Three up, three down for NASCAR’s Chase after 2nd race – USA TODAY
Twenty percent of the Chase for the Sprint Cup is complete, 67%Â of the first round. Sixteen drivers remain viable;Â two have assured spots in the next phase, and four will have to go after this weekend at Dover International Speedway. Thatâs a lot of math. Hereâs the rising and the falling after Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Joe Gibbs Racing: The four-car organization is running out of up to attain but demands credit for maintenance of altitude. Matt Kensethâs victory on Sunday pushed him into the series lead with five this season and gave JGR 10Â wins in the last 13 races. Kenseth and teammate Denny Hamlin â who won the Chase-opener at Chicago â have each earned automatic transfer into the second round. Teammate Carl Edwards is snuggly behind them at third in the points standings, whileÂ Kyle Busch, a four-time-winner, is the only concern at 13th in the standings after a disaster finish (37th) on Sunday. Still, heady times for JGR.
Joey Logano: The Team Penske driver claimed two of the non-JGR triumphs since late June and remains well-positioned to vie for a first championship. Again, just outside of the Gibbs glare on Sunday, he finished third in the race and is fourth in the driver standings after a two-slot improvement. Now he returns to a Dover track where he has three top-5s and eight top-10s in 13 Cup starts, a legitimate, but stealthy, contender.
Jimmie Johnson: Sixth on Sunday and up two rungs to fifth in points, the six-time series champion has enjoyed a fairly uneventful beginning to the Chase, as he was 11th at Chicago. Well, uneventful is in the finishes, not the details. He was involved in a bump of Kevin Harvick at Chicago that prompted a tire rub to eventually send the defending series champion into the wall and possibly out of the title defense business. Johnson recovered from being lapped because of his own flat tire on Sunday. Whatever works, at this stage.
Kevin Harvick: The defending series champion was within three laps of orchestrating a spectacular rally from the verge of postseason extinction to advancement to the second round, but an apparent fuel miscalculation forced him to cede the lead and pit for fuel, resulting in a 21st-place finish. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver enters the first cut race of the Chase next weekend 15th (of 16) in the standings, 23 points behind 12th place Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the final transfer spot. In short, thatâs a lot, and Harvick, who led 216 of 300 laps on Sunday without reward, will almost certainly need to win for first time in 30 Dover starts to perpetuate his title defense.
Kyle Busch: After co-leading the regular season with four wins and entering the Chase sharing the top of the leaderboard with Jimmie Johnson and Kenseth, Busch is in concern, if not jeopardy. Busch went hard into the wall because of an apparent tire failure mid-race, effectively destroying his No. 18 Toyota and relegating him to a 37th-place finish. With that devastating result, Busch plummeted nine spots to 13th in the driver standings, albeit just a point behind Earnhardt Jr. This volatile Chase has no mercy for defending series champions or regular-season standouts with marvelous back stories, it seems. Buschâs comeback from a broken leg and foot that cost him 11 Cup races will remain an incredible feat, but it means little in the playoffs.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: A two-slot drop has placed NASCARâs most popular driver squarely on the verge of big trouble. The question is whether his quest for a title runs out of fuel like his No. 88 Chevrolet at the end of the race on Sunday. The Hendrick Motorsports driver finished 25th, which was a worrisome follow-up to a 12th-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway in the Chase opener. With Busch a point behind and Harvick always a concern because of penchant for last-ditch histrionics, Earnhardt Jr. has very little room for error at Dover.
PHOTOS:Â Highlights from the 2015 Chase for the Sprint CupÂ