. He has to have the same mindset in the next three races—Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix—of being in a must-win situation (even if he isn’t at that particular time).

    If he can win one of the next three, he'll punch his ticket onward to the final four at Homestead. It’s that simple, Kes. Try not to make it more complicated than it is after you had to rally at ‘Dega to move forward.

Carl Edwards: Staying Focused

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    Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

    While there may be a few other dark horses in the remaining field of eight, Carl Edwards could ultimately be the darkest of dark horses.

    And that’s actually good.

    If Edwards can find a way to reach the final round of four, what better Hollywood script could be written than to have him win the championship in his final race for Roush Fenway Racing? (Edwards moves to Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2015 season.)

    Edwards came oh-so-close to winning the Sprint Cup crown in 2011. He actually tied for the title with Tony Stewart but fell short of toting home the championship trophy due to the first tiebreaker, which went to Stewart by virtue of having more wins (five to Edwards’ one).

    One thing that seemed to get Edwards’ goat during the run up to the final race at Homestead in 2011 was falling victim to—and seemingly being adversely affected by—Stewart’s trash talking leading up to the race.

    If Edwards finds himself still in contention at Homestead, he’ll have to either let trash talk from other drivers not get to him or become a bigger trash-talking machine himself.

    Frankly, next to Jeff Gordon’s “Drive For Five” effort (winning his fifth career Sprint Cup title and first since 2001), there might not be a better underdog story than Edwards’.

Kevin Harvick: Getting a Little Help from His Friends

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    Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

    The lone remaining representative for Stewart-Haas Racing, Kevin Harvick has not only been freaky fast this season, he also seems to be on the mission of his career.

    Since leaving Richard Childress Racing after last season, Harvick has been a picture of determination, motivation, confidence and drive to win it all for the first time in his career. Honestly, this might very well be the best chance for a championship that Harvick will ever have in a career that probably has only another six to eight years left, if that.

    Harvick’s biggest challenge will be to find a way to get his SHR teammates to rally around him and not worry about their own achievements and trying to finish the season as high as they can (despite the fact that Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch are all out of the championship running).

    Harvick also has to keep from getting down and especially angry, particularly if his pit crew makes a costly mistake. He can’t let that anger at the circumstance or the crew member who made the flub affect his driving for the remainder of that particular race—if it happens.

    Harvick has to quickly shake off and forget any errors by himself or his team and, to borrow a well-coined phrase, drive it like he stole it—then ride that hot ride all the way to the championship.

    If there ever was a time to live up to his nickname of "Happy Harvick," now is the time.

Matt Kenseth: Can He Win It All Without Winning One Race?

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    Matt Kenseth is the guy I like to call the “anti-champion.”

    When he won the 2003 and final Winston Cup championship, Kenseth did so without a ton of wins (he had just one), but rather with 10 tons of consistency. His lone win that season was part of the reason why NASCAR came up with the Chase format for the following season.

    Now, 11 years later, Kenseth finds himself in practically the same position. He has zero wins with four races left.

    His biggest challenge is whether he indeed can win the championship without even one win. It's not out of the realm of possibility, but at the same time, his quest for a second career Cup crown would likely be made easier if he does manage to grab a checkered flag, at least in the next three races leading up to the finale at Homestead.

    That's why Kenseth is putting so much focus on Sunday's first race in the Eliminator Round at Martinsville.

    “Honestly, if I was handed a menu before the season started, winning a race at Martinsville would be in my top two or three wishes for sure,” Kenseth said during Friday's weekly media availability at the racetrack.

    “So that would certainly be a career highlight. I haven’t been real close to winning here, except for last fall. We had a pretty good shot, we just had a little too long of a run to the end there and Jeff (Gordon) got by me. But certainly, that’s something I want to do.”

    While the practical side of me says Kenseth needs to win one of the next three races to make it to the Chase-deciding race in Homestead, one question keeps popping up in my mind: Does he really have to win a race to win the championship?

    Sure, a win would help, but in a format that is predicated on overall wins throughout the regular season, as well as wins in each of the first three playoff rounds, what would it mean to NASCAR if the first winner of its new-fangled Chase format turns out to be someone who doesn’t win a single race all season?

Ryan Newman: Staying Consistent

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    I could probably say almost the same exact thing about Ryan Newman as I did about Matt Kenseth.

    Like Kenseth, Newman is winless thus far in 2014. Also like Kenseth, Newman is proving that you don't have to win a race to advance in the Chase, due mainly to consistency. Newman's biggest challenge, like Kenseth's, is to continue the dance with the partner he brought with him. In other words, don't go crazy, don't try for an extra position in a race if it's potentially risky and if he can't win, go for as high of a finish as he can.

    Again, it's consistency, consistency, consistency.

    Newman is also the only championship hope for Richard Childress Racing. In a strange twist, if Newman were to win the title this year, he’d be doing so by beating the guy he replaced at RCR, a guy who left RCR to win the championship that eluded him there for the previous 13 years.

    Namely, Kevin Harvick.

    And given that Newman was forced out of Stewart-Haas Racing to make room for Kurt Busch, who was eliminated after the first round of this year’s Chase, what better way for Newman to extract revenge than to win it all—and potentially do so without winning a single race.

    Boy, wouldn’t that be a kick in the pants to SHR and to NASCAR.

    All Newman has to do is keep to the game plan that got him this far, stay as consistent as possible and try to stay out of trouble (most definitely), and he has as good a shot as anybody to win it all at Homestead.

Denny Hamlin: Avoiding Another Meltdown

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    Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

    Oh boy, where do I start?

    Denny Hamlin is one of two remaining Joe Gibbs Racing drivers remaining in the Chase (Kyle Busch was eliminated this past Sunday at Talladega). 

    The biggest challenge Hamlin faces isn’t the other seven Cup drivers still in the Chase. Nor is it the upcoming tracks. Frankly, Hamlin’s biggest challenge is himself.

    Remember 2010, when it appeared Hamlin was going to pull an upset late in the season and prevent Johnson from winning a fifth straight Cup title? And do you also remember what happened in the second-to-last race of the Chase at Phoenix, when Hamlin essentially imploded and fell apart?

    That meltdown of sorts prompted him to go so far as to see at least one sports psychologist to try and figure out what caused him to come apart. 

    Was it stress and pressure? Was he looking too far ahead when he should have been looking up close?

    Whatever the reason, Hamlin has to do only one thing: He must not beat himself while beating everybody else. And maybe that’s what it’ll take for him to win the championship.

Jeff Gordon: Being Hendrick's Only Hope

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    Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

    We saved the best and most sentimental favorite for last.

    Jeff Gordon has been saying all season long how important his Drive For Five is to him.

    If he can win at Martinsville on Sunday, a track at which he’s already won eight times in his career, he almost immediately becomes the odds-on favorite to win the championship this year. Even if he fails at Martinsville but reaches Victory Lane at Texas or Phoenix, he still is the man to beat going into Homestead.

    There’s some added pressure on Gordon heading into the Eliminator Round, as his Hendrick Motorsports teammates will not join him in the penultimate round of the Chase, with all three being eliminated at Talladega.

    That’s certainly a big challenge, to be carrying the fate of the whole organization on your shoulders.

    But at the same time, Gordon’s teammates can also help him immensely by serving as a three-man wrecking crew (OK, bad choice of words) that can block his opponents and let him sail toward the checkered flag.

    Frankly, with Gordon’s savviness, his experience, the uncanny determination he’s shown this season and him having the chance to do what a few seasons ago he probably thought he could never do again, Gordon continues to be the guy I picked originally to win the championship.

    Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

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