Updated 2015 NASCAR Title Odds: Week 32
Sunday’s CampingWorld.com 500 race at Talladega is shaping up to be perhaps the second-most important event of the Chase for the Sprint Cup—short of the championship-deciding race at Homestead next month.
Other than Joey Logano, none of the other 11 remaining Chase drivers are safe when it comes to having an automatic berth into Round 3 of the Chase.
Of course, if one of those 11 Chasers wins Sunday at ‘Dega, then they will join Logano with a free ticket to the next round.
Equally as important, however, is that we potentially may see two, three or maybe even four of the sport’s biggest names join Jimmie Johnson—who was eliminated after Round 1—on the Chase sidelines after Sunday’s checkered flag falls.
Newman and Busch almost have to finish in the top five to advance to Round 3—and that potentially may not be enough.
While I’d love to see Earnhardt advance to Round 3 and keep hope alive for his first career Sprint Cup championship, I’m also a realist. I’ve heard countless fans over the last week-plus say Earnhardt is all but a lock to win at Talladega—just because he won there this past spring.
And sure, he’s had success at Daytona in the last few years.
But no one seems to realize—or wants to admit—Junior’s win at Dega nearly six months ago was his first win at NASCAR’s largest superspeedway since 2004!
That doesn’t exactly provide a great deal of confidence. Sure, it would be great to see him sweep both Talladega races in 2015 and advance to Round 3, but if past history is any indication, it’s likely not going to happen.
And if it doesn’t, it’s likely we won’t see the No. 88 car in Round 3 as much as we would like to.
One other thing: We’ve increased the odds for this week’s race because there’s so much riding on its outcome and so little that those on either side of the bubble can do when it comes to controlling their own respective destinies.
Let’s take a look at this week’s odds and see who’s likely to move on to Round 3—and who isn’t.
Working in his favor: Matt Kenseth has five wins this season and has shown he has one of the fastest cars thus far in the Chase. But his terrible finish at Charlotte and being spun by Joey Logano at Kansas have Kenseth far behind the eightball. But this is one of the coolest, most confident drivers in the Sprint Cup garage. If anyone can bounce back and win Sunday at Talladega, it’s Kenseth.
Working against him: Kenseth has the longest and tallest hill to climb of any Chase driver. We know that. But it’s further compounded by his all-time record at Talladega. In 31 starts, he has just one win, six top-five and 10 top-10 finishes. Plus, he has a finishing average there of 18.0, with just 21 lead-lap finishes. Kenseth is going to have to pull out one of the biggest Hail Mary comebacks of his career. I’m just not sure he can, though.
Odds: After being 25-1 last week, Kenseth is now a 200-1 “favorite”—and obviously I use that word very loosely.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Working in his favor: Sure, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won at Talladega in the spring, and he has six wins overall at the 2.66-mile superspeedway, which is his most wins at any track on the Sprint Cup circuit. He also comes into a track where he has a lot of confidence. But will that be enough?
Working against him: Too many people seem to have forgotten that prior to his spring win at Talladega, he hadn’t reached Victory Lane in over 10 years (last previous time was in 2004). Plus, Earnhardt is pretty much in a must-win situation—and we all know how he fares in those kind of races: namely, not very good in his career.
Odds: 150-1 (Sorry, Junior fans. Look for an early exit from this race, either due to a wreck or mechanical issues. His Chase hopes are done as of Sunday afternoon.)
Working in his favor: I’ll reiterate what I said last week—Ryan Newman and consistency continue to be used in the same sentence. He’s actually doing better this season than he did last season. I like the Cinderella story Newman continues to be. But…
Working against him: As much as we’d like to once again see him take his Cinderella story to the championship round, unfortunately it likely will all come to an end for Newman on Sunday. The only way he can avoid elimination is if he finishes higher than guys like Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. And that’s not even taking into consideration that he misses being involved in any potential wrecks and finishes in the top five.
Working in his favor: Kyle Busch has everything he needs to win Sunday and advance to Round 3. He has a great team, a great car and great Toyota power under the hood. If he can stay out of wrecks, Busch has a very good chance of digging himself out of the hole he’s currently in and advancing to Round 3.
Working against him: How many times has the Chase been on the line for Busch in years past, and he failed to come through? It could very well be the same story on Sunday.
As Jerry Reed sang in the theme from Smokey and the Bandit, Busch has “got a long way to go and a short time to get there.” As much as we’d like to see Busch join Dale Earnhardt Jr. in advancing to Round 3, the sad reality is that neither likely will.
Martin Truex Jr.
Working in his favor: The confidence and determination Martin Truex Jr. continues to show has been one of this season's best storylines. Driving for a one-car team, he has far exceeded expectations and has the potential to continue doing so heading into Round 3.
Working against him: Can Truex overcome the dip he took in the standings after Kansas? He’s one point behind the three-way tie for fifth place (Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski). Further, Truex is on the transfer-line bubble, heading into Talladega in eighth place (and only eight drivers will advance to Round 3 after Sunday).
He needs everything to go right just to get the opportunity to advance, but he could ultimately have his future in the Chase—or lack thereof—determined by someone else’s actions on the race track.
