By Jason Schultz / @NASCARJason – The new Chase for the Sprint Cup format has produced incredible moments, thrills, and drama in its short existence.
As the 2015 championship battle heats up, more of what fans have grown to love in playoff racing is ahead in the season’s final five races. The extent of the upcoming excitement is unknown. However, following the late-race developments in Kansas – it’s shaping up to be one wild fight for glory.
With the standings extremely close as a result of the points reset following each round, things can change in a heartbeat. While this didn’t play out early in the race at Kansas Speedway, the finish produced an unpredictable moment that will undoubtedly impact the Chase moving forward.
Matt Kenseth had the dominant car throughout the Hollywood Casino 400. During the race’s many long runs, he excelled and built commanding leads that spanned multiple seconds. However, his downfall was short-runs.
When the caution flew with 25 laps to go, the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota team knew they would have quite the battle on their hands in the closing laps.
Joey Logano had nothing to lose on Sunday. Already being guaranteed a spot in the Eliminator Round, his role was to play spoiler. Winning would prevent his competition from punching an automatic ticket into the third round, and provide the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford team with an advantage.
Finding a leg-up on the other teams can be the key to success in the final ten races. Following Charlotte, a sense of security emerged for the Daytona 500 champions as they wouldn’t have to worry about the potential trouble in Kansas or Talladega.
This was especially helpful knowing that the Alabama-speedway could be what takes a championship-caliber team out of contention due to the luck factor involved with restrictor-plate racing.
In the Contender Round, holding this advantage can mean as much as a victory. This is why when Logano caught a glimpse of lead late in the race on Sunday, he went after it like his season was on the line.
His car excelled on short-runs. This enabled the Team Penske driver to close in quickly on Kenseth. With 14 laps remaining, he reached the back bumper of the No. 20 car.
While the battle mirrored others from throughout the season, this one was different in many ways. Most notably, it featured two completely opposite mindsets among the drivers.
For Kenseth, following a disastrous start to the round in Charlotte, he needed a win to advance. Being so dominant, he viewed this race as his best chance to rebound and remain alive. Surrendering the top spot meant losing a great opportunity to take the pressure off and having to not settle for anything but a win in Talladega – an incredibly tough feat.
Logano took a care-free approach as he had nothing to lose and only a larger advantage to gain. In terms of advancing, he wasn’t risking anything by racing the 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion as hard as he wanted to. While pushing the limits led to triumph, it may ultimately lead to defeat because of the way the race-winning move unfolded.
As the two dueled, they exchanged lines back and forth. This was until Logano’s surge of momentum proved too difficult for Kenseth to match. They stormed down the frontstretch as Kenseth played defense and threw a couple of blocks, knowing that if the No. 22 passed him, his shot at running for the championship essentially went out the door.
He threw a block as they raced off into Turn 1. However, this coupled with previous moves crossed a line in Logano’s mind. He understood the threat Kenseth posed if he won and advanced, so the 25-year old wasn’t going to take it easy.
He felt like he had been wronged by how Kenseth raced him and showed his displeasure by getting into the back of the No. 20, sending him spinning and his title hopes essentially going up in smoke.
This move changed everything in the championship picture.
Now, Logano has the ultimate safety net for Talladega while Kenseth will struggle for survival throughout the grueling 500 miles.
Although Logano accomplished a short-term gain, it may have jeopardized his long-term plan. If Kenseth is unable to win in Talladega, his mindset will change for the final four weeks. Had it not been for this incident, the change may not have been as drastic. Now, it could include thoughts of payback to take away what Logano stripped from him.
This sets the ultimate stage for the final five races of the season. A tale of chasing the championship while watching for a potential repercussion emerges and will add depth to how fans follow the title race.
What led us to this point? The new Chase format. It has created an incredible level of intensity and excitement like the sport has never seen before. In the past, the championship battle was likely down to a handful of drivers at this point. Now, 12 still stand a chance.
Before the new format, there was no strategic motive behind racing a driver incredibly hard for the victory. Now? There is. It has created such rich drama and storylines that leave fans only dreaming about the next game changing moment.
And this is the beauty of the Chase.
Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw