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Chasing the Cup

Chasing 2014 fall Talladega

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

NASCAR wanted every race in the Chase to count and they found the perfect formula to accomplish that goal. After a problem-plagued Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, three of the former favorites to advance to the Eliminator round entered the Bank of America 500 with a little desperation. Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Brad Keselowski ideally needed to win and if they could not accomplish that feat, score a top-five to move them high enough in the standings that they were on equal footing before Talladega with the drivers sixth through ninth in the points.

None of them achieved that objective, but one came close and that created a scenario that had fans talking for days. Keselowski maneuvered through the field all afternoon with those two goals in mind. He was running sixth and taking aim on Jamie McMurray when a late-race caution waved that had the potential to change everything. Keselowski stayed out while one driver in front of him pitted. He must have begun to count the points he would make up on the competition. But he got tangled up with Denny Hamlin instead and dropped from fifth to 16th, losing one point per position and making Talladega seem even more frightening with every car that passed him.

On the cool down lap, Hamlin brake-checked Keselowski to express his displeasure with how he was raced on the final green flag circuit around the track. Kez tried to retaliate before they got to pit road and mostly missed, noticed Matt Kenseth waiting to get into the garage—who he was also annoyed with—rammed the No. 20 and 14 of Tony Stewart, got his nose dented by Stewart’s retaliation, chased Hamlin into the garage, got a HANS devise thrown at him by Hamlin, and then was attacked by Kenseth as he walked to his hauler. That was enough drama for a Shakespeare festival.

Now Keselowski and the rest of the Chase field heads to Talladega where anything can and often does happen. The risk of a "Big One" crash is an ever-present danger, but so is getting shuffled out of the draft in the closing laps. If he cannot win the Geico 500, Keselowski needs to finish nearly a half-field ahead of Kenseth and Kasey Kahne to advance. Or make up about 36-40 position overs Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, or Ryan Newman. To do that, he still needs a top-five finish, while one of them wrecks early.

Johnson and Earnhardt are five points—or five positions—behind Keselowski and have an even steeper hill to climb. At least two of these drivers will fail to advance to the Eliminator 8 and that is going to bust a lot of Chase brackets.

Joey Logano (5 wins / 3,088 points)
Chase Outlook: first
Last week’s outlook: first
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Talladega: 27.50
Martinsville: 16.33
Texas: 12.67

Logano has two options open to him entering Talladega. He can either go for broke and take any risk necessary to win the Geico 500, or he can race conservatively at the back and simply finish without crash damage. While he has nothing to lose, his teammate Keselowski does and so fantasy players should not expect Logano to do anything rash that might trigger a "Big One" crash so long as the No. 2 is in his rear view mirror.

Kevin Harvick (3 wins / 3,081 points)
Chase Outlook: second
Last week’s outlook: second
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Talladega: 21.17
Martinsville: 13.50
Texas: 15.67

Harvick finally put a complete race together, overcame the few mistakes that were made, and won his first race since April. That might be all it takes to completely reverse his fortune, or it might be a momentary bump, but it does insure that he will be part of the Eliminator 8. The competition is going to get thinned considerably with at least two of the favorites—Keselowski, Johnson, Earnhardt—dropped from Chase contention this week, and that makes the path to Homestead easier. He may not be a great value at Talladega, however, because last week in Victory Lane he suggested parking early might be the safest bet.

Jeff Gordon (4 wins / 3,074 points)
Chase Outlook: third
Last week’s outlook: third
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Talladega: 21.00
Martinsville: 8.67
Texas: 17.00

No one except Logano, Harvick, and possible Kyle Busch with his 26-point advantage over ninth and 25-point cushion to eighth is safe from elimination this week, but Gordon is in a decent position. The most likely path to advance among the bottom three drivers is victory, and if that happens Gordon needs to finish within 37 positions of the current 10th-place and fewer than 19 spots behind Kahne and Kenseth. That is how he will control his own fate, but there is an equal opportunity for any of the drivers ahead of him to be swept into an accident. The smart move is to ride in a safe place for two-thirds of the race to see if a "Big One" crash changes the math early in the Geico 500.

Brad Keselowski (5 wins / 3,038 points)
Chase Outlook: fourth
Last week’s outlook: fourth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Talladega: 15.67
Martinsville: 13.33
Texas: 15.33

Keselowski’s fourth-place ranking this week is predicated on him surviving the Contender round, but he has two shots at doing so and he is a determined driver. If Kenseth or Kahne get swept into an early accident with another of the vulnerable Chasers, he needs to finish 21 positions ahead of them to earn enough points to climb into the top eight. He could also win the Geico 500, which is no more unlikely this year than it was in his first Talladega attempt in 2009. He won as a freshman and repeated the feat in 2012, so he knows where Victory Lane is located on the 2.66-mile behemoth.

Kyle Busch (1 win / 3,082 points)
Chase Outlook: fifth
Last week’s outlook: fifth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Talladega: 15.33
Martinsville: 16.50
Texas: 6.20

Busch has been a surprise during the Chase. Before the Bank of America 500, the last time he earned five top-10s in a row was at the beginning of the 2013 season and it is his lack of consistency that keeps him from being one of the favorites to advance into the final four. Last week’s fifth at Charlotte does not change that prediction entirely because it has been nearly four years since he earned six consecutive top-10s and he has never scored 10 in a row.

