Challengers to Contenders:
Who moves on to Round 2
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Brad Keselowski leads the field to the green flag at Dover International Speedway in June.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
With two races down in the 2014 Chase to the Sprint Cup, and just Dover left in the opening Challenger Round of the chase, seven drivers seemed to be locked into the next round. The front seven, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon are all separated by 27 points. That puts Jeff Gordon, who is in seventh, 21 points ahead of Denny Hamlin in 13th. Unless something drastic happens to the front seven, they’re most likely locked into the Contender Round.
That leaves nine drivers battling over the final five positions that would lock them into the next round. This article will highlights the pros and the cons of each of the nine, and give the reader a better insight on who goes on, and who will just go away, like Anne Robinson used to say on the Weakest Link. There’s one race that matters; Dover, the final race of the Challenger Round. Nothing else matters right now.
The driver in eighth place is the veteran Matt Kenseth from Joe Gibbs Racing. Kenseth made his Sprint Cup Series debut at the Dover International Speedway in 1998, subbing for an injured, Bill Elliott. Since then, his track record at Dover has been up and down. He’s got two wins at the track, both at Roush Fenway Racing. Since joining Joe Gibbs Racing, his best finish is third this spring. Right he is eight points to the good, inside the cutoff.
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Brad Keselowski spins at New Hampshire Motor Speedway behind Matt Kenseth. Kenseth is currently the highest ranked driver in points without a win in 2014.
With how consistent Kenseth is, I find it very hard to believe he will not move on to the next round. That being said, things seem to be happening at Joe Gibbs Racing that are out of their drivers’ control.
Last weekend, Denny Hamlin had a fuel pump issue. It’s gotten to the point at JGR where they may need to change their name to Mechanical Failure Motorsports. It’s been a constant thing for this team since they switched to Toyota in 2008. If Matt doesn’t have bad luck, he’s in. That will be the only thing that will keep the 2003 Series champion from moving on.
Carl Edwards is next in ninth place. Edward’s track record at Dover is a lot like Kenseth’s; up and down, including one win here in 2007. That being said, Edwards hasn’t had a top-ten finish at this track since 2012. He finished 14th here in the spring, not terrific, but a repeat would lock him into the next round; barely.
This team has struggled since the start. The entire organization has been way down this year. Carl is moving on to JGR at the end of this season, and if he remains focused this season, he’ll move on. But I’m not sure how many rounds he will last, and I’m not sure if Carl Edwards thinks he can win a championship this season… If he did, why would he move on? Not a good mentality to have in the chase.
Sitting in a solid tenth position is A.J. Allmendinger, the underdog of the 2014 Chase. Allmendinger has two top-ten finishes at Dover Downs; both were when he drove for Richard Petty Motorsports. Since then he hasn’t had a top-15 finish, which includes a 16th place finish when he drove for Roger Penske’s team. He finished 21st there in the spring, and doesn’t seem to have the umpf to get to the next round.
Most of the drivers who can move on who are back here, are here due to misfortune. Not Allmendinger, he’s only in tenth because of high attrition at New Hampshire. Allmendinger could move on. He’s been strong okay so far, and I don’t think anyone expected him to be in the good headed into Dover. It’s a nice story. However, the big guys are going to be on their game this week, and so will Allmendinger. I’m just not sure if this 47 can beat the other guys when they’re all at their best. They have to hope for a little luck, but because they’re currently in a transfer spot, it’s not impossible.
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Kasey Kahne's damaged car at New Hampshire.
In eleventh position is Kasey Kahne. Kahne squeaked his way into the chase with a win at Atlanta on Labor Day Weekend. Kahne’s another one that hasn’t had a top-10 at Dover since 2012. His best finish is sixth at Dover, and this could be a struggle for him this weekend. The team has really struggled at times in 2014, but being at Hendrick Motorsports, and with the track record that Kahne has as a driver, it’s very hard to believe he’ll be out after the first round.
But some of you did have him not making it out of the first round on your brackets, and I didn’t question you guys. That just shows you where this No. 5 team is now, and this ultimately could be the reason they miss, along with the way Kahne runs here at Dover.
Ryan Newman is the final driver in the good right now. He sits in twelfth position, as his 2014 season has been a decent one in his first year at Richard Childress Racing.
