NASCAR Talladega 2014: Who will emerge as the championship favorite?

Sean Gardner

Is Kevin Harvick or Dale Earnhardt Jr. the favorite to win the Sprint Cup championship? What about Jeff Gordon or Joey Logano?

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- As NASCAR prepares for its most unpredictable track, Talladega Superspeedway, one thing is palpable: the driver who deserves the label of championship favorite is equally unpredictable.

It's a situation vastly different from this time a year ago when Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth each had scored multiple victories and were head-and-shoulders above the rest of the garage -- an assertion later proved correct when Johnson and Kenseth finished 1-2 in the championship standings.

While the frontrunner for 2014 is still waiting to emerge, the players involved have made their presence known.

Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano have the most wins, points leader Jeff Gordon has the best average finish, while Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. has finished third or better in five of nine races.

And don't dismiss Brad Keselowski, and Jimmie Johnson, former champions who at times this season have flashed a form that makes another title a distinct possibility. Or Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, and Kurt Busch --- all of whom have a victory and are virtually assured of a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

But if there is one thing these championship hopefuls have common, it's that so far none look infallible due to a variety of reasons. Be it inconsistency (Johnson, Keselowski), lack of reliability (Harvick), inexperience (Logano), an inability to reach Victory Lane (Gordon) or another debility.

The biggest question mark hangs over Harvick, who's in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing but has quickly acclimated himself. His No. 4 team has shown more speed than anyone in 2014, but continually has been hampered by parts failures costing Harvick potential victories in a handful of races (Las Vegas, Bristol, Fontana and Texas).

Which is why, despite a pair of wins and leading the circuit in laps led, Harvick enters Talladega 20th in the point standings.

"I definitely think he has been the fastest car all year long," Johnson said. "I think that Rodney (Childers, crew chief) and Kevin both, they've really been on it to start the season, and I think we all have been chasing them, honestly."

Although the clear favorite has yet to have been identified, it's not unprecedented to have a championship still wide-open at this point of the season.

When Keselowski won the championship in 2012, it wasn't until the summer months when he established himself as a bona fide contender, rolling off nine top-10s in the 10 races leading into the playoffs. It was a run hinting at the consistency Keselowski flexed in the Chase, where he posted an average finish of 6.3.

It was a similar story the year before when eventual champion Tony Stewart didn't win his first race until Round 1 of the Chase, and then five of 10 overall. (In Stewart's 2005 championship season also didn't see him win until the 16th of the season.)

Yet Stewart's path to championship glory is a bit of an anomaly.

Since the introduction of the Chase in 2004, the eventual champion has scored a victory by the eighth race of the season in eight of 10 years, with Stewart in 2005 and 2011 the only exceptions. If this predicator again holds true, it would eliminate the top two drivers in the point standings, Gordon and Kenseth.

NASCAR power rankings

But NASCAR's new playoff format changes the rules, and past precedence may no longer apply.

With drivers now gaining entry into the Chase earlier than ever before, teams are rethinking past strategies. And for those teams that have essentially secured a playoff berth, aggressively pursuing additional victories will be commonplace for the remainder of the regular season.

The biggest benefit for a team that knows its Chase bound is how it plans ahead, specifically in setting up when and where it will test.

Each team is given four tests to use at their discretion by NASCAR. Many teams prefer to wait and hold these tests until later in the season, either to aid a push to get into the Chase,or supplement a championship drive.

"We haven't used any of our tests yet, which we'll use I'm sure this summer, to try to get better for the summer months because obviously we can save all the tests we want for the Chase, but if you're not in it, it really doesn't matter," said Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin. "We've got to get our cars running a little bit better than what they are right now."

And it's this factor which tilts the title odds towards the drivers of Team Penske, the only organization to see all of its drivers win this season (Keselowski at Las Vegas, Logano at Texas and Richmond). Going forward, Penske can emphasis its tests on tracks in the Chase, which is pivotal for an organization seeking its second championship in three years.

"We will focus our tests to races in the Chase," Logano said. "That makes sense. ... It is about making sure we get our specs right and get some nice new cars ready and get our guns loaded for when the Chase starts."

Not everyone, however, thinks Penske is in the catbird seat. Although winless himself, and Hendrick Motorsports has just one win collectively, Johnson dismisses whatever perceived edge Penske may hold.

"My first response is that it doesn't put us at a disadvantage," Johnson said. "The game has changed some. We're confident we're going to have a car, if not all four cars, in the Chase. And all of our planning has been focused around Chase tracks for testing.

"But now, in the way we've been planning things, we've been focused on all our cars being in the Chase and heading that direction."

What is undisputable is that like Sunday's race, the championship picture is very much wide-open.

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