Time Is Running Out
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on August 21, 2014 | 8:14 A.M. EST
Kevin Harvick (left) and Jeff Gordon have been among the strongest cars this year, but will they remain as strong when the Chase begins in less than a month?
Less than a month before the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins, Jeff Gordon seems unbeatable, Jimmie Johnson fallible and Kevin Harvick a contender again.
Of course, that’s the beauty of the Chase. It doesn’t matter what one does before - three races remain until the 16-driver field is finalized - only what one does in it.
With eliminations and a one-race shootout for the championship, no one is quite sure what to expect. Except maybe chaos.
Since there won’t be 16 different winners after Richmond, there’s the possibility a driver who doesn’t win a race could claim the title. Or a driver outside the top 10 in points by Richmond could capture the championship.
If a poll picking the champion happened now, Gordon likely would be among the favorites, if not the favorite, with recent victories at Indianapolis and Michigan. Both are horsepower tracks where aerodynamics also matter - key items that can transfer to the five 1.5-mile tracks in the Chase. But there are concerns.
New Hampshire, the second Chase race, looms for Hendrick Motorsports, which was not as strong there in July despite testing at the 1-mile oval. Gordon was at the front when he ran out of fuel late and finished 26th. Those fuel issues masked how he and his teammates could not match winner Brad Keselowski.
That also was the race Jimmie Johnson had two tire issues - Goodyear stated it was because the tires were under the minimum recommended air pressure - and crashed to finish 42nd.
Hendrick teams are scheduled to test Aug. 26-27 at Martinsville Speedway and some of what is found there could help the team at New Hampshire.
Johnson’s team has had its struggles lately, finishing 28th or worse in four of the last six races. Much of that is related to accidents and not all of his doing. So, should this be a concern? In the four races before last year’s Chase, Johnson placed no better than 28th and went on to win his sixth title.
The expectation is that once the Chase starts, Johnson’s team will again take its place among the best on the track, but if there’s a stumble in this new elimination system, Johnson’s bid to repeat could vanish.
If not a Hendrick driver - Dale Earnhardt Jr. is headed for one of the best seasons of his career - Harvick could challenge for the crown.
He is starting to put together strong results. His runner-up finish at Michigan marked his fourth consecutive top-10 result of the season, his longest stretch this year.
“The main focus for our team has been consistency heading into the Chase to make sure we can scramble and do the things we've done over the last month,’’ Harvick said. “When you have a solid day, finish it off. Those are the things we've been able to do.’’
The question is if the team is past its mistakes. Issues again arose two weeks ago at Watkins Glen when Harvick had to pit early because of ballast bags had not been removed before the race. If such details continue to be missed, it’s doubtful Harvick could win the title.
Then again, Harvick has shown the type of speed all season to win. In theory, he only would need to be error-free in four of the 10 races to win the title since a win advances a driver to the next round. Win in each of the first three rounds and Harvick would be set to make a title run in the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Yet, there are others to worry about.
Joey Logano placed third last weekend at Michigan and has finished no worse than sixth in each of the last four races.
Despite the disappointment of losing the lead on the final restart at Michigan, Logano said the race meant more in other ways, showing “that we can win a championship. That's the message I want to put out there. I want to put out for my team that we're strong enough to do that. I think we showed that.’’
He’s placed in the top five in four of the eight tracks that will host a Chase race this season.
Keselowski, Logano's teammate, hit the wall and still finished eighth at Michigan. He has been strong throughout the season. With crew chief Paul Wolfe, Keselowski always will be a threat.
But what about the Toyotas? They don’t seem to have the horsepower that other engines are producing.
David Wilson, president and general manager at Toyota Racing Development, says help is coming. TRD produces engines for Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing.
“We’re bringing some new stuff to the race track between now and the Chase,’’ he said.
Drivers and teams have three races to get ready before the Chase begins. Then, let the games begin.