2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Stock Watch: Week 34 Chase Edition
Despite being out of the 2014 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still making an impact that may help decide who wins it.
One week after being eliminated from the Chase at Talladega, where he had to win to stay in and didn't, Earnhardt won at Martinsville—a place where guys such as Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin who remain in the hunt for the 2014 title thought they could win to secure a spot in the final, winner-take-all season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
So as it turns out, in winning a Chase race after being eliminated from the Chase, Earnhardt actually proved that maybe winning isn't necessarily everything under this new format after all.
"I've never felt like you couldn't think about being consistent in this format," Gordon said via AutoWeek after finishing second to Earnhardt at Martinsville. "You still have to be consistent. Points can still get you through. Your goal is to either win the race or be the highest in the points."
Gordon now leads the Chase Eliminator Round standings heading into the final two races of the round at Texas and Phoenix, so his stock is up. See who else is on the rise and who may be headed for trouble as the season winds down.
In seven Chase races, Joey Logano’s average finish is 4.29, and at the three 1.5-mile tracks so far in the Chase, his average finish is 3.0. Throw in the fact that Logano won the first Texas race this year by passing Gordon on the last lap and you have to like his chances at this Sunday's race.
Another win at the 1.5-mile track and he's in the winner-take-all championship race in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But even if he doesn't win, he's likely to get a good finish—as he has in virtually every Chase race so far. His worst finish so far has been 11th at Talladega—and that was commendable after he took out half the infield grass at the restrictor-plate race midway through that race. He's finished in the top five in the other six Chase events, which is why many consider him the favorite to win it all.
Ryan Newman appears to possibly know something others in this Chase don't.
He hasn't won a race all season. His third-place finish at Martinsville tied for his best finish of the season (he also finished third at Kentucky) and was only his fourth top-five finish of the year.
Yet here he is, not only one of just eight drivers left vying for the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship but in great shape to be one of the four drivers left battling for the title at Homestead. After Martinsville, he trails leader Jeff Gordon by just three points in the Eliminator Round standings and needs only a couple of more decent finishes to advance to the Championship Four.
He finished 16th in the spring race at Texas, but he was seventh in the first race of the year at Phoenix. So he's not really a favorite, but you can't count him out of the championship hunt now, either.
Carl Edwards struggled to stay on the lead lap most of the day at Martinsville, which is sort of indicative of how much of his season has gone.
Then he got caught up in a six-car wreck on Lap 437 of the 500-lap race and ended up 20th. Now he's in sixth place, 20 points out of the lead in the Chase Eliminator standings and heading to a 1.5-mile track where he and all of the Roush Fenway Racing drivers have struggled all season to match the speed of the teams from Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing.
That's not a recipe for success.
Gordon was happy with finishing second at Martinsville, but knew he might have been able to place one spot better.
He blamed the fact that he didn't win on a pit-road speeding penalty on Lap 191, although he drove like a champion just to get back up to second and challenge race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, in the closing laps.
Since Earnhardt is no longer in the Chase, the second-place run left Gordon atop the Chase Eliminator standings heading to Texas, a track where he usually fares well. He feels the same way about Phoenix, so it's safe to say Gordon likes his chances of reaching Homestead with an opportunity to race for his fifth Cup title—first since 2001.
"I will say that it makes me feel a little bit better about finishing second that it was second to somebody that's not in the Chase," Gordon said via Fox Sports. "Had that been somebody in the Chase, it would have been hard to swallow."
Yes, Kevin Harvick is angry. Yes, he is in trouble, too.
He is both because fellow Chaser and supposed friend Matt Kenseth wrecked him on Lap 228 at Martinsville, ruining his day and relegating him to a 33rd-place finish. At the end of the day, it also left him in last in the Chase Eliminator standings—33 points out of first and 28 behind Kenseth, who is in the all-important fourth position.
It also led Harvick to make a post-race promise.
"He won't win this championship," Harvick told reporters of Kenseth via Fox Sports. "If we don't, he won't."
But don't count Harvick out just yet. He can still advance to the Championship Four by winning at either Texas or Phoenix, and he's been fast at every type of track this year. He's never won at Texas in his career, but he has five wins at Phoenix—including each of the last two and three of the last four races there.
Kenseth sits fourth in the standings, only five points off the lead in the Eliminator Round standings heading to Texas.
But a dark cloud looms over him because of the Harvick incident at Martinsville, plus he and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have lacked speed all year at similar 1.5-mile tracks. Kenseth was remorseful following the Harvick incident, in which he appeared to overdrive his No. 20 Toyota into a corner, wheel-hopped and took out the unsuspecting Harvick.
Kenseth even said he understood Harvick's pledge to make sure he won't win the title if Harvick doesn't.
"It was a mistake—he was an innocent bystander and was in the wrong place at the wrong time," Kenseth said via Fox Sports. "I totally understand how he feels and why he would say that. I totally get it. He knows it was a mistake, too, but that doesn't really help him."
So despite where Kenseth sits currently in the standings, he's a long shot to make the Championship Four. Something bad seems like it's about to happen to Kenseth in this Chase.
Call it a gut feeling but Hamlin still seems to have a shot to contend for his first title.
After leading 68 laps at Martinsville, Hamlin is heading to two more tracks where he can expect to lead laps and put himself in contention for a win that would guarantee advancement to the Championship Four.
He's won twice at Texas and once in his career at Phoenix—even though the JGR cars such as his No. 11 Toyota have struggled with generating the kind of speed needed to keep up the competition at the 1.5-mile tracks like Texas.
Hamlin also seems to sense that he's in a pretty good position and blamed fading to eighth at Martinsville on the final restart on slower lapped cars not getting out of his way in the closing laps.
Brad Keselowski has been here, done that already in the Chase.
Now he needs to get it done again. It's that simple, and he's not likely to be fazed by it.
Heading to Texas and Phoenix, he likely needs to win to secure advancement into the championship race at Homestead. His opening race in the Chase Eliminator Round was a disaster: First a pit-road speeding ticket sent him to the rear of the field, and then a broken rear-end gear late in the race sent him to the garage for repairs, relegating him to a 31st-place finish.
Now he's 31 points out of first and 26 out of fourth, putting him in a similar position he faced heading to Talladega for the final race of the Chase Contender Round—where he had to win and did.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Yes, we are well aware that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has already been eliminated from the Chase.
But if you wondered how some of these guys who are no longer running for a championship would finish out the season, take a look at the huge win Earnhardt scored at Martinsville, a track where he had longed to win because his father had so much success there.
It was big on many levels, coming on the 10th anniversary of a Hendrick Motorsports plane crash that claimed the lives of 10 people—including team owner Rick Hendrick's only son Ricky, his brother John and John's twin daughters.
It also validates the final season together for Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte, who is headed to the NBC broadcast booth at the end of this season—even if they are out of the Chase.
And the odd thing is that by winning, they have made some of the Chasers who expected to win very nervous heading to Texas and Phoenix. So in their own way, Earnhardt and Letarte are still having an impact on the Chase, and that's kind of cool.
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 as well as covering NASCAR and a writer and editor for FOXSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.