The unforgiving nature of NASCAR’s Chase has already taken its toll on one former champion.
Jimmie Johnson didn’t make it out of the first round of this year’s Chase after a broken part crippled his No. 48 Chevy at Dover (Del.) International Speedway two weeks ago.
Now it’s time for another ex-champ – and others, including the sport’s most popular driver – to sweat the final two races of the Chase’s round of 12, beginning with Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.
“It would make it easier if we could win (Sunday),” said Matt Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champ. “For me it’s really no different; we show up and try to do the best we can every week. Same this week. Obviously a win moves you on, but I don’t feel like it’s a must win.”
It’s not in Kenseth’s temperament to panic easily – if at all – over his chances at advancing into the Chase’s round of eight. But he’s mired in the 12th and final spot in the Chase standings, thanks to a 42nd-place finish last week in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Kenseth is 32 points behind eighth-place Brad Keselowski (who is on the pole for Sunday’s race). Kenseth is joined by ninth-place Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch (10th) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (11th) in a group that needs something good to happen in the second round’s final two races – Sunday or next week at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, NASCAR’s most unpredictable and unforgiving track.
“We ain’t got nothing to lose,” said Earnhardt. “We just go out there and run hard and try to win races and try to run up front. We are not close enough to the top eight to have a strategy. We are just going to go out there and race and see how it works out for us and try to win. We have two opportunities and we are a good enough team so we will see how that works out.”
This isn’t the first time Earnhardt has faced down the odds in this season’s Chase. He was in the 12th and final spot entering the final race of the first round at Dover. He finished third, moving him easily into the second round.
But he’s right back in the danger zone in the second round after finishing 28th last week at Charlotte. Earnhardt compares NASCAR’s postseason to the NCAA basketball tournament.
“The Chase’s elimination factor really brings a lot of excitement,” said Earnhardt. “It’s just like college basketball. You get eliminated. You are out. Even if you were the number one team in the country, you can get knocked out in that tournament. So, that is how it is. You have to be able to deliver when the time comes.”
NASCAR tweaked the format of the 10-race Chase in 2014, dividing it into three preliminary rounds that lead to a season-ending and championship-deciding race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The changes have made the playoffs more compelling, with top drivers like Johnson bowing out after one miscue and others finding ways to win to keep their hopes stay alive. Kevin Harvick had to win at Dover to assure himself a spot in the second round. In 2014, Keselowski’s dramatic victory at Talladega moved him into the third round and Harvick did the same a few weeks later at Phoenix to send him into Homestead’s final four.
“It’s a very different format,” said Kenseth. “You look at Jimmie (Johnson) with the problem he had and he’s out. If it was a 10-race deal he might not be out. You could usually have a ‘mulligan.’ In this format depending on what your competition does, you can’t. I think that stuff certainly creates more interest, more things to watch, more drama.”
Top eight after Oct. 24 race at Talladega make third round:
1. Joey Logano*
2. Kevin Harvick
3. Martin Truex Jr.
4. Denny Hamlin
5. Kurt Busch
6. Carl Edwards
7. Jeff Gordon
8. Brad Keselowski
9. Ryan Newman
10. Kyle Busch
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
12. Matt Kenseth
* clinched spot in third round by virtue of last week’s victory at Charlotte