Carl Edwards (2 wins / 3,076 points)
Chase Outlook: sixth
Last week’s outlook: seventh
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Talladega: 21.33
Martinsville: 13.00
Texas: 13.33

Edwards has always been crash prone at plate tracks. His first 10 and latest 10 races are riddled with damage, but there are a couple of other Chasers with that same record. Newman and Kenseth have equally bad luck on this track type and Kenseth is in greater jeopardy of failing to advance out of the Contender round. Unfortunately, that is only one hurdle that must be cleared and the next three races after Talladega are heavily skewed toward short, flat tracks where Edwards has traditionally struggled.

Ryan Newman (0 wins / 3,077 points)
Chase Outlook: seventh
Last week’s outlook: eighth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Talladega: 23.67
Martinsville: 18.50
Texas: 14.00

Newman has been one of the most consistent drivers for more than half of the season. With the exception of an accident at Watkins Glen International and crash-induced sub-15th-place finishes at Daytona and New Hampshire Motor Speedway, he has swept the top 15 since June. He might not have a great Geico 500, but he should be strong enough to transfer and then his consistency will be important once more. His inability to win might ultimately make the difference between transferring into and missing the final four because it is possible that all three Eliminator races will go to Chase contenders.

Denny Hamlin (1 win / 3,073 points)
Chase Outlook: eighth
Last week’s outlook: 10th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Talladega: 19.67
Martinsville: 14.00
Texas: 14.40

It still seems like Hamlin is living on borrowed time. This team’s greatest attribute has been their exceptional pit stops, but that might not be enough to keep them moving forward. If Hamlin qualifies for the Eliminator round, two of his best tracks are included in those three races. He is a short, flat track master so Martinsville Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway should be easy to dominate—but that was not the case recently at New Hampshire or Richmond International Raceway in his latest two efforts on this track type.

Jimmie Johnson (3 wins / 3,031 points)
Chase Outlook: ninth
Last week’s outlook: sixth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Talladega: 19.83
Martinsville: 3.83
Texas: 8.17

Only one of the bottom three drivers will advance this week and with the bad luck and lackluster performance in the No. 48 team, it just seems unlikely that Johnson will be the one. If this team altered their approach to accommodate the new set of rules, they need to go back to trying to log 10 consecutive top-10s in 2015’s Chase. If they have simply lost their chemistry, it may be time to take a science class.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (3 wins / 3,031 points)
Chase Outlook: 10th
Last week’s outlook: 11th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Talladega: 16.50
Martinsville: 11.00
Texas: 16.33

Even with a racer like Earnhardt, it is simply too much to expect a driver to advance to the next round by winning at Talladega. This is a track that seems to be able to smell fear on competitors and that is a recipe for disaster. A blown tire at Kansas and broken shifter at Charlotte ultimately created a hole that is too deep to climb from and Earnhardt is going to have to turn his focus to running well in the final four races to improve his points’ position and possibly climb to fifth in the final standings.

Matt Kenseth (0 wins / 3,056 points)
Chase Outlook: 11th
Last week’s outlook: ninth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Talladega: 14.50
Martinsville: 11.83
Texas: 6.00

Kenseth swapped places with Hamlin between last week and now. The No. 11’s position in the standings was analogous to the first driver on old tires when the majority of the field pitted. Now Kenseth is the most likely driver to get overhauled by Keselowski, Johnson, or Earnhardt while he has to catch and pass Kahne. Add to that complication a tendency to experience crash damage on plate tracks and it seems unlikely he will advance this week. If he slips back into the grip of the former favorites, he is likely to slip down the points standings once his status as a Chaser is revoked.

Kasey Kahne (1 win / 3,057 points)
Chase Outlook: 12th
Last week’s outlook: 12th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Talladega: 18.00
Martinsville: 19.83
Texas: 10.33

Kahne has surprised fantasy players on rare occasions. A few of those unpredicted results were negative, but he was a pleasant surprise at the right time to advance this far. He has the potential to do so again since he made up enough ground at Charlotte to control his own fate with a solid run. Unfortunately, no one can control their own fate at Talladega, so Kahne and his fans simply have to hold on, wait for the checkers, and count the points up then.

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

Driver

Chase
to Date

All Remaining
Chase Tracks

Talladega

Eliminator *

Homestead

Matt Kenseth

13.60

11.90

14.50

11.58

8.00

Kyle Busch

6.60

12.05

15.33

10.45

11.33

Brad Keselowski

12.40

13.05

15.67

11.58

13.67

Kasey Kahne

17.60

13.43

18.00

11.08

13.67

Kevin Harvick

6.80

13.52

21.17

10.92

8.67

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

19.20

13.86

16.50

14.00

8.00

Carl Edwards

12.20

14.00

21.33

11.67

8.67

Denny Hamlin

14.20

14.45

19.67

12.45

11.33

Jimmie Johnson

15.40

14.57

19.83

9.17

25.67

Jeff Gordon

9.00

16.33

21.00

16.67

5.67

Ryan Newman

10.80

16.48

23.67

14.33

10.67

Joey Logano

2.80

17.57

27.50

13.58

13.67

Greg Biffle

18.60

11.71

12.33

9.00

21.33

Aric Almirola

25.60

15.24

15.20

16.00

11.50

AJ Allmendinger

16.20

19.00

17.00

18.13

25.50

Kurt Busch

23.00

23.81

29.331

21.67

21.33

 
* 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.