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Chasing the Cup

Chasing 2014 Chicagoland

by Dan Beaver
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:09 pm ET

Predictions that the Federated Auto Parts 400 would be a wild affair proved inaccurate, but mostly because one driver ran away with the show. Brad Keselowski sat on the pole and scooted away from the competition. Kevin Harvick had a long-run car in the first half of the race and he chased the No. 2 Ford down twice to lead 17 laps, but as the team tried to adjust the car to get better speed at the beginning of a run, they jumped the cushion and actually made it slower. That left Keselowski in a class of his own.

Jeff Gordon took the honors of best in class for the remainder of the field. He was not able to match the speed of Keselowski, but his ability to score second-place points moves him higher in the rankings—as does Keselowski’s dominant performance.

Meanwhile, two of the drivers thought to be flawless stumbled at Richmond. Matt Kenseth proved he is fallible when he slapped the wall on about lap 115. That—coupled with a generally anemic run by all three Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas—means that Kenseth has something to prove before regaining his favored status.

Jimmie Johnson did not look particularly sharp all night and when the race was over, fantasy owners may have gotten a hint as to why. He climbed from his Chevrolet exhausted and dehydrated and had to be treated in the infield care center. Johnson suggested that his pre-race regimen may have failed him this week, but in the past several races the No. 48 has not looked like the championship contender they usually are.

Brief Explanation of the Chase Format

NASCAR wanted to devise a system that rewarded winning over consistency and in the first 26 races, they certainly accomplished that. Thirteen unique winners combined for 26 victories with five of them entering the final regular season race tied with the most wins. Winning was important enough that any of those drivers would have done whatever was necessary to take the checkers first in the Federated Auto Parts 400, but Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson, and Joey Logano came up short to Keselowski.

Now it is time to move on.

The Chase has been broken into four segments. The 16 drivers who advance out of the regular season will compete in the Challenger round, which features races at Chicagoland, New Hampshire, and Dover. Twelve drivers will progress to the second segment named the Contender round (Kansas, Charlotte, and Talladega) and that means that at least nine drivers will advance to it based on points.

Eight drivers survive to compete in the Eliminator round contested at Martinsville, Texas, and Phoenix—at least five of whom will advance on points. The final round is simple. Four drivers advance out of the Eliminator round and the one who finishes best at Homestead will be crowned the champion.

Winning is still one of the top priorities for the remainder of the Chase, but it is no longer of singular importance. Points’ totals will determine more than 63 percent of the drivers who advance from one round to the next, but winning still plays an important role. Winning automatically advances a qualified driver to the next round, so the field is never set until the final race of each segment.

To a lesser degree than experienced already, winning will have the same impact on a driver’s handicap as it did during the regular season. Once a driver has won, there is no benefit to scoring points and those drivers will likely gamble on winning again. If a driver is able to take two or three races during a segment, he removes an opportunity for his opponent to win and advance—and that could be significant if a serious contender struggles in one or more races and falls down the points’ standings.

Jeff Gordon (3 wins / 2,009 points)
Chase Outlook: first
Last week’s outlook: third
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Chicagoland: 21.67
New Hampshire: 10.67
Dover: 8.17

Gordon will need to survive Chicagoland in order to advance to the next round and that has not been easy in recent seasons. He crashed on lap 190 of the 2012 Geico 400 and ran out of gas in the closing laps of the previous year to finish outside the top 20. He has been strong enough on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks this year, however, that his 2013 finish of sixth is a much more likely scenario for this week.

Joey Logano (3 wins / 2,009 points)
Chase Outlook: second
Last week’s outlook: fourth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Chicagoland: 20.00
New Hampshire: 21.67
Dover: 10.83

This early in the Chase, it is easy to make bold predictions and ranking Logano second certainly fits that description. His second appearance in the playoffs gives him maturity to go along with his youthful energy. That combination worked perfectly for teammate Keselowski in 2012 and Logano has shown more consistency this year than Kez did then.

Jimmie Johnson (3 wins / 2,009 points)
Chase Outlook: third
Last week’s outlook: second
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Chicagoland: 5.67
New Hampshire: 13.17
Dover: 4.33

Johnson has shown a few chinks in his armor in recent weeks, but one does not earn six championships without learning how to persevere. Fantasy owners saw this on several occasions in previous seasons when the team gambled on setups in the race to the Chase for the Championship and then magically improved in the final 10 races. This time the lack of momentum seems a little different, however, and it is time to hedge ones’ bets.

