It seems as though the 2014 Sprint Cup Series season started just last week, but suddenly it’s midsummer and the countdown to the Chase is in the single digits and clicking lower.
It’s been a quirky season — teams who looked unbeatable early faded, teams who looked out to lunch surged into the spotlight. A few who have issued nary a peep in the past have made their presence known, while some who were at the top of their game have stumbled.
The Chase picture is getting clearer as the races to make the show tick away, and favorites are emerging from among those who have put a stamp on their Chase entries. But being a favorite this year is no sure thing. Not only is there still room (and time) for teams to hit on things with this year’s rules package, but there’s also the chance that someone unexpected could win a race, taking a Chase spot from someone who might have thought he was safe on points and changing the face of the title hunt.
Even so, while there are currently 11 drivers with wins, there are a few who have set themselves apart among their peers as possible title favorites. Either by making a statement with multiple wins or by quietly scoring more points than the competition, seven drivers have given themselves an edge this year so far.
But how big is that edge? It varies, but what each of this year’s top drivers have in common is that each one has a weakness.
It’s that Achilles’ heel that’s the real wild card here. A team could sail through the rest of the season without exposing it, but it could also be the downfall of an otherwise worthy contender. It’s also not the same thing for each driver, making the strategy angle intriguing.
Let’s take a closer look at some Chase contenders, and what could be the difference between a title and a side table at the banquet.
Strengths: Three wins, 844 laps led in series-best 16 of 19 races led, has led 15.31 percent of all laps run in 2014 (third-best in Sprint Cup), 12.2 average finish, leads series in miles led, past champion (2012)
Weakness: Streaky / Peaking too soon?
If the Chase started now (and we all know it doesn’t, but…), Brad Keselowski would have to be the favorite. He’s dominated two of the last three races (and the one he didn’t was a restrictor-plate race), and he won the title just two years ago. Nobody gets in his head, and when it comes to winning races, past history at a track means very little. He’s as solid as they come.
Except that his team is peaking at a time when others have plenty of time to catch up. If it’s true that Team Penske is the first team to really nail down the new rules package, it’s also true that some others have been close, and they have seven more weeks to hit the mark. Keselowski has been red-hot for the last month, but he’ll either have to remain hot for 17 long weeks or heat up again when it counts.
One last monkey wrench for Keselowski: Talladega. Past successes aside, he hasn’t finished better then 15th there since 2012.
Strengths: Three wins, 15 races led, series-leading 1008 laps led, has led series-best 18.29 percent of all laps in 2014, 13.9 average finish, all-time Chase race winner (24), average Chase race finish series-best 8.8, past champion (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013).
Weakness: Tire / Pit strategy
As much as Jimmie Johnson‘s crew chief is heralded (or despised) as a genius, it’s not always the huge advantage people think. In recent seasons, Johnson’s worst enemy has been his own team. Sometimes that’s botched pit stops, but more often it’s trying a different strategy that has bitten Johnson, who then has to run damage control on the track instead, making up lost positions. Tires, in particular, have been a difficult area for the No. 48 team, which has had close to a dozen tire-related problems in the last two seasons. Those didn’t all lead to disaster like two weeks ago in Loudon, but they have cost points and wins.
The bright side is that Johnson’s team rarely makes the same mistakes during the Chase, and some of the problems that they have during the summer are undoubtedly due to the team working on things for the Chase — but that doesn’t mean they’re not vulnerable to things happening during the Chase, and this time around, mistakes will be costly if they’re in the wrong races.
Strengths: One win, points leader, series-best 9.8 average finish in 2014, 328 laps led, five Chase race wins, third all-time 12.5 Chase race average finish, past champion (1995, 1996, 1998, 2001)
Weakness: Past inability to close the deal under Chase system / Lack of wins
Jeff Gordon‘s biggest obstacle may very well be his own past. He’s got four titles and 89 wins, so his ability to run up front isn’t in question. However, Gordon has never won a title under the Chase system, despite much of the Chase era coinciding with what should have been the prime of Gordon’s career. Part of that may have to do with the change from the fourth-generation stock cars to the so called Car of Tomorrow, but Gordon has never really played the Chase game well.
