Although in just its third year, NASCAR’s multi-round, knockout Chase for the Sprint Cup format has already developed some truisms that will undoubtedly transpire again over the next 10 weeks. There will be drama among the 16 championship-eligible drivers, unexpected early exits and surprising deep playoff runs, and of course a level of intensity manifesting itself in way beyond just what happens on the track.
Spurred by Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing operating as essentially one tightly aligned superteam, Toyota enjoyed more success than any other manufacturer during the 26-race regular season. It won 50 percent of the races -- including sweeping all four of NASCAR’s major events -- and led almost 56 percent of all laps.
Adding to Toyota’s superiority is its dominance wasn’t limited to a select group enjoying fantastic years. Its entire five-driver roster (Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr.) won multiple races, and each is a viable contender to deliver Toyota a second straight Sprint Cup championship.
Jimmie Johnson as the invisible man
Typically the Chase is the time of the year when Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are at their absolute best. But since NASCAR switched Chase formats Johnson has had little success, getting eliminated in the second round in 2014 and a suffering a shocking Round 1 elimination last year.
And based off the regular season, Johnson looks poised for another early playoff exit. The No. 48 team, usually a model of proficiency, was sloppy with frequent miscues by driver and crew alike. Many of those mistakes came as a result of trying too hard to compensate for cars that lacked speed and the ability to keep pace with the Toyotas.
Thus, Johnson enters the Chase not in his customary role as favorite. Expectations are instead muted, and while it’s never wise to count the six-time champion completely out, a lot of things would need to work in his favor for him to advance beyond the first two rounds.
Team Penske’s contentious duo
Each of the past two years teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have taken turns playing NASCAR’s No. 1 villain. In 2014, Keselowski engaged in feuds with Kenseth and Jeff Gordon, both of which escalated into physical confrontations; last year, Logano had his own run-in with Kenseth, an encounter that included Kenseth earning a two-race suspension for intentionally wrecking Logano at Martinsville Speedway.
Although neither Keselowski nor Logano possess as much horsepower in their Fords as JGR’s Toyotas, both are still strong enough to be among the four vying to advance to the championship round. And even if they can’t win, the Penske teammates are consistent enough to string together the necessary high finishes to skirt elimination. Of course, that’s provided Keselowski and Logano avoid the theatrics of past years, which is no given considering Keselowski has again drawn the ire of Busch and Kenseth in recent weeks.
Hamlin opened the regular season with a Daytona 500 victory and closed it by winning at Richmond International Raceway, his home track. In between, there were bouts of inconsistency before he and first-year crew chief Mike Wheeler gelled. Now, Hamlin comes into the Chase riding a career-best stretch of eight consecutive top-10 finishes, which includes a pair of wins. And taking into account some of his best tracks await, Hamlin is well positioned to win a first-ever championship.
Martin Truex Jr.
Not too long ago he would’ve qualified for sleeper status. Those days are long gone. No one has been better this season on intermediate tracks than Truex, who thrashed the competition at Texas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway, all mile-and-a-half venues which also host Chase races. If the speed remains even close to the same on the return trips, the No. 78 team will be the favorite to record multiple wins.
One of the few drivers capable of keeping pace with the JGR-FRR alliance, Kevin Harvick again led the regular season in top-five finishes, top-10s, and average finish for the second consecutive year, and ranked third behind Busch and Truex in laps led. If there is reason to be skeptical of Harvick’s chances, it’s because of a mistake-prone pit crew. Those issues were addressed before last week’s regular season finale, and though the initial results were encouraging it bears watching going forward.
Driver to surprise
Alleviated of having to no longer answer questions on when he’ll finally reach victory lane, Kyle Larson is racing with greater confidence since breaking through last month at Michigan International Speedway. He’s finished second and third in two races since Michigan, and with another half lap would’ve taken the win away from Hamlin at Richmond. And much like Truex and Hamlin, the Chase sets up favorably for Larson, whose proficiency on 1.5-mile speedways will be an assent with half the playoff tracks sized as such.
Driver to disappoint
While there are many reasons to believe Truex can outrun everyone on the way to the championship round, there are also just as many indicators to think his Chase will end sooner than expected. The No. 78 team has been plagued by fluky parts failures, bad luck, and failed to fully capitalize on just how good its cars were.
Driver to be involved in a postrace skirmish
Keselowski, as if there is any other acceptable answer.
Driver most likely to say something controversial
Never been shy about expressing his opinions and with just 10 weeks remaining before he retires from NASCAR, the hunch is Tony Stewart will be good for a juicy quote or two before the year is out.
How the Chase Works
Thirteen drivers qualified for the Chase by winning a race during the regular season. The remaining three sports were determined off points.
The first three rounds are each comprised of three races. The final championship round is just a single race.
Elimination races: 3
Four drivers are eliminated from contention each round, based on having the four lowest points totals. Win a race to advance to the next round automatically.
Whichever of the four drivers still in the Chase finishes highest at Homestead-Miami Speedway wins the championship.
Chase playoff schedule
Round 1 (16 drivers)
Sept. 18: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400, Chicagoland Speedway, 2:30 p.m., NBCSN
Sept. 25: New England 300, New Hampshire Speedway, 2 p.m., NBCSN
Oct. 2: Delaware 400, Dover International Speedway, 2 p.m. NBCSN
Round 2 (12 drivers)
Oct. 10: Bank of America 500, Charlotte Motor Speedway, 7 p.m. NBC
Oct. 16: Hollywood Casino 400, Kansas Motor Speedway, 2:15 p.m. NBC
Oct. 23: Alabama 500, Talladega Superspeedway, 2 p.m. NBCSN
Round 3 (8 drivers)
Oct. 30: Goody's Fast Relief 500, Martinsville Speedway, 1 p.m., NBCSN
Nov. 6: AAA Texas 500, Texas Motor Speedway, 2 p.m., NBC
Nov. 13: Can-Am 500, Phoenix International Raceway, 2:30 p.m. NBC
Championship Race (4 drivers)
Nov. 20: Ford EcoBoost 400, Homestead-Miami Speedway, 2:30 p.m. NBC