In its first year of conception, NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff — featuring multiple rounds, eliminations and essentially a winner-take-all format — more than delivered. The action on the track intensified, tempers off it frequently flared and the 2014 championship came down to the final laps.
So what will the encore bring? That’s to be determined. The only certainty is the ensuing 10 weeks should again be captivating and not lack for drama.
Winning and consistency both matter
Winning is the surest way to guarantee advancement to the next bracket and provides drivers an out in case they stumble and find themselves in an insurmountable points hole. What winning isn’t, though, is imperative. Three of the four championship finalists last season made it to the final race based on their point totals the preceding round, not because they had earned a victory.
Expect teams to adjust their strategy accordingly with greater understanding of how the Chase format plays out. It goes against the foundation of what the format is supposed to emphasize, but points racing remains just as important as winning — if not more so, depending on the circumstances.
Joe Gibbs Racing
Despite competing in NASCAR’s premier division since 2007, Toyota is still seeking its first championship. That futility has little chance of ending thanks to the emergence of Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota’s flagship team, which seemingly supplanted Hendrick Motorsports — and its affiliated teams — as the dominant organization during the regular season.
All four of JGR’s drivers (Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards) harbor realistic title hopes. Having won nine of 15 races to close out the regular season, anything less than JGR and Toyota securing the championship will be viewed as a letdown.
Jeff Gordon steps away
Lost amid the Chase hype is that it also signifies the final 10 weeks of Jeff Gordon’s career. While the future Hall of Famer had hoped to retire running competitively, thus far 2015 has involved more frustration than elation.
Gordon, winless on the year, has mostly struggled due to the Hendrick cars lacking speed and an aerodynamic rules package not conducive to his driving style — he prefers high-horsepower, low-aerodynamic cars that are hard to handle. And on the occasions Gordon was in position to win, he squandered those chances with tactical mistakes (Daytona) and speeding penalties (Martinsville and Talladega).
What the Chase offers the winner of four championships and 92 races is a second chance; an opportunity for Gordon to visit Victory Lane and perhaps make one last championship push before riding off into the sunset.
Every bit as dominant as he was when he stormed to the championship last year, Harvick led all drivers in wins, top-fives, top-10s, laps led and average finish during the regular season. He can beat the opposition by outrunning them _or employing_ unnerving consistency that saw him finish second or better in 12 of 26 races.
A season that began with Busch laying in the emergency room with serious leg injuries has evolved into him possessing his best shot at capturing the Sprint Cup trophy. Historically the Chase has not been kind to the 30-year-old driver, whose inability to handle pressure and setbacks often led to his undoing. However, the comeback from his Daytona crash, in addition to fatherhood — wife Samantha gave birth to the couple’s first child in May — have provided Busch with a new perspective.
Following a breakthrough 2014 that saw him win five times and advance to the championship round, Logano won three races — including the Daytona 500 — and demonstrated almost as much weekly consistency as Harvick. He doesn’t garner the headlines like Harvick or Busch, but Logano is just as capable of winning on any of the 10 Chase tracks.
The Richard Childress Racing driver aptly played the role of Cinderella last year — he entered the Chase winless and was expected to be among the first eliminated. Instead, Newman used consistency to make it all the way to the final four before finishing second to Harvick in the deciding race. Although Newman again failed to win a race during the regular season, his trademark consistency remains, and that makes him a candidate to surprise.
At times Busch has shown the same speed and consistency as Harvick, his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate. That includes a spring stretch where Busch led laps in eight straight races, and during the summer he rolled off seven consecutive top-10s. While Harvick maintained his high level throughout the season, Busch’s performance tends to ebb and flow. If he can recapture his earlier form, SHR will have two drivers capable of winning the championship.
Key Chase race
The sport’s most foreboding track, Talladega is the final race of Round 2 and a complete game-changer. Its penchant for volatility resulted in Johnson, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. each getting knocked out of the playoffs last season, while Brad Keselowski staved off elimination by willing himself to the win. More of the same craziness is guaranteed in October.
Driver likely to disappoint
Martin Truex Jr. enjoyed a magical 2015, posting 14 top-10s in the season’s first 15 races and rising to second in the standings. But after scoring a popular win in June at Pocono, the driver for single-car Furniture Row Racing came back to reality. He led a total of five laps in the subsequent 12 races, with five finishes of 25th or worse. Numbers that suggest the biggest surprise of the season likely doesn’t have much playoff staying power.