Matt Kenseth (0 wins / 2,000 points)
Chase Outlook: fourth
Last week’s outlook: first
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Chicagoland: 13.33
New Hampshire: 7.83
Dover: 15.50

Kenseth’s Richmond agenda undoubtedly does not match the remainder of the season, but it was one more example of how this team is not the same as it was last year. He was easily on par with Johnson and lost the championship with a modest finish at Talladega and a poor one at Phoenix. This year, the No. 20 team has accumulated points and that should get them all the way to Homestead, but it is difficult to imagine much more from Joe Gibbs Racing in 2014.

Brad Keselowski (4 wins / 2,012 points)
Chase Outlook: fifth
Last week’s outlook: seventh
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Chicagoland: 4.33
New Hampshire: 4.83
Dover: 12.83

Keselowski set himself apart from the crowd last week by winning his fourth Cup race of the season and he did so in commanding fashion. A lot of experts will have him ranked first this week, but he has some obstacles to overcome. There were three periods in which he posted back-to-back, sub-10th-place finishes; one of these was a five-race span in spring after winning at Vegas. That probably will not affect him in the Challenger round and perhaps not in the Contender round, but as the competition gets tighter, it becomes more problematic.

Kevin Harvick (2 wins / 2,006 points)
Chase Outlook: sixth
Last week’s outlook: fifth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Chicagoland: 5.67
New Hampshire: 14.67
Dover: 9.33

The No. 4 team got behind on their adjustments last week and Harvick fell back through the field, but the good news is they did not make any major mistakes. That did not lessen Harvick’s frustration last week and projecting forward his emotion may get in his way before the Chase is complete. The knockout style format is going to increase the pressure with each passing week and until this team demonstrates an ability to withstand it, they will not be ranked much higher than advancing into the Eliminator round.

Kyle Busch (1 win / 2,003 points)
Chase Outlook: seventh
Last week’s outlook: ninth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Chicagoland: 9.33
New Hampshire: 10.17
Dover: 15.50

This handicap could be way off if Busch continues to race the way he has in the past several weeks. He enters the playoffs with sixth consecutive sub-10th-place finishes and while some of those results were out of his control, other instances of crash damage came because of his inability to control his emotions. His latest two efforts ended around the 15th-place mark and he should advance into the Contender round with those types of results. That will buy him some time and allow the driver and team to fix some of their problems.

Carl Edwards (2 wins / 2,006 points)
Chase Outlook: eighth
Last week’s outlook: eighth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Chicagoland: 11.33
New Hampshire: 12.50
Dover: 16.17

Edwards should be safe for a while. He has earned top-15 finishes in two thirds of his attempts at Chicagoland, New Hampshire, and Dover during the past three years. He will not make a lot of noise, however, because his last top-five on these tracks came in 2012 In Delaware. Right now, his average finish on the three tracks that constitute the Contender round is only on the cusp of declaring him a safe bet to advance, but Edwards has a knack for staying out of trouble and converting his steadfastness into solid runs.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (3 wins / 2,009 points)
Chase Outlook: ninth
Last week’s outlook: sixth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Chicagoland: 15.33
New Hampshire: 10.67
Dover: 10.00

Earnhardt’s last four attempts at New Hampshire and Dover combined for four top-10s. Only one of these was a top-five, however, and he still needs to survive Chicagoland before he is considered one of the favorites. Last year’s blown engine in the Geico 400 derailed his Chase efforts, but that is not his only poor results on this track. In his last seven attempts there, he missed the top 10 on five occasions and two of his last four efforts were outside the top 20.

Ryan Newman (0 wins / 2,000 points)
Chase Outlook: 10th
Last week’s outlook: not ranked
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Chicagoland: 7.67
New Hampshire: 17.50
Dover: 22.33

Newman has been points’ racing all year, and that will serve him well in the first couple of rounds of the Chase. For the moment—because he struggled at the end of the regular season and advanced in the final race—it is safest to presume he will clear only the first hurdle. He has a great record at Chicagoland and has shown success on the short, flat tracks, but Kansas and Talladega are two of his worst courses and they will be an obstacle in the Contender round.

Kasey Kahne (1 win / 2,003 points)
Chase Outlook: 11th
Last week’s outlook: 10th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Chicagoland: 9.00
New Hampshire: 13.33
Dover: 13.83

Kahne’s record on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks should serve him well during the Chase. In six previous races on this track type, he has swept the top 15 and won the Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta to secure his berth. He has not fared quite as well on other track types, however, so New Hampshire and Dover could be challenging. If he progresses to the Contender round, he will need top-10s at Kansas and Charlotte to advance further because no one can count on getting the job done at Talladega.

