Ranking the Biggest X-Factors in the Remaining Races of the 2014 Chase

Joe Menzer@@OneMenzFeatured ColumnistOctober 31, 2014

Ranking the Biggest X-Factors in the Remaining Races of the 2014 Chase

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    Anything can happen at any given moment in any Sprint Cup race, as here earlier this year at Daytona.
    Anything can happen at any given moment in any Sprint Cup race, as here earlier this year at Daytona.Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    The beauty—and danger—of NASCAR is that anything can happen at anyplace anytime.

    Just take a look at what happened to Kevin Harvick after he started deep in the field and methodically worked his way up into the top 10 at Martinsville Speedway last Sunday, only to then get wrecked by Matt Kenseth. While Kenseth suffered little damage in the incident and drove on to finish sixth in the race, which left him fourth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Eliminator Round standings, Harvick limped off to the garage for repairs.

    By the time Harvick returned, he was so many laps down that he was doomed to a 33rd-place finish. Now, he heads to the next two Eliminator Round races at Texas and Phoenix likely needing to win to be one of the final four drivers who advance from there to race for the 2014 championship in a one-race, winner-take-all season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 16.

    "The good thing about this format is you have two more weeks and two race tracks that we can win on," Harvick told FoxSports.com after the race.

    Still, the incident offered up yet another example of what can happen. There are so many variables that can occur during the course of a single race, or over the course of a Chase, that several X-factors could help determine who wins this title—and who doesn't.

10. The Non-Chasers

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. proved at Martinsville that non-Chasers still are going to impact who wins the title.
    Dale Earnhardt Jr. proved at Martinsville that non-Chasers still are going to impact who wins the title.USA TODAY Sports

    There is perhaps no bigger X-factor in this Chase than the drivers who no longer are a part of it.

    That was never illustrated more completely than last Sunday at Martinsville Speedway when Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the race, leaving the points scraps to everyone else—including the eight drivers left in the Chase. By winning, Earnhardt took off the table one of the three wins that mean automatic advancement into the championship race at Homestead for the Chasers.

    And here's the thing: It could happen again, with Earnhardt or some other non-Chase driver winning at Texas and/or Phoenix, placing even more pressure on the Chasers to do whatever they can to get to Victory Lane the following race.

    Not only that, but the specter always looms of a non-Chaser doing something stupid and taking out one of the Chase drivers. Imagine how it's going to go over if, say, one of the Hendrick cars that no longer is part of the Chase inadvertently takes out one of the remaining contenders from Team Penske or another organization.

9. Jimmy Fennig

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    Crew chief Jimmy Fennig (right) talks with his driver, Carl Edwards.
    Crew chief Jimmy Fennig (right) talks with his driver, Carl Edwards.Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Let's be honest: On paper, it doesn't look like Carl Edwards and his No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing team have much of a shot at stealing a championship.

    After all, they haven't fared particularly well at the types of tracks remaining on the schedule, and both Edwards and crew chief Jimmy Fennig have already announced that they are moving on at season's end—with Edwards going to Joe Gibbs Racing and Fennig either retiring or likely going to a research and development role with RFR.

    So while it's commendable that they've made it this far, the gig is about up, right?

    Maybe. Or maybe not.

    Fennig is Edwards' secret weapon. With two wins by Edwards this season, Fennig has been on top of the pit box for 40 Cup victories in his long career, including in 2004, when he won a championship with Kurt Busch as his driver. He was also the crew chief for Hall of Famer Bobby Allison in 1988 when Allison won the Daytona 500 and was the longtime crew chief for Mark Martin.

    Both Fennig and Edwards would like nothing more than to shock the racing world by ending their time together by winning a championship no one thought they could win under the current circumstances. And the two are smart enough to possibly find a way to do it.

8. Denny Hamlin's Pit Crew

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    Denny Hamlin's pit crew
    Denny Hamlin's pit crewRainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Denny Hamlin didn't get it done at Martinsville Speedway, where he said he was confident he could win and had the career numbers to back that up.

