NotebooK: Final Four Bound?
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on April 15, 2014 | 4:15 P.M. EST
Joey Logano has scored more points this season at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix, the tracks that will determine who advances to Homestead in the Chase. (Photo: Getty Images)
Clues are emerging as to which four drivers could be competing for the Sprint Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Sure, it’s easy to forecast NASCAR’s Final Four as Kevin Harvick (series-high two wins), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (five top-five finishes so far), Jeff Gordon (points leader) and Jimmie Johnson (because he’s Jimmie Johnson), but there’s more to it than that.
NASCAR divided its Chase into three three-race segments where the 16-driver field is cut by four after each round. That leaves four drivers for a one-race shootout at Homestead for the crown.
The final three-race segment - called the Eliminator Round - features races at Martinsville Speedway, Texas and Phoenix International Raceway. If a driver still alive in the Chase wins one of those races, they advance to Homestead’s title round. Still, that means at least one Chase driver will advance based on points from those three races.
So, who could it be?
He’s scored the most points at at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix with 130. Logano won at Texas, and finished fourth at Martinsville and Phoenix. If he’s still alive in the Chase and repeats his Texas win (or at the other two tracks), he won’t need to advance on points. That would leave a spot for someone else.
Gordon is next with 115 points in those three races this season. Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch each have 108 points.
So what about Harvick, Earnhardt and Johnson?
Harvick scored a dominating win at Phoenix. If he repeats that and is still competing in the Chase, he’ll be racing for the crown at Homestead. If he doesn’t win and has to rely on points, then he’s an example of how fickle this format can be. He finished 42nd after an engine failure at Texas. If that is repeated in the Chase and he doesn’t win a race, he’s done.
Same for Earnhardt. He finished second at Phoenix and third at Martinsville but made a mistake early at Texas and crashed, finishing last. He wouldn’t have enough points to advance if he duplicated those finishes.
Johnson? He has a second at Martinsville, sixth at Phoenix and 25th at Texas. He wouldn’t have enough points to advance to the title round. Kurt Busch passed him late to win at Martinsville. Imagine how difficult Johnson will make it on someone trying to get by him at Martinsville in the fall if a spot at Homestead is in play?
Of course, these three races are a long way off.
"There’s a lot of time in there, especially with the new car, to develop setups," Johnson said. "But if we take good notes, and understand the track and how it changes, we’ll be able to apply those things."
Another thing to consider is that with Logano and teammate Brad Keselowski having won a race and all but assuring themselves a spot in the Chase, they can save their four tests at NASCAR tracks until the end of the season. That could help them in the Chase, although other teams will do the same.
Carl Edwards is third in the points and has a victory at Bristol. But his driver rating ranks 10th, a sign that he hasn’t always been running at the front. So how does Edwards look at his season so far?
"I would give us a B," Edwards said. "Maybe a B+ because of the win. We really capitalized at Bristol and that's changed the shape of our whole season. But if you step back and look at what we need to work on, it's the bigger tracks. We have to figure that out. Everyone is working really hard at that. That is going to be the meat of the Chase. We have got to turn that around."
JR Motorsports has won three of the first seven Nationwide races this season with Regan Smith winning at Daytona International Speedway, and rookie Chase Elliott winning the past two races. Elliott has a 13-point lead on Smith in the point standings.
"We feel fortunate to have Chase (Elliott) in the program," Earnhardt said. "He was going to go somewhere and be successful, and we were lucky to be able to work with him."