Kurt Busch (1 win / 2,003 points)
Chase Outlook: 12th
Last week’s outlook: 12th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Chicagoland: 14.00
New Hampshire: 22.00
Dover: 16.50

Last week Busch scored his seventh top-10 of the season. It was the first time during the regular season that he finished inside the top 10, but worse than fifth—and that is actually a good sign. Busch has a tendency to overdrive when he gets near the front of the pack and is not always skillful enough to avoid catastrophe. Last week, he overcame that obstacle and now he needs to do it three more times to advance to the Contender round.

Denny Hamlin (1 win / 2,003 points)
Chase Outlook: 13th
Last week’s outlook: 11th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Chicagoland: 26.67
New Hampshire: 12.17
Dover: 17.17

Last week’s struggle among all three Joe Gibbs Racing teams was an eye-opener; they may not yet be ready to contend for the championship if they could not run well on a short, flat track. On the heels of several strong runs at the end of the regular season, Hamlin should have been a top-five contender and his 21st-place finish really hurts his handicap. Even if he had run well on the track type he loves, most of the short, flat track races are not until later in the playoffs and it is unlikely Hamlin will survive to see them.

Aric Almirola (1 win / 2,003 points)
Chase Outlook: 14th
Last week’s outlook: 14th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Chicagoland: 15.00
New Hampshire: 20.00
Dover: 15.40

Securing a Chase berth by winning a restrictor-plate, superspeedway race only is not a good indicator that a driver will run well on the variety of tracks in the playoffs. Almirola has shown some signs of speed on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks and short, flat courses, but not enough to make him a favorite to advance into the second round. Richard Petty Motorsports and Almirola’s fans should be proud of what he has accomplished, however.

Greg Biffle (0 wins / 2,000 points)
Chase Outlook: 15th
Last week’s outlook: not ranked
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Chicagoland: 18.33
New Hampshire: 10.50
Dover: 19.33

Biffle was the last of three drivers who advanced into the Chase on points and he kept speculation alive until the final couple of laps of the Federated Auto Parts 400. The emotional toll that takes is often enough to cause a driver to stumble in the first couple of races in the Chase and with only three opportunities to score enough points to advance to the Contender round, that could be devastating.

AJ Allmendinger (1 win / 2,000 points)
Chase Outlook: 16th
Last week’s outlook: 13th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Chicagoland: 24.00
New Hampshire: 20.33
Dover: 17.50

Hamlin, Almirola, and Allmendinger each earned their spot in the Chase by winning one of NASCAR’s wild card races. A win is a win and under the old format, those tracks offered the same number of points, but that was amortized over the entire regular season prior to 2014. Ranking those three drivers this low is not intended to diminish their accomplishment, but if their efforts are not backed up by similarly strong runs on the unrestricted speedways that dominate the final 10 races, those victories cannot be used to positively handicap them.

 

Three-year averages (sorted by All Chase tracks’ average)

Driver

All Chase
Tracks

Challenger

Tracks

Contender

Tracks

Eliminator

Tracks

Homestead

Matt Kenseth

10.56

12.00

9.11

11.58

8.00

Kevin Harvick

10.88

10.73

11.33

10.92

8.67

Brad Keselowski

11.04

7.93

12.83

11.58

13.67

Jimmie Johnson

11.13

8.13

12.50

9.17

25.67

Kasey Kahne

11.19

12.67

9.61

11.08

13.67

Carl Edwards

12.50

13.73

12.67

11.67

8.67

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

13.24

11.33

15.44

14.00

8.00

Kyle Busch

13.28

12.13

16.28

10.45

11.33

Greg Biffle

13.73

15.60

14.06

9.00

21.33

Denny Hamlin

14.43

17.07

13.94

12.45

11.33

Jeff Gordon

14.54

11.87

16.83

16.67

5.67

Aric Almirola

16.38

17.25

16.60

16.00

11.50

Ryan Newman

16.85

17.47

19.06

14.33

10.67

Joey Logano

16.94

17.00

19.67

13.58

13.67

Kurt Busch

20.67

18.20

21.94

21.67

21.33

AJ Allmendinger

21.13

19.89

23.33

18.13

25.50

 

* The Challenger tracks are Chicagoland, New Hampshire, and Dover
^ The Contender tracks are Kansas, Charlotte, and Talladega
# The Eliminator tracks are Martinsville, Texas, and Phoenix

Dan Beaver

Dan Beaver has been covering fantasy NASCAR for more than 20 years with a little help from his >650,000 record database. He can be found on Twitter @FantasyRace.