    But with his No. 11 FedEx Toyota pit crew on the job, he feels strongly about his chances at Texas and especially Phoenix. That's because his pit crew has consistently gained him spots on pit road all season long—and has continued to be efficient, even after losing jackman Nate Bolling to a torn right tricep injury suffered during the recent Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

    Even though Bolling is considered a crucial member of the Joe Gibbs Racing crew and is out for the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery, Hamlin didn't seem worried after Bolling was replaced by backup Kenneth Purcell. That's because Purcell was the jackman on four of Jimmie Johnson's championship-winning teams.

    "I believe we have all the tools necessary. We’ve got a pit crew that’s very, very fast," Hamlin told Bleacher Report recently at Eliminator Round media day.

7. Mr. Consistency

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    Ryan Newman, aka Mr. Consistency, might just keep points racing right to his first championship.
    Ryan Newman, aka Mr. Consistency, might just keep points racing right to his first championship.Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    In a season in which NASCAR instituted rules changes on how to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup and also changed how it would be won, Ryan Newman is bucking the odds as Mr. Consistency.

    Then again, hasn't it also been said that consistency kills? Newman has been slaying much of the competition thus far in this Chase, because he doesn't get rattled, his No. 31 Richard Childress Racing team minimizes its mistakes and crew chief Luke Lambert is wily enough to steal track position whenever he can.

    Never was Lambert's value as a clutch decision-maker more evident than in the last race at Martinsville, when he made the call for only two tires on the final pit stop; others took four, and Newman surged from eighth to third in the final five laps.

    And as ESPN broadcaster Brad Daugherty has stated several times on-air, "Ryan Newman is harder to pass on the track than a kidney stone."

    All of which has currently allowed Newman to head into the final two races in this Eliminator Round in very good shape to make it to the Championship Round of drivers who will race for the title in a one-shot deal in the season finale at Homestead. Heading into this Sunday's race at Texas, he's second in the standings, only three points behind leader Jeff Gordon.

6. Kevin Harvick-Matt Kenseth Feud

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    Kevin Harvick has pledged to keep Matt Kenseth from winning the title if Harvick can't win it.
    Kevin Harvick has pledged to keep Matt Kenseth from winning the title if Harvick can't win it.Steve Helber/Associated Press

    Is the Harvick vs. Kenseth feud ready to blossom into an all-out war over the final three races?

    It depends on if you believe Harvick really meant what he said after getting inadvertently wrecked by Kenseth at Martinsville, putting him in a deep hole that means he likely will have to win at Texas or Phoenix to advance to Homestead.

    Asked after the race about Kenseth, Harvick said, via FoxSports.com, "Yeah, he won't win this championship. If we don't, he won't."

    Some believe it was tough talk in the heat of the moment and that Harvick has no intention of truly retaliating—or, as Tom Jensen of FoxSports.com wrote: "That's just the testosterone talking. For one thing, if Kenseth really could win the championship and Harvick dumped him deliberately, there would be hell to pay from NASCAR."

    Maybe. But would Harvick really care if there was hell to pay if by then he didn't have a chance to win the title himself—at least in part because of what Kenseth did to him at Martinsville?

5. Matt Kenseth-Brad Keselowski Feud

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    Matt Kenseth could very well send the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford, driven by Brad Keselowski, spinning if he gets the chance.
    Matt Kenseth could very well send the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford, driven by Brad Keselowski, spinning if he gets the chance.Will Schneekloth/Getty Images

    The usually mild-mannered Kenseth has been busy this Chase.

    Two weeks before upsetting Harvick at Martinsville, he ran down and tackled Brad Keselowski in the Sprint Cup garage following the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. And while Keselowski said he considered the incident over heading into the next race and added that he didn't expect payback, Kenseth wasn't so sure, per FoxSports.com.

    Now they head to Texas, with Kenseth sitting in fourth in the Eliminator Round standings, so he's obviously going to be careful to protect that position. Keselowski is in trouble, thanks to a pit road speeding penalty and a broken rear gear at Martinsville that left him with a 31st-place finish, 26 points behind Kenseth.

