Updated 2015 NASCAR Title Odds: Week 29
Now in its second year with a revised format, NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup has become a matter of risk vs. reward.
Unfortunately for four drivers after Sunday’s race at Dover, the risks they took in the first two races will ultimately lead to a lack of reward after the third.
Namely, elimination from further advancement in the Chase.
As it stands right now, Clint Bowyer (81 points behind series leader Matt Kenseth) and defending series champion Kevin Harvick (65 points back) are essentially done going into Dover.
Bowyer is too far back to rebound (unless he wins the race). Also needing a win is Harvick, but if he falls short of that and finishes second, he'd need several of the other 15 Chase drivers to finish 28th or worse on Sunday to see him climb back into the top 12 and advance to the second round.
Not likely to happen.
Here’s the odds heading into the third and final race of Round 1 of the Chase. Next week, it’s a whole new ballgame.
Working in his favor: Absolutely nothing. Bowyer is nearly a full win’s worth of points away from just reaching the top 12 in the Chase. Even if he wins Sunday, he’s still likely to lose and wind up being eliminated in a subsequent round. Clint, we hardly knew you in this year’s Chase.
Working against him: Virtually everything is working against Bowyer. Even the prospect of being a spoiler in the seven remaining Chase races after Dover carries no weight. He hasn’t won a race in three seasons, is out of a ride at the end of this season and there’s been no announcement of where he’ll race next season. I’d say that’s a lot working against the Kansas native.
Working in his favor: Much like Clint Bowyer, it’s very hard to find anything in Harvick’s favor heading into Dover. He has to pull off the impossible by winning Sunday, but that’s only part of the equation. He needs virtually every other Chase driver to have a terrible day. In other words, Harvick’s chances of earning a second consecutive Sprint Cup championship are just about done.
Working against him: Two terrible mistakes at Chicagoland and Loudon—both basic Pit Strategy 101—cost Harvick far too much. I can see the gamble his team took at Chicagoland. But what happened at Loudon was just plain dumb, given all that was on the line for the No. 4 team. To see all of the good things Harvick achieved this season, leading the points for 24 of the first 26 races, the two wins and 10 runner-up finishes…that’s a toilet you’re hearing flush right now.
Working in his favor: Menard could fly under the radar and potentially still advance to the second round. But to do so, he’ll have to finish ahead of at least Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jamie McMurray and potentially have to also finish ahead of Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and teammate Ryan Newman.
Working against him: Admittedly, Menard has not gotten off to a good start in the Chase, finishing 17th at Chicagoland and 15th at Loudon. At 14th in the standings, he could potentially go either way at Dover. If he pulls out a top-10 finish, he might advance to the second round by the skin of his teeth. But another mid-teen finish and it’s likely Menard’s first-ever Chase appearance will come to a premature end.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Working in his favor: Let’s not forget Earnhardt drives for Hendrick Motorsports. The collective 500-plus HMS employees are going to do everything they can to make sure Earnhardt advances to the second round, along with teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
Working against him: Earnhardt comes into Dover in 12th place in the standings, just one point ahead of Kyle Busch and Paul Menard (tied for 13th). A top-10 finish Sunday will likely advance him to the second round. But if he finishes below 15th, promising hopes of finally earning his first career Sprint Cup championship will evaporate like they have every other year he’s made the Chase. Instead of this being a different kind of season, it’ll wind up being more of the same—a wait-until-next-year scenario—once again for the driver of the No. 88.
Working in his favor: What the heck happened? Busch was in fourth place after Chicagoland. Now he’s 13th after Loudon and on the wrong side of the elimination bubble. But this is Kyle Busch we’re talking about. He’s arguably one of the best clutch drivers there is in the sport.
Plus, heading into Dover, he’s just one point away from 12th-ranked Dale Earnhardt Jr. If Busch climbs back into the top 12 after Dover, he advances to the second round of the Chase. If anyone can do that, Busch can. The big thing is if he can stay out of trouble, lest he be eliminated but not by his own doing.
Working against him: His terrible showing at Loudon could play tricks with Busch’s confidence heading into Dover. Plus, in virtually every year he’s made the Chase in the past, he’s always wound up with a less-than-ideal season finish. A win would right his ship and send him into the second round, but if he finishes lower than 15th, he runs the risk of being eliminated regardless.
Working in his favor: McMurray has the potential to advance to the second round in his first career Chase appearance. Admittedly, he’s in a pack of drivers that's separated by only four points—and that could ultimately be the difference between advancing to or being eliminated from the second round. Still, McMurray has done what he needs to do to make the Chase; there’s no reason he can’t keep on doing the same thing to get to Round 2.
Working against him: Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Those are the two key drivers McMurray has to worry about. And more importantly, he has to finish ahead of both of them to assure he advances to the second round. Heck, he even has to worry about Paul Menard knocking him out of advancement. The biggest thing McMurray has to do is forget about every other driver, don’t get rattled by the pressure, drive his own race and hope for the best.
Working in his favor: Jeff Gordon is about as solid as someone in 10th place can be in the standings. One of the most significant things he needs to do at Dover—and something he should be able to do—is to stay ahead of his closest followers. However, the most important thing Gordon must do is not to overextend himself at Dover. If he thinks he can go for the win, so be it. But if he can rest assured of a 10th-place finish, there’s no need for him to try and get a fifth-place showing—and risk it all. There’ll be plenty of other chances to risk things in the second round—if he gets there.
Working against him: Gordon has been victimized several times this season, not of his own doing, but that of others. He wrecked late in the first two races being collected in other drivers’ messes. If Gordon tries to overextend or he gets too desperate, his final season as a Sprint Cup driver will end prematurely—and certainly not indicative of one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers ever and what he did throughout his career. To end it on a down note would be a sad way to end such a great legacy.
Martin Truex Jr.
Working in his favor: Martin Truex Jr. has gotten much better this season when it comes to dealing with pressure. He’s dodged several bullets and still made the Chase convincingly. He likely will be riding a high of sorts coming into Sunday’s race not just because it’s the third Chase event, but also because he had his option for 2016 picked up just days ago. He seems to have really found a home at Furniture Row Racing.
Working against him: I admit it; I’m worried about Truex in this race. Sure, Dover was the sight of his first career Sprint Cup victory. And he’s also from nearby Mayetta, New Jersey. My biggest fear is Truex still hasn’t shaken the inconsistency jinx that had him in its grip earlier this season.
Much like Jeff Gordon, Truex may want to overachieve in this race, but that could be the worst thing for him—and the thing that ultimately leads to his elimination. If he can just play it smart, cool and collective and leave Dover with at least a top-15 finish, odds are he’ll make it to Round 2.
Working in his favor: The elder Busch brother is a former Chase champion; in fact, he won the first Chase back in 2004. Busch had a good run at New Hampshire and has a decent record at Dover. All he has to do is keep doing what he has, and he should make the second round without any problem.
Working against him: If teammate Kevin Harvick is eliminated Sunday, Busch will be the lone representative of Stewart-Haas Racing going forward in the Chase. Can Busch pick up the torch and potentially lead the organization in place of the defending Cup champ? We can see Busch make it into the second round, but to go all four rounds is going to be a hard task to perform.
Working in his favor: Brad Keselowski is coming into the meat of the Chase with tracks that play to his strength. If anyone is due for an explosion of good fortune and luck, and at the right time, it’s the 2012 Sprint Cup champ. Rather than being out front, Keselowski has kind of remained in the shadows for much of this season. Like a debutante, perhaps Sunday will mark his coming-out party—and when his real bid for the championship begins.
Working against him: Inconsistency and composure remain two of the biggest issues facing Keselowski. He needs to become more consistent to advance into the third round (provided he gets to the second round, of course). And as for composure, when things get pressure-packed, Keselowski sometimes overcompensates for that pressure—and that’s when he gets into trouble, much like he did in last year’s Chase when he failed to reach the final round.