Working in his favor: Brad Keselowski is one of the few drivers who actually likes racing at Talladega. It kind of separates the men from the boys, and Keselowski is definitely one of the men when it comes to racing at ‘Dega. That kind of confidence can go a long way toward getting him to the front. And let’s not forget he won this race last season, which allowed him to advance to Round 3.
Working against him: We’re not saying there’s anything nefarious in NASCAR, but if you’re Joey Logano's teammate, you might want to keep checking your mirrors for other drivers who might want to pay him back by doing something to eliminate Keselowski. Honestly, unless he can come home with a win or top-five at the very least, Keselowski is one wreck away from being eliminated Sunday.
Working in his favor: Carl Edwards has had a quiet confidence this season, much like in 2011. But he needs more wins—and hasn’t gotten them. If Edwards can win Sunday’s race, it not only would propel him into Round 3, but it also would potentially be just what he needs confidence-wise to make it all the way to the championship round.
Working against him: Talladega hasn’t exactly been Edwards’ favorite track on the Cup circuit. And while he’s had a decent—actually, let’s call it a very good Chase to date—he is at his fellow drivers' mercy. If one gets squirrelly and triggers a huge wreck, and Edwards is involved, it could be enough to eliminate him from further advancement in the Chase.
If he’s smart, Edwards should hang back for much of the race, see how the live standings play out and then see if he really has to push himself or whether he can coast into Round 3, even if it’s by just one point.
Working in his favor: I’m beginning to think Jeff Gordon has been snookering us this season. OK, I’m kidding, but you have to admit Gordon has a realistic chance of not only advancing to Round 3 if he can get through Talladega, but he very well may also become one of the favorites to win the championship and go out as a winner in his final season in Sprint Cup.
He may have been flying under the radar for much of this season, but something very big could be looming on that same radar in the next four weeks.
Working against him: Just like every other Chase driver other than Logano, Gordon is susceptible to getting caught up in a big wreck and ultimately seeing his Chase advancement chances get wrecked, as well. Gordon has a good chance at potentially winning Sunday, but that means he’ll have to get out front—and stay there—for 188 laps. That’s asking a heck of a lot, even from a four-time Sprint Cup champion.
Working in his favor: Denny Hamlin is enjoying a strong Chase, including winning the opening race at Chicago in Round 1. He’s currently second in the standings and has no fear when it comes to racing at Talladega. Hamlin is like a hungry dog chasing meat at Talladega: He's doesn't give up until he catches it. That’s a lot more than can be said about some other Chase contenders.
Working against him: While he’s had a very good Chase to date, Hamlin’s history is one that just one single mistake—especially at the most unpredictable track and race in the Chase—could end things abruptly.
Sure, being in second place, just 13 points behind Logano, is an admirable location. But Hamlin is just as vulnerable as every other Chase driver other than Logano. And if he comes into Sunday’s race overly confident or tries to race outside of his limitations, he could easily go from second place to elimination from the Chase.
Working in his favor: I really wanted to put Kurt Busch in the second spot in this week’s odds. But I don’t believe he’s ready to overtake his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Kevin Harvick—at least just not yet. But still, Busch is peaking at the right time and should be fairly safe to advance to Round 3, provided he doesn’t once again get caught up in a "Dega Big One."
Working against him: Honestly, other than some issues with consistency this season, Busch could very well have the least factors working against him of any Chase driver. Every other driver has something to worry about to advance to Round 3, but Busch is simply letting his driving and his talent do his talking. If he falls short and gets eliminated, so be it. But you can be guaranteed Busch won’t let elimination come too easy.
Working in his favor: He’s got the best car, is the defending Sprint Cup champ, has the best crew chief and thrives on pressure. Harvick is in a good position heading into Talladega, in a three-way tie for fifth place. But at the same time, look at it the other way: He’s just one point out of eighth place—which is where the final cut-off will come for elimination Sunday. It’s time for Harvick to dig deep and pull out yet another strong finish so he can come one step closer to defending last year’s championship.
Working against him: Pit-road mistakes continue to hound Harvick (just look at what happened at Kansas). There absolutely, positively cannot be any pit mistakes for Harvick at Talladega. Sure, it’s a big track, and you can oftentimes recover from a mistake. But if a mistake occurs late in the race, it could ultimately be the difference between Harvick advancing or falling short.
Working in his favor: I never thought I’d say it, but Joey Logano has become the favorite to win the Chase after his two inspiring wins the last two weeks at Charlotte and Kansas. Logano now has five wins, including the season-opening Daytona 500, and appears to be a man on a mission to win it all in 2015. Right now, it’s hard to pick against him.
Working against him: There’s very little working against Logano going into Sunday’s race. He’s already locked into Round 3, so he theoretically could take Sunday’s race off. But of course, we know the ultra-competitive Logano won’t do that. Plus, one must wonder if Logano has made some enemies with the way he’s driven this season (ask Matt Kenseth about that) and whether conflict with other drivers may come back to haunt him in Round 3 or Round 4. As the old saying goes, we "weep" what we "sew."
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