The NASCAR Chase For The Cup is ready to roll, with the final ten races of the year that will crown the champion set to begin on Sunday afternoon at Chicagoland Motor Speedway (2 PM ET, ESPN).
If you’re someone who follows NASCAR casually—maybe you won’t sit down and watch a whole race or get into a NASCAR Fantasy League—but know the players and are interested in who wins the championship, then here’s nine points to know going into the Chase…
*There’s a new format in place that give NASCAR a final winner-take-all showdown. Sixteen drivers begin the chase (the full field of 30-plus drivers runs each week, but only 16 are eligible to win the season-long championship). An elimination process will pare this to four remaining contenders by the final race in Miami, and the highest finisher in that race wins the championship. NASCAR, like college football and college basketball has its own Final Four.
*The first segment of the elimination process starts Sunday, and includes the two ensuing races in New Hampshire and Dover. The lowest four of the sixteen will be eliminated and relegated to the pack that can only run for individual race purses, and not the overall title. The three drivers “in jeopardy” (as though this were Dancing With The Stars) are Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman, the only playoff qualifiers who didn’t win a race in the regular season and thus with the lowest point totals to start the Chase.
*Another segment of three races, aimed at eliminating four drivers, then begins. At this point, all the drivers begin with the same number of total points. The first round of eliminations weighted the scoring based on regular season success. By the second round, it truly becomes a “second season”. Like the NFL, being one of the last twelve standing is a big threshold.
*In this second round of races, the one to keep an eye is October 19 in Talladega. My brother Bill is a big NASCAR junkie and been the source for a lot of information in past NASCAR coverage. He’s told me that Talladega, like Daytona, is a big superspeedway, where accidents are common and unlikely winners the norm. It also means that favorites finishing way back in the back is unsurprising. Now Talladega’s schedule position, at the end of the second round, gives that big meaning.
*The third round is the same—reset the points, make the last eight even, eliminate the lowest four after three races. That sets the stage for the final race in Miami. I’ve heard it suggested that the four contenders just get on the track alone and drive for glory. It would provide great clarity—there would be something unique about seeing the champion do it by grabbing the checkered flag, rather just finishing 11th and that being the highest of the four eligible cars. But it would be inauthentic—championship driving involves handling yourself in traffic, so this is the right balance.
*Brad Keselowski brings the top seed into the Chase, with the most regular season wins, making him the likeliest to survive the opening round. Keselowski is a hot driver on a mission. He won the final race of the regular season last week in Richmond and has said repeatedly he doesn’t want to be a one-time champion (2012). Last season’s failure to make the Chase, along with some unjust sanctions from NASCAR higher-ups have whetted his appetite. “Bad Brad” and Joey Logano, another high seed, are on the same team and made it a great year for Team Penske.
*Jimmie Johnson has won the Cup six times, including last year. He’s got a great shot to do it again this season, but this has been a strange year for JJ. Other than a brief run of winning a couple races in succession, he’s been quiet. Maybe it’s a case of being too quiet (for his opponents). Or, as Bill feels, maybe not all is right with his team. They haven’t hit on all cylinders this year. All will be forgiven with a good ten weeks, but there’s no more time to lose.
*The two veterans, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Junior, have been the big stories all year. Gordon, now 43-years-old, led the standings much of the year and settled in second. Junior, who will turn 40 during the Chase, is sitting on third.
*I’m going to close the only way a Washington Redskins fan can close—by professing my fealty to Joe Gibbs Racing. The greatest coach in NFL history has three drivers in the Chase (symbolically, that’s one for each of the different quarterbacks he won Super Bowls with. But I digress). The drivers are Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. Of the three, Kenseth would be who I would root for—he’s from the Madison, WI area near where I live. But more important is that Redskins Nation needs some good news, and as usual, Joe Gibbs is our best chance to get it.
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