The Road to Miami: Contender Round Shakes Up Championship Picture

charlotte_nscs_race_field (1)Each race in the Contender Round of the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship provided a unique twist to the title battle.

Three weeks ago at Kansas Speedway, the trouble Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, and Brad Keselowski ran into impacted their chances at moving forward in the Chase.

During the following week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, drivers including Earnhardt Jr. dug themselves a bigger hole while Kevin Harvick took the victory and was relieved of the pressure Talladega would bring.

Finally, Talladega Superspeedway destroyed the consistency Kyle Busch put up in the first two races. It also teased both Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson as they led a majority of the race, only to eventually get shuffled up in the pack at the finish.

These three events produced a very diverse Eliminator 8 and will surely knock the intensity up a level heading into the final four events of the season.

Let’s talk about the four eliminated drivers –Kahne, Busch, Johnson, and Earnhardt Jr. Each came into the GEICO 500 knowing they had to survive, win, or do both in order to advance. For most of the race, it looked as if almost all of these goals would be accomplished. However, the second half of the event changed that and proved to be costly in the title hunt.

After quietly making it through the Challenger Round, Kahne and the No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet team couldn’t put together the finishes needed to advance past the second round. It takes consistency to succeed in the new Chase format and this is the one area in which the team struggled.

After bouncing back from a 22nd place finish in Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega required finishes well inside the top-10. They came close with results of tenth and 12th, but other Chasers proved to be just a little bit better. By building some momentum over the next four races, and then regrouping during the off-season – they could develop into a threat for 2015.

Busch did everything he needed to do in the first two races of the round. By making it through Kansas and Charlotte with solid runs, he shifted his focus to Talladega with one goal –complete every lap.

His plan of attack included riding around at the back and waiting for the final laps. This was working out for the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota team until Lap 104. They avoided the initial wreck; however limited visibility caused Austin Dillon to hit the back of the No. 18, sending him spinning into the chaos.

The team’s repair efforts were impressive as they eventually returned and made up as much ground as possible. The uncontrollable elements of the race didn’t fall their way as no other Chase drivers experienced major trouble which put this team below the cut-off line.

Their performance throughout the Chase impressed many. Capitalizing on that will allow them to finish out the season strongly and put everything towards getting even better for 2015.

With the rounds only consisting of three races, wrecking essentially takes a team out of contention. This turned out to be the case for Johnson as he couldn’t overcome his Kansas misfortunes.

He did everything in his power in Talladega to have a shot at continuing on, but the unpredictable endings the facility produces put him behind after he dominated the day.

It’s rare that the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet team is eliminated from title contention with four races remaining in the season. They will more than likely take a learning approach to these next four weeks in order to gain some valuable knowledge for the future.

Luck was clearly not on Earnhardt Jr.’s side during this round. From wrecking in Kansas to nursing a broken shifter in Charlotte and falling short in Talladega – he just could never catch a break.

Throughout Sunday’s race, the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet team showed that they had a strong car as Earnhardt Jr. could make some incredible moves. Had he been up front on the final few restarts, he would have played a major factor.

It just seems as it wasn’t meant to be for the team. A new chapter begins for them in 2015; however they still want to finish the season out on a high note and give Steve Letarte a very competitive final four races.

The Challenger Round definitely proved to be a big ‘challenge’ for some of the sports top drivers. An interesting mix of competitors remains in title contention which will make for many surprises over the next few weeks.

If you thought the past three races were intense, wait until the next four as with so much on the line – everyone will be at the top of their game.

 

Photo Credit: Jonathan Moore 

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