It seemed like everyone wanted a piece of Brad Keselowski after the AAA Texas 500, but he isn’t the driver atop Who’s Hot and Who’s Not. The actions of Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick are being studied under a microscope after a multifaceted brawl in the Lone Star State left three Chasers bruised and bloody. They’ll need to refocus their aggression towards pursuing those who moved on to the Eliminator Round finale without engaging in hand-to-hand combat.
The face of the playoffs could change entirely, again, with the eight championship eligible drivers within 18 points of each other. No one is locked into the finals, so Hot or Not dishes out its own Phoenix International Raceway outlook below.
Fighting is all the rage in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Just weeks removed from post-race fireworks between Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart erupted after on-track beating and banging overflowed into the logjam of cars on pit road following the checkered flag, tempers flared again at Texas Motor Speedway.
Forget the between-the-haulers, one-versus-one bout pairing Kenseth against Keselowski, and the almost comical account of the events leading up to the fight from Hamlin; the show put on by Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Keselowski resembled something closer to a riot.
Gordon was understandably irritable. After Keselowski supposedly slashed his tires, Gordon wound up finishing 29th – worst among Chase drivers – and dropped to fourth in the standings, just a point to the good.
From a Hot or Not standpoint Harvick and Keselowski were being just a bit overly dramatic. They actually made up ground on the bubble using second- and third-place finishes, respectively, and guess who are facing highly favorable match ups at Phoenix International Raceway? That’s right, Harvick and Keselowski.
Harvick has been nearly untouchable at PIR over Cup’s last five visits, posting three wins and a series-high 129.1 average driver rating. It’s impossible to top those numbers at the moment, but Keselowski’s four top 10s and five top 20s actually equal Harvick’s results in those categories over that span, and his worst finish (11th) is slightly better than that of the Stewart-Haas Racing driver (13th).
Gordon guaranteed victory at Phoenix after battling in the pits, but history shows that Harvick and Keselowski could be serious factors as well.
Joey Logano is indeed a survivalist. But as the laps ticked away at TMS, Logano seemed the furthest thing from it. The No. 22 Ford Fusion had been one of the fastest cars all afternoon, but after a nightmarish pit stop with less than 40 laps remaining, Logano wasn’t in a position to show it. Things only got worse when contact from Marcos Ambrose led to a flat right-rear tire that sent the Team Penske driver spinning in turn 1, causing a caution. Logano used a gutsy call to stay out with 20 laps remaining and two green-white-checkered attempts to salvage a 12th-place finish.
Logano’s Eliminator victory hasn’t come after finding Victory Lane in each prior playoff round, but that hasn’t stopped him from inheriting the points lead. All things considered, Logano has played the part of a finalist over the last six races. He owns the best average finish (6.17) and has the most top 5s (four) in the NSCS over that span.
Logano is joined at the top of the standings by Denny Hamlin, who also pulled himself out of a potential disaster scenario in the waning moments of Sunday’s race. Hamlin stayed afloat for much of the day using unique pitting strategies, but that plan didn’t help when several teams with four fresh tires worked back around the No. 11 FedEx Office Toyota with more than 40 laps remaining. Hamlin’s crew finally elected for four tires in its final stop, allowing the Joe Gibbs Racing driver to ascend back to 10th place.
Jimmie Johnson‘s win at TMS was thrown aside after punches began to fly. That’s because Johnson’s victory means absolutely nothing aside from its prevention of a possible Chase lock for Homestead, similar to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. at Martinsville Speedway. Johnson’s fourth win of 2014 and 70th of his career came too late to advance the No. 48 team in the playoffs. There just wasn’t enough room in this edition of Hot or Not to include Johnson in the upper echelons.
The focus lies more on Chase drivers, some of whom still haven’t won a single race this season. Sure there’s Matt Kenseth, but Ryan Newman has been even more impressive down the stretch. Newman’s average finish over the last six races (7.33) ranks second to only Logano, but again, Newman hasn’t won a race. It’s not like he’ll have to win to advance; Newman needs only to finish inside the top 10 in most possible outcomes to move on to South Florida with championship aspirations intact.
The problem is that Newman ranks last among Chase drivers in PIR production. In 24 career starts, he has completed only 91.2 percent of laps and has an 18.2 average finish. That’s more than seven positions worse than the 11th (with the most laps led) he’ll need to lock himself into the finals regardless of what the other seven Chasers do. Newman has also finished inside the top 10 only 41.7 percent of the time. These figures indicate that he’ll again be playing the underdog role at PIR as he’s done for the entirety of the playoffs.
Many of the eliminated Chasers have at least found some of what eventually led them to gain a playoff berth. In some cases, they’ve actually looked as good – if not better – than they did before the postseason began. Kyle Busch managed a fourth at TMS in a heavily damaged No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry, and AJ Allmendinger‘s 15.33 average finish since the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway is a lot better than his 19.7 encompassing all 34 events.
Those are the post-elimination success stories. For many of the others, results have been on par or worse than what caused their seasons to take a downturn. Aric Almirola sits at the extreme other end of the spectrum. Almirola has completely collapsed since exiting the Chase after the first round. At that time, the No. 43 team had nothing to be ashamed about. Almirola ran extremely well in those three opening round races, but lacked finishes needed to advance.
After a Chase-best sixth at NHMS, Almirola hasn’t been close to Chase-worthy. He was a non-factor in the Challenger Round final at the Monster Mile and has followed that dud up with five consecutive finishes of 21st or worse, highlighted by a 39th in the GEICO 500. It makes Almirola the 34th best driver over that span, ranking him behind rookies Justin Allgaier, Cole Whitt and Ryan Blaney, as well as Landon Cassill.
So much for competing for fifth in the final standings. Almirola ranks last among ex-Chase drivers, 35 points behind 15th-place Kasey Kahne and 126 points behind ninth-place Kyle Busch.
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