Newman has won at Dover 3 times, but not since 2004. He finished 31st here in the spring, but was eighth here last year. He’s had a lot of bad luck here lately. I think Newman is a lot like Kenseth, but not in as good equipment. He’s consistent enough to make it to the next round, and with his track record at Dover, it’s a good bet, as long as he stays out of someone else’s mess.
A mechanical failure at New Hampshire at Mechanical Failure Motorsports has Denny Hamlin back in 13th at this point. I think there’s no question how good Denny Hamlin can be at times. He can certainly compete with the best of the best. However, if you look at his career, he hasn’t been a guy who’s been able to rebound very well off of bad weeks.
Usually things start to spiral out of control, before they get better, especially in the chase. Some of that has to do with the team, but also I think Denny Hamlin gets dejected and down, and doesn’t have the confidence in his race team that he needs to compete for the championship.
Denny needs to avoid one of those melt downs in Dover. He’s a great driver, and finished fifth here in the spring. JGR and Toyota look better, with added horsepower in the Chase. This will help his cause for sure. But he needs to be in the right mind frame and he needs to avoid the mechanical failures that take place at JGR.
If Hamlin can’t do that, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him miss at all, and with his track record, I would pick him to miss. Call me crazy, but I could absolutely see this No. 11 team miss the Contender Round. That would be an utter disappointment for these guys, especially with his first Chase berth in two years.
Sitting 14th headed into Dover is the veteran Greg Biffle. At 44-years-old, “The Biff” is the elder statesman of this Chase. Usually I like experience and experience will play a big part at the “Monster Mile,” but this is one of the teams that I’m not even looking at the numbers and just going with my gut and what I know.
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Greg Biffle is done. Not the driver, just this No. 16 team in general for 2014. The fact that a crew chief change hasn’t taken place here I think shows that the guys running this organization right now just don’t have any clue right now.
Biffle has really really struggled, and like I said about Allmendinger, he’s not here because he’s had trouble. He’s just run poorly. Very poorly. This team squeaked their way into the Chase at Richmond with a hard fought… 19th place finish. Yikes!
It’s going to take a lot more than that for Biffle to gain enough points to move on, and I just don’t have the confidence in these guys right now. I like Greg Biffle; he’s one of the top-ten best drivers in Cup, but this team stinks right now. Let’s lay it out here. Biffle and co. should count their losses and be more focused on a much more hopeful 2015. This team is at rock bottom right now. They have no shot.
Kurt Busch is next, and man, in 15th, I’m just not sure if Kurt can do it. There’s no question about this guy’s talent. I know many fans don’t like either Busch brother, but they both can race anything, anywhere and win with it.
If I were starting a Sprint Cup team tomorrow, they would be one and two on my list to hire. However, I’m not sure what this No. 41 team has. They have struggled in their first year together, and Kurt lately has run more like boss Tony Stewart rather than fellow Chase teammate Kevin Harvick.
Busch has a good track record at New Hampshire and finished a measly 36th after trouble, but they weren’t running good before that. I would have a lot more confidence in this team if this were an intermediate, but it’s not.
I think this will be tough for this team to get through, but they could do it with Busch’s know how, and how good Stewart-Haas Racing could be. What puts people off about the Busch brothers are their brutal honesty, and their passion that comes out in bad ways sometimes.
I think that’s what we’ll see from Kurt Busch at Dover, honesty just like before the race in New Hampshire when he said they didn’t have the car to win. He’ll be honest again, but that doesn’t mean he won’t give 110 percent. Kurt is 50/50 for me right now, because I just don’t know how good this team could be.
Sitting in 16th is Aric Almirola, but do yourself a favor: do not count this team out by any means.
Richard Petty Motorsports historically has had strong runs at Dover, and the only reason why Almirola is back here is because of a blown engine at Chicagoland or he wouldn’t even be in this conversation. He wasn’t the only one with a bad race, and he’s got a better chance than most of the drivers back here just because he can reel off a top-ten finish this week.
I’m not sure how many guys in this article can do that. They’re hot, and ready to strike, and even though I bet 98 percent of you have them written off on your Chase brackets (myself included), don’t count these guys out by any means. I think Aric Almirola and this No. 43 team will shock some people and get themselves in twelfth, and into the next round.