NASCAR's Chase: And then there were three?

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For years, Joe Gibbs Racing and NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship mixed like oil and water. Since its last title with Tony Stewart in 2005, JGR’s postseason has resembled an Atlanta Braves playoff run. There have been spectacular engine failures. Emotional meltdowns. On-track retaliations. A title-draining spin at Homestead. You name it, and the organization has probably experienced it.

How ironic, then, that during NASCAR’s public perception crisis in the wake of “Spingate,” this team has become the poster child for leadership and stability. Matt Kenseth, whose lone championship many claim spurred the Chase format in 2003, is acting like he’s going to waltz away with one in 2013. In capturing a career-best seven victories — the last two coming in the Chase’s first pair of events — he’s brought the quiet confidence combined with a something-to-prove attitude that JGR has needed to remind itself that it can, in fact, get over the hump.

“It's just been an amazing blessing to be part of this group, and I’m happy to have the success we're having,” Kenseth said Sunday, after expressing some rare emotion in Victory Lane. “But even without that, honestly I've just made a lot of friendships I really feel at home there.  I just really enjoy being part of it; when you can have success, on top of it obviously that makes it even more fun.”

On paper, Kenseth is only one person. But a man whose knock at Roush Fenway Racing was he couldn’t take more of a leadership role has transformed JGR’s culture in the matter of just nine months. Suddenly, Kyle Busch looks like a man capable of winning a title instead of finding every which way to lose it. Denny Hamlin? The jury’s still out. But a healthy driver in 2014 could very well experience the same type of success.

With JGR a step ahead, let’s see who’s shifting a step behind in “Through the Gears,” post-Loudon:


FIRST GEAR: The Chase is down to three drivers
That’s right. After the hubbub over Richmond’s race manipulation and drivers being added to the playoffs, none of the drama may actually matter. Barring a Talladega disaster, the three drivers in contention are the three who’ve been the most successful this year, armed with Chase spots in-hand long before the RIR crisis. Kenseth, the top playoff seed going in, now has seven wins after a flawless final 100 miles at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Winning at what has historically been one of his worst tracks, Kenseth has now led 34 percent of the two postseason events and opened a 14-point lead on second-place Busch.

Jimmie Johnson, your perennial title contender, sits third, 18 points back even after two top-5 finishes. Everyone else? They’re on another planet. Carl Edwards, sitting fourth, is 36 points behind and would need a miracle to assume the point lead after Dover this Sunday. Already, three drivers – Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne – sit over 60 points behind the leader.

That’s just going to be too much to make up. In past years you might say, “Hey, maybe a late-season surge could see someone rise through the pack.” But this year, the trio on top has been too consistent, too overpowering, to crack. Combined, they’ve led a total of nearly 2,700 laps. They’ve got 15 wins in 28 races. And, with the exception of Busch, they’re title-proven.

Everyone else should start hoping for a big wreck at ‘Dega … or start thinking about next year.


SECOND GEAR: Hendrick’s rough road  Kasey Kahne
Typically, Hendrick Motorsports is at the pinnacle of the Sprint Cup Series come Chase time. After Jeff Gordon’s late entrance into the field combined with some strong runs at Chicagoland, it appeared the four-car juggernaut had additional momentum. Instead? It’s been making some crucial mistakes. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — fastest in final practice at Loudon — had to make a costly track-position stop for loose lugnuts. He recovered, making it back up front, but ultimately settled for sixth.

Teammate Jeff Gordon was not so lucky. After leading 36 laps and taking charge in the race’s midsection, he slid through his pits during a caution-flag stop. With limited time, he recovered to just 15th and saw a longshot title bid all but evaporate. Kasey Kahne, though, had the worst luck of all, losing control off Turn 4 late and slapping the inside wall in an accident that left him 37th. Now last in the Chase, 71 points behind Kenseth, the best this intermediate expert can hope for is a few “cookie-cutter” track trophies down the stretch.

“I really don’t know what happened,” Kahne said. “Just racing and I’m not sure if there was contact or if I just spun. I seriously don’t really remember how it happened.”

HMS is looking at the standings and wondering the same thing. Only Johnson, whose consistency is a Chase hallmark, remains in position to contend for the title; the rest of the four-car crew is eighth or lower in points.


THIRD GEAR: Championship? What championship?  Jamie McMurray
For some drivers, Loudon was simply a race to work on building blocks for 2014 — be it with their current team or someone else’s. For Jamie McMurray, it was his third top-5 finish of the season; his highest total in three years. Recovering from a spin involving teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, he’s working on developing Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing while Montoya works on an exit to Penske Racing in the open wheel ranks. That’ll make for an interesting last eight weeks, especially since owner Chip Ganassi was angered by the on-track contact.

Further back, Brian Vickers provided the most stablizing run for controversial Michael Waltrip Racing with a seventh-place finish. His is the only MWR team with sponsorship secure for 2014, as Aaron’s has publicly offered its support while NAPA has announced its exit and 5-Hour Energy remains (publically) on the fence. Finally, for Jeff Burton, an eighth place was more like an audition to a limited number of teams with seats available. For the 46-year-old veteran, his future is unknown beyond this season. Could we be seeing the last of Burton, Bobby Labonte and Mark Martin in just one offseason?


FOURTH GEAR: Stewart-Haas Racing’s slump
While most expected Ryan Newman to run strong, riding the momentum of a bid to the Chase, he’s instead been underwhelming, posting an average finish of 13.0. Mark Martin, subbing for an injured Tony Stewart, has been far worse; he’s got just one top-10 finish in five races in the seat. And Danica Patrick? We know how her rookie season’s gone.

Clearly, this team is expected to be a powerhouse in 2014 with the additions of Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. But it’s going to be a big jump if the team ends the season with a whimper like this one.


OVERDRIVE
Greg Biffle
, third at Loudon, has had a weird year. Under the right circumstances he could finish top 5 in points, but he’s led just four races all season. … Martin Truex Jr. remains in limbo this week after sponsor NAPA announced they’d leave his No. 56 car after the season. An early contender before circumstances left him 10th, the driver has put forth a valiant effort in the face of national controversy. And he’s driving with a broken wrist on top of it. … How bad has this season been for Denny Hamlin? His 12th-place finish at New Hampshire was the best for the No. 11 team since an eighth at Pocono in June.


Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles

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