Working in his favor: Deja vu and Newman too should be the Indiana native’s theme. He’s doing exactly what he did in last season’s Chase and is wearing the label of dark horse very proudly. Frankly, we like what Newman has done so much this year that we can easily see him making the championship round once again, but with one big difference: If Harvick is eliminated after Dover, Newman could potentially go on to win the title he came so close to last season and still do it without earning even one win.
Working against him: Newman has a good history at Dover, but he has a tendency to fade late in races there. He should be able to earn a top-10 finish, which would likely put him into the second round. But Newman also has to keep things in perspective: All he needs to worry about Sunday is getting enough points and finishing high enough to move on to the next round. He doesn’t have to do anything else but that. If he tries to do more, he could be setting himself up for a disaster.
Working in his favor: Two races into the Chase and Carl Edwards is living up to expectations that have been placed upon him for years. His move to Joe Gibbs Racing has proven to be the best thing for him and his career. The biggest thing is whether Edwards can continue to sustain not just at Dover, but the remaining seven races after that.
Working against him: Two things are actually working against Edwards. First, his three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates. While I love the all-for-one and one-for-all mantra, in reality, it’s likely going to be every man for himself.
The other thing working against Edwards is himself. He can become too frustrated at times with either his performance or his car, and that can tend to distract him from the job at hand of getting the best finish he and his car are capable of. As much as I hate to say it, I’m not convinced Edwards can run all the way to Homestead. As they say in his native Missouri, he’s going to have to show me he can.
Working in his favor: Johnson has dominated with 10 wins, 15 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes in 27 starts at Dover in his Sprint Cup career. No other active driver comes close. Look for more of the same from Johnson Sunday. A win would automatically put him into the second round, even though he will advance even with a top-10 finish.
Working against him: Johnson wants a seventh career championship so badly, but he has to guard against looking ahead. He has to take each upcoming Chase race one at a time, lest he get too far ahead of himself and wind up being eliminated prematurely again, just like he was in last season’s Chase.
Working in his favor: Joey Logano has done virtually everything right thus far in the Chase. That’s why he’s ranked fourth. He just has to keep doing the same thing, not try to overextend himself and he’ll be fine. As for Sunday, while a win would be nice, he doesn’t need it to reach the second round. A good top-five or top-10 finish will be enough to get him into Round 2. He needs to save his energy for the next round.
Working against him: Even though it’s a totally different season, how Logano fell short in last season’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway likely has to be on his mind. The biggest thing he has to avoid is not letting that memory of last year’s final race and how he finished consume him, particularly the pit-road error at Homestead that ultimately wound up costing him that championship.
Working in his favor: Denny Hamlin has not only ignored the torn ACL he has in his right knee, he also has remained all business in the first two races. You can’t get much better than a win at Chicagoland and a runner-up finish at Loudon. He’s off to an incredible start to this year’s Chase. All he has to do is keep it up.
Working against him: Honestly, I don’t see much working against Hamlin at this point. He’s proven the torn ACL is not affecting his driving, his team is hitting on all cylinders, he has a strong and powerful car every week and he’s more mature and methodical behind the wheel. Add all those up and we could potentially be seeing Hamlin begin his kick toward winning his first Sprint Cup championship.
Working in his favor: Matt Kenseth has a lot in his favor, most notably that Kevin Harvick will likely be eliminated from advancing further in the Chase on Sunday. Harvick is arguably Kenseth’s biggest roadblock in the Chase. But if Harvick is eliminated, the road to potentially winning his second career Cup championship will potentially become a lot wider and more clear going forward. Plus, having a win and an automatic berth into the second round should take off a good chunk of pressure heading into Dover.
Working against him: It’s the same thing for Kenseth as it is for his three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates—themselves. If all four drivers somehow manage to make it to the championship round at Homestead, it could set up an unprecedented battle that we’ve never seen before in NASCAR.
Would Kenseth be able to out-muscle his three teammates in a situation like that? I’m not completely sure. But for now, he’s the man to beat heading into Dover—and potentially more so afterward if Harvick is eliminated.