By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on June 30, 2014 | 5:01 P.M. EST
Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth are the only drivers who have scored a top-10 finish in all five races on 1.5-mile tracks this season. (Photo: Getty Images)
With only one more race left at a 1.5-mile speedway before the Chase - where intermediate tracks comprise half the 10-race stretch - it’s easy to see who will be the key factors for the championship.
Or is it?
Brad Keselowski is focused on another title and many will place him among the favorites after his win last weekend at Kentucky Speedway - his second in five races on intermediate tracks this year.
If history is your guide to the future, you might reconsider Keselowski. Three times in the last five years, a driver had multiple wins at 1.5-mile tracks before the Chase. Each time, they did not win the title.
Keselowski and his team, though, aren’t focused on the past but what’s ahead.
“This is the type of performance we’re going to need to be able to compete for another championship,’’ crew chief Paul Wolfe said. “I feel like Team Penske has done a great job at responding to the rules changes, but there is still a lot to be learned and gained with this package, so it’s important for us to continue to work hard and keep building off this momentum as we get ready to run for the championship.”
Especially with how strong Hendrick Motorsports has been. Hendrick drivers Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon are set for the Chase, while Kasey Kahne tries to gain a spot in the 16-team field.
Three times this season Hendrick has placed all four of its cars in the top 10 in a race on a 1.5-mile speedway. Twice, Hendrick cars won with Jeff Gordon victorious at Kansas Speedway and Johnson winning the Coca-Cola 600.
Gordon is one of only two drivers to have scored a top-10 in each race on a 1.5-mile speedway this season.
The other driver to match Gordon’s feat?
Not Johnson. Not Earnhardt. Not Joey Logano, who has four top-10s in those fives races.
The other driver is Matt Kenseth.
While the talk is how Joe Gibbs Racing, which won five of six races on 1.5-mile tracks before last year’s Chase, isn’t as strong on intermediate tracks this season, Kenseth is still showing what he can do.
Keep Kenseth’s record in mind with this new elimination format where four drivers are cut from title contention every third race of the Chase. Yes, wins advance a driver to the next round but consistent finishes will be just as meaningful.
Might there be somebody else to consider for a title run?
Tony Stewart seemingly came from nowhere to win five Chase races, including three at 1.5-mile tracks, and capture the 2011 crown. Look closer and despite the struggles he had, Stewart finished second at Las Vegas, was eighth at Kansas and placed third at Atlanta in the final race at an intermediate track before the Chase that year. Stewart beat Carl Edwards for the crown but might Stewart’s path be the way for Edwards this year?
No one would have picked Stewart to have won the title weeks before the 2011 Chase. He was 12th in points after 17 races that season. Edwards is sixth despite Roush Fenway Racing’s struggles. Edwards also has three top-10 finishes on intermediate tracks this season.
While it’s easy to twist numbers any way one wants, the key for teams will be the coming weeks even though the series doesn’t race at a 1.5-mile track again until Labor Day weekend at Atlanta.
Horsepower and downforce are so important at those tracks. What can be learned at Indianapolis, Pocono and Michigan could prove helpful at the intermediate tracks.
“Pocono, Indy, Michigan, even places like Charlotte now are so much wide open because the cars have still got too much downforce on them that it's very important to have good horsepower, and good horsepower will win you races,’’ Ryan Newman said after his season-best third-place finish at Kentucky Speedway.
“I think we're not where we need to be, but that's why we're working on it, and we'll see if we can make those gains before those races come.’’
He and every other team have seven more races, starting with Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, before the series is at Atlanta. Then, what happens on the 1.5-mile tracks will play a large role in determining this year’s champion.