    But if Keselowski wins one of these next two races to advance to Homestead and Kenseth fails to advance, who knows for sure what will happen if they find themselves in close quarters again. Kenseth might just apply the Harvick Principle and decide that if he can't win the title, Keselowski won't, either.

4. Paul Wolfe

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    Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski, has a growing reputation in the Sprint Cup garage.
    Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski, has a growing reputation in the Sprint Cup garage.USA TODAY Sports

    Paul Wolfe might just be the next Chad Knaus in the Sprint Cup garage.

    As Keselowski's crew chief, Wolfe deserves much of the credit for giving his driver a fast No. 2 Team Penske Ford and making all the right pit calls toward the end to help Keselowski win under Game 7-type pressure in the final race of the Contender Round at Talladega.

    "Paul is a smart guy," Keselowski once said, via David Newton of ESPN.com, while attempting to explain their obvious chemistry. "He's good and we're on the same wavelength. So much of this sport is about that. So without that, I don't think I could be successful and couldn't be where I'm at here as we stand."

    So even though Keselowski now likely has to win one of the next two races to advance in the Chase, don't rule him out. Not with Wolfe in his corner—or atop his pit box.

3. The Kevin Harvick-Tony Stewart Pit Crew Swap

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    Harvick's new pit crew, formerly Tony Stewart's pit crew, may help dig him out of his current Chase hole.
    Harvick's new pit crew, formerly Tony Stewart's pit crew, may help dig him out of his current Chase hole.Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    There is no question that this Sprint Cup championship could come down to a critical pit stop and how well a team's pit crew performs under pressure.

    That's true in each of these last three races, not just Homestead, and it's where Harvick's No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet team may finally have an edge it lacked for much of the season. That's because his problems with Kenseth aside, Harvick's new pit crew has been performing better as the Chase has progressed.

    He swapped the crew he used for most of the season with the crew Tony Stewart had been using on his No. 14 SHR team. That could easily come in to play at Texas or at Phoenix, where Harvick has won five times in his career, including the last two and three of the last four races, and may need to win again to secure advancement into the final race.

2. Joey Logano's Inexperience

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    Joey Logano could be prone to making a mistake at the wrong time if and when he gets to race for the title at Homestead.
    Joey Logano could be prone to making a mistake at the wrong time if and when he gets to race for the title at Homestead.Dan Lighton/Associated Press

    Joey Logano is only 24 years old, and yet he's been racing full-time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for six seasons.

    So to say he's inexperienced would be a misnomer. But to say he lacks experience in the types of situations he'll face over the next three weeks is not. And there are some who wonder if he might not crack under the pressure if he makes it to the Championship Round at Homestead.

    "I just wonder if the pressure of a one-race, winner-take-all event might get in Logano's head a little bit," wrote Jared Turner of FoxSports.com. "Let's be honest—he's never really been in this position before, even though he made the Chase for the first time last year. That's my one reservation about putting money on a young 'Sliced Bread.'"

1. Jeff Gordon and the Hendrick Motorsports Firepower

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    Jeff Gordon (third from left) could be helped by fellow Hendrick Motorsports drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson (from left to right).
    Jeff Gordon (third from left) could be helped by fellow Hendrick Motorsports drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson (from left to right).USA TODAY Sports

    Hendrick Motorsports began the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup with all four of its drivers gunning for the championship. Now, only one remains left in the Chase.

    It's current Eliminator Round points leader Jeff Gordon, who got there by finishing second to Hendrick teammate Earnhardt Jr. at Martinsville, one week after Earnhardt was eliminated from the Chase in the Contender Round by failing to reach Victory Lane at Talladega.

    The question heading into the final three races is how much, if any, help Gordon can expect to get from his eliminated Hendrick teammates when it comes to helping him secure his fifth championship (but first since 2001).

    Team owner Rick Hendrick always says there are no team orders for such things, but even in winning at Martinsville, there were at least three noticeable occasions where Earnhardt appeared to make extra room for Gordon in tight spaces on the track during the race.

    Even the slightest, most subtle edge any of the other three Hendrick drivers can give Gordon at Homestead could make all the difference.

    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 for FoxSports.com as a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.

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