NASCAR 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup Power Rankings: Contender Round: The first round of the new Chase for the Sprint Cup format is in the books, and Greg Biffle, Aric Almirola, A.J. Allmendinger and Kurt Busch saw their championship hopes come to an end last weekend at Dover International Speedway. Now, 12 drivers prepare for the Contender Round of the playoffs with trips to Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega deciding the eight drivers that advance on to the Elimination Round. The pressure is only going to rise from here while the margin for error is going to shrink. With that in mind, here is a closer look at how the 12 remaining drivers stack up in the championship battle.
- Brad Keselowski: The 2012 champ scored more points than any other driver during the Challenger Round, and he has won more races than any other drivers this season. Keselowski has been one the strongest drivers all season, and he could easily advance to the next round of the Chase on points or by winning another race.
- Kevin Harvick: In terms of week-to-week speed, Harvick has arguably been the best driver in the series in 2014, and no driver has led more laps. Meanwhile, Harvick is a former winner at all three tracks in the Challenger Round of the Chase. Including the defending winner of the first race of the round at Kansas.
- Joey Logano: Logano was the only driver to finish in the top five in each of the three races in the Challenger Round, winning at New Hampshire and posting a 3.0 average finish overall. He doesn’t have the experience or history of success of some of the other top contenders, but there is no doubt that Logano continues to be one of the strongest drivers in 2014.
- Jeff Gordon: Although he was caught up in a wreck at New Hampshire, Gordon finished second at Chicagoland and won at Dover in the opening round of the playoffs, leaving little doubt that he remains one of the main contenders for the title. The fact that he has multiple wins at all three tracks in the Contender Round puts him in great position to advance to the Eliminator Round.
- Jimmie Johnson: While he hasn’t been as dominant as he normally is this time of year, Johnson has still been pretty impressive. He logged a 6.7 average finish in the opening round, finishing in the top five in the last two races. Johnson has also led the third-most laps this year so it’s not like he has been struggling. Throw in the fact that he has victories at all three tracks in the Contender Round, and the six-time champ probably isn’t getting eliminated any time soon.
- Kyle Busch: Busch has always been one of the most talented drivers in the series, but his temper has often led to self-destructive performances that have ruined his title hopes. However, he has been rock solid in the playoffs so far, logging top-10 finishes in all three races of the opening round, including an eighth-place finish at New Hampshire that saw him rally from multiple wrecks. Is this the year he puts it all together?
- Matt Kenseth: He survived a wreck at New Hampshire to advance to the Contender Round by logging top-10s in the other two races of the round, including a top-five finish at Dover. Consistency has kept Kenseth in the title hunt all year, but the fact that wins continue to elude him could be a problem the longer the playoffs go on. He isn’t out of the running by any means, but his margin for error is smaller than the frontrunners.
- Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Junior advanced, but he wasn’t exactly impressive in doing so. He posted a 12.3 average finish in the Challenger Round and logged just a single top-10 finish. After coming out of the gate strong in 2014, Junior has been good but not great leading up to the playoffs. His strong restrictor plate record could save his season with Talladega lurking as the final race of the Contender Round, but it is starting to look like he has peaked too soon.
- Denny Hamlin: Consistency has eluded Hamlin and his team all year, but Hamlin is an interesting wild card in the Contender Round because of the upcoming tracks. He is a former winner at Kansas, and he has been excellent at superspeedways all season and will be gunning for a season sweep at Talladega in this round’s finale. Hamlin probably needs to win to advance, but a win isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
- Carl Edwards: Despite failing to log a single top-10 finish in the opening round, Edwards snuck into the Contender Round. He posted a 16.0 average finish in the first three races of the playoffs, continuing to struggle to show consistent top-end speed. The tracks in the second round don’t really play into his favor either since faster ovals have been a problem all year and two 1.5-mile tracks are on tap. Edwards has managed to win two races this year, but he will really have to pull a rabbit out of his hat to stay alive much longer.
- Ryan Newman: Newman avoided major trouble and quietly advanced to the Contender Round by posting a 13.7 average finish in the first three races of the playoffs. The problem Newman is going to face is that top-15 finishes are going to be less and less likely to be enough as the playoffs go on and the competition becomes tougher. Newman has just two top-five finishes all year, and he is probably going to need several other drivers to find trouble if he is going to advance.
- Kasey Kahne: He was the last driver to secure a spot in the Contender Round, and he didn’t exactly earn the spot as much as the rest of the competition lost it. His 18.7 average finish during the opening round was the worst of any driver that advanced, and he didn’t log a single top-10 finish during the first three races of the playoffs. Unless he pulls off a surprise win, his days in the Chase are likely numbered.
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