Looking at season-long points, Gordon could well have two more titles in his collection. That’s not the certainty that many think it would have been; teams raced differently under a full-season format than they have in Chase seasons. But still, it’s a black mark on Gordon’s stellar career.
Also of concern: Gordon’s lack of race wins in recent years. He hasn’t won more than twice in a season since 2011 and his last season with more than three wins was 2007. He has five wins in Chase races, but has never put together a winning run and has just three top-5 points finishes since the Chase entered the game.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Strengths: Two wins, second in Cup points, tied for series-best in top 5s (9) and top 10s (13), 202 laps led, hypothetical 2013 winner under current Chase system
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has actually been the model of consistency in 2014, and if that continues, he will be a tough, tough championship contender. Like Gordon’s hypothetical titles, it’s not a certainty that he’d have the title, but the possibility remains, and Earnhardt, perhaps fueled by the imminent departure of crew chief Steve Letarte, is racing like he means it, leading the series in top 5s and top 10s and grabbing two wins while looking like he could have had a couple more had luck been on his side.
Still, Earnhardt has had his shaky moments in recent years, and has finished better than fifth in points just once since 2006. If Earnhardt can overcome his past, he can easily contend. He’ll have to throw caution to the wind and go out and take the title, though, and he’s hesitated to do that at times.
Strengths: Two wins, sixth in Cup points, 14.5 average finish in 2014, eight Chase race wins, tied for 2011 title
Weakness: Inconsistency / Not leading races
Carl Edwards has the unique distinction as being the closest driver ever to a title without winning one; he tied for the 2011 championship but lost on a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart. That loss almost seemed to break Edwards. He finished outside the top 10 for the next two seasons, and while he’s had four wins in the last two years, he hasn’t consistently been a threat for wins.
A big part of that is that Edwards isn’t leading a lot of laps this year. He’s sixth in points, but ninth in laps led with just 130. He’ll have to pick it up in the Chase and find the consistency he’s lacked recently, or face early elimination. One other obstacle for Edwards is that other favorites, like Johnson and Keselowski, are very good at getting in other drivers’ heads, and Edwards has proved susceptible to that in the past.
Strengths: Two wins, ninth in points, 519 laps led in 14 of 19 races in 2014
Weakness: Inexperience / Others can get in his head
Joey Logano is no rookie. In his sixth full season in Cup competition, he’s nearing veteran status at 24 years old. But what he lacks is experience in racing for a championship. He has made the Chase only once, which was last year. This year, he looks like he can be stronger, and could contend. It’s more likely, though, that he’ll need a year or two of finding out how to finish in the top 5 before he can race with the heavyweights.
He’s also shown a tendency to lose his cool when things don’t go his way, and that rarely makes a champion. Logano has plenty of time ahead of him and plenty of opportunity to grow out of it, but right now, it’s too easy for seasoned veterans like Johnson or even his own teammate, Keselowski, to play — and win — head games with the young driver.
Strengths: Two wins, 882 laps led in 2014, has led 16 percent of all laps in 2014 (second among all drivers), five wins and 12.6 average finish in Chase races
Weakness: Internal strife
Even taking his mechanical issues into account, Kevin Harvick looked like the driver to beat earlier this year. Even with those issues, which seem to be in the past anyway, Harvick could well win it all. He’s as hungry as anyone, and he didn’t earn the nickname The Closer for nothing.
The bump in the road for Harvick is team chemistry. His pit crew has cost him dearly on the racetrack, but Harvick’s reaction when the chips are down doesn’t help matters. It’s one thing to be angry and frustrated when something goes wrong, but one ingredient in a championship is how well the driver and team handle setbacks and regroup. For whatever reason, Harvick hasn’t seemed able to hit the reset button and start over on a new hot streak. His 2014 season has largely been defined by extremes. He has more top-5 and top-10 finishes than several drivers ahead of him in points, but too often, if he’s not in the top 10, he’s in the back half of the field. With eliminations at play in the Chase, that’s something Harvick just can’t afford.