NASCAR is into the thick of its ‘Chase for the Cup’ over the final 10 rounds of the marathon 36-race Sprint Cup championship. Seven rounds remain with the season finale taking place at the Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 16 and at this stage the leading title contenders are Brad Keselowski and Penske team-mate Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick with Stewart-Haas Racing, and Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon with Hendrick Motorsports.
Aboard Team Penske’s pair of Fords, 2012 champion Keselowski and Logano have been the men to beat more often than not this year. Between them they have won nine races, including the opening two races in this year’s Chase, and currently they’re 1-2 in points ahead of Gordon, Harvick and Johnson. Thus far Keselowski has won more races – five – than anyone else and also has led more races (23 of 29) than any other driver and more laps (1496) than all save Harvick.
Based on performance Keselowski is the favourite to win the championship but NASCAR has tweaked this year’s Chase so that the title won’t be decided until the last laps of the final race. Sixteen drivers qualified for this year’s Chase field and they will be whittled down to four for the season’s 36th and final race. The highest-placed finisher of the final four will win the championship so there are no guarantees for anyone until the last laps of the long season.
Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano
Looking at this year’s statistics, Logano and Harvick are Keselowski’s primary rivals to win the championship. Logano has won four times and led 19 races for a total of 794 laps while Harvick has two wins, plus a series high seven poles and has led 22 races for 1589 laps. Logano, 24, is in his second year with Penske while Keselowski, 30, joined Penske at the end of 2009.
Keselowski won the championship in 2012 driving Dodges for Penske but Dodge pulled out of NASCAR at the end of that year and Penske switched to racing Fords. Right away, Penske’s Fords outperformed those from Roush-Fenway, Ford’s long-time lead NASCAR team, and this year Keselowski and Logano have blown Roush-Fenway’s cars into the weeds.
Harvick, 38, drove for Richard Childress’s team for 13 years without winning a championship and moved to Stewart-Haas last winter, quickly establishing himself as the fastest, most consistently competitive of the team’s four drivers. Harvick is the most likely driver to beat Keselowski or Logano this year and thus take his first Sprint Cup title.
Gordon (24) and Harvick (4) on the front row at Dover
The other leading contenders are six-time champion Jimmie Johnson and four-time champ Jeff Gordon. Defending champion Johnson has won three races and led 15 races while veteran Gordon has enjoyed a strong year winning four times – including scoring the 92nd win of his career at Dover last weekend – and leading 19 races so far.
2014 Chase for the Cup
1 Brad Keselowski Penske
2 Joey Logano Penske
3 Kevin Harvick Stewart-Haas
4 Jimmie Johnson Hendrick
5 Jeff Gordon Hendrick
6 Kyle Busch Gibbs
7 Dale Earnhardt Jr Hendrick
8 Matt Kenseth Gibbs
9 Ryan Newman Childress
10 Carl Edwards Roush Fenway
11 Denny Hamlin Gibbs
12 Kasey Kahne Hendrick
Longer shots include Dale Earnhardt Jr aboard another Hendrick Chevrolet and Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth with Joe Gibbs’ Toyota team. Earnhardt has had a good year winning three races and leading 12. Busch has led 13 races and Kenseth has been in front in 16, but Busch has won only once and Kenseth has not yet won a race this year so neither appears to be championship material.
Meanwhile, NASCAR announced last week that starting next year all private testing will be banned. The only testing permitted will be official NASCAR and Goodyear tyre tests. The teams currently are allowed four test days at tracks that host Sprint Cup races and unlimited testing at tracks that don’t run Cup races. Also gone will be the traditional February test at Daytona leading into the season-opening Daytona 500 although the teams will be expected to participate in an annual pre-season tyre test in January.
NASCAR said the move to eliminate testing came at the request of teams. Any team caught skirting the rule will face the most severe penalty NASCAR can levy.
“They say it cost a ton of money, takes a ton of time and a ton of resources,” said Gene Stefanyshyn, NASCAR’s senior vice-president of innovation and racing development. “They say, ‘We test at tracks we don’t race at and they’re not rubbered in. When all is said and done, what is the whole value of the thing?’
“They all say that, but they all go (test) because the other guy is going. So how can we control where you guys go? They said, ‘Put down a severe penalty.’ So it’s a big one.”
Goodyear’s tyre tests will be more important than ever. “What we’re trying to do is get Goodyear, NASCAR and team testing, which are separate now, and bring all three of us together,” Stefanshyn said. “If we organise it well and do it in a smart way we want to look at this low downforce world, and say, let’s work together.”
Current champion Jimmie Johnson agrees. “I think there’s a common voice among the drivers,” Johnson said. “We’d like to get the downforce out of the cars, make them harder to drive and end up with a softer tyre on the cars.”
Added Johnson: “I think no on-track testing is going to be appreciated by crew members and everyone that is a part of these test sessions. It should save some money. It’s going to put a heavier focus on our simulation program, our seven-post rigs and the things we do at the race shop to enhance the race cars. It’s also going to make our practice sessions all that much more important.
“The start of the year, they are going to be full-on test sessions, trying big package changes on the race cars. We’ll all be fine-tuning, so that can make things entertaining and fun. We’ll just have to see what tyre tests look like. They might be an opportunity for race teams to have a chance to go and learn and get data from these tracks.”
NASCAR will also reduce horsepower next year from 850 to 725bhp, cut the rear spoiler height from 7.25 to 6in (losing 300lbs of downforce) and introduce an optional driver-adjustable Panhard track bar. Also, the size of the radiator pan has been decreased from 43 to 38in. NASCAR officials informed the teams of the 2015 changes last week after almost a year of testing and collaboration with them to arrive at the package.
Stefanyshyn said lap speeds will likely decrease by around 3-4mph at most tracks. “We’re also taking drag off (by trimming the spoiler) to re-balance this whole thing,” he said. “It’s not going to be as dramatic as most people think. We’re hoping it will make the racing better, closer. Our goals are always to provide better entertainment for our fans.”
Like it or not, NASCAR’s mantra of maintaining close, competitive racing and as level a playing field as humanly possible continues to rule.