Here’s the rundown on what’s going on with each of the Chase contenders and the Best of the Rest after the first Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway.
For this analysis, drivers are ranked based on their performance in the last ten races Daytona2 through Chicagoland compared to their last five-race performance Michigan2 through Chicagoland. Those drivers with a (+) after their name are improving their performance heading into the Chase. Those with (-) are losing ground, and those with no indication are maintaining their performance. The (+) performers have +1 or more variance between their 10-race and 5-race average finish and similarly the (-) performers are -1 or more below in their comparisons. The Sprint Cup Chase Tracker begins with positions 18-13 for those contending for the “Best of the Rest” top position. Again, this week there are some interesting revelations…
The Best of the Rest
Ryan Newman (-) last week p4 this week p6 – Newman has the largest negative variance at -4.4, with a 10-race average of 14 compared to a 5-race average finish of 18.4. Primary reason for the difference is his 36th-place finish at Bristol followed by a 35th-place finish at Atlanta. Keeping perspective here, in Michigan and Richmond Newman placed 8th and at Chicagoland he placed 5th. If he can keep up those finishes throughout the Chase, he has a chance of finishing well in the Best of the Rest group.
Carl Edwards (-) maintains his position from last week as p5 – Edwards variance is down – 2.6 comparing his 10-race average of 17.40 to his 5-race average finish of 20th. In the last five races, Edwards has only one top-ten, which is a 6th at Michigan. The remaining four races are all outside the top-15 with his worst finish of 36th at Atlanta. This is pretty much the story of his entire season. Edwards will need to push for more if he wants to compete for the Best of the Rest top position.
Joey Logano last week p6, this week p4 – while Logano improves his position from last week, keep in mind that his average finishes are within the two lowest of the other 18 competitors. His 10-race average is 19 and his 5-race average is 18.8, so we are talking about a variance of +.02. Not much difference, but it is slightly good news in the right direction. The other good news for Logano is that in the 5-race analysis, Edwards actually has a lower average finish of 20th. That’s a 1.2 point difference, and represents a bright spot for Logano, who needs any positives we can find.
Paul Menard last week p1, this week p3 – Menard lost positions this week although his performance between his 10-race and 5-race average finish is a slight variance of +.3, 13.3 versus 13 respectively. Menard is the second highest average finisher of this group, but is maintaining the top-15 range in his finishes, with some highs and lows for the season. Michigan, Bristol and Atlanta were all top-tens at 9th, 10th and 8th respectively. He needs to find some higher notes in the Chase, especially with one other Best of the Rest competitor performing better.
Marcos Ambrose (+) last week p3, this week p2 – Ambrose is on the positive side of this group with a 1.1 improvement between his 10-race average of 14.9 and his 5-race average finish of 13.8. His averages are below Menard’s, but his bright spots are 5th-place finishes at Michigan and Bristol, as well as his win at Watkins Glen. His finish of 27th at Chicagoland was not what this team needed for positive momentum. We’ll see if Ambrose can rebound at New Hampshire.
Kyle Busch (+) last week p2, this week p1 – Busch is the biggest winner for the analysis of this group, with a strong 3.7 positive variance from 12.7 for his 10-race average to 9th for his 5-race average, which is tied with a Chase competitor for second best average finish. In the last five races, Busch has three top-six finishes, with Richmond being his only finish outside the top-15 at 16th-place. Kyle Busch is performing at championship level even though, he’s no longer in the Chase. With this analysis, it appears he has the best chance at being the Best of the Rest.
The Chase for the Sprint Cup Contenders
Tony Stewart (-) last week p12, this week p12 – Stewart’s 10-race average finish is 13.7, but his 5-race average is 18th with a variance of 4.3, just slightly better than Newman’s 4.4. Of the 18 competitors, the Stewart-Haas teammates have the biggest losses and definitely headed in the wrong direction. The bad news for Stewart is that his finishes at Michigan, Bristol and Atlanta are 22nd and worse. The good news is that finishes at Richmond and Chicagoland are at third and sixth, respectively. Hopefully, he’ll kick it up a few notches throughout the Chase to defend his Sprint Cup title. Stewart is the defending winner at New Hampshire and we all know, he is capable of rising to the occasion after his 2011 Chase performance.
Jeff Gordon (-) last week p3, this week p11 – Gordon’s bad luck at Chicagoland, represents the biggest position drop, losing eight spots. Prior to the Geico 400, Gordon had three top-three finishes at Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond. But they are book ended by a 28th at Michigan and a 35-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway. His 10-race average is at 11.5 compared to his 5-race average of 14, a – 2.5 point variance. Earlier this week Gordon said he can make up the deficit to move his team forward. Keep in mind that although Stewart’s deficit is greater, his three wins have him currently ranked third versus Gordon’s 12-place rank, giving him less ground to make up to win the championship. We’ll see how things shape up after New Hampshire.
Jimmie Johnson (-) last week p10, this week p10 – Similar to Stewart, Johnson maintains his position from last week. His 10-race average of 13.9 compared to his 5-race average finish of 15.6, gives Johnson a 1.7 variance on the negative side. Although Johnson has second-place finishes at Bristol and Chicagoland, he also has a 27th at Michigan and a 34th at Atlanta, followed by a 13th at Richmond. But also, similar to Stewart, Johnson’s three wins currently rank him second in the point standings. Good finishes for the next nine races will keep him in contention for his sixth championship. In addition to having the best season-long performance, Johnson’s 2nd-place finish in the first race of the Chase puts him in great position, for the next race. But to beat Keselowski, he’ll definitely need better finishes in the final nine races.
Kasey Kahne (-) last week p2, this week p9 – Kahne has the second biggest drop of seven spots, even with the encouragement of his 3rd-place finish in the Geico 400. His 10-race average finish is 8.5 – 2nd only to Keselowski – versus his 5-race average finish of 10th – a 1.5 negative variance. Kahne has two top-three finishes in the last five races, including Michigan and Chicago, but his 23rd-place finish at Atlanta hurt the most preceded by a 9th at Bristol and a 12th-place finish at Richmond. Kahne is currently ranked 5th in the Chase points and if he continues getting top-threes or better, he’ll be back on top in no time at all.
Brad Keselowski (-) last week p1, this week p8 – Keselowski ties Kahne as the second biggest drop of seven spots, even with his win at Chicagoland last Sunday. Why? you ask, His 30th-place finish at Bristol – his only result outside the top-ten in the last ten races – impacted this analysis. In the remainder of his last five races, Keselowski has three top-threes and one top-ten. The winner of the Geico 400 has been the most consistent driver leading up to and in the Chase so far, with the best 10-race and 5-race average finish of 7.1 and 8.6 respectively. Although the variance is 1.5 on the negative side, no one – including the five-time champ, or last year’s champ – has a better average finish than Brad Keselowski in both segments. No worries Brad fans, your favorite driver is still the strongest contender in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Martin Truex Jr last week p4, this week p7 – Truex finished 21st at Chicagoland. His only other finish outside the top-ten is 11th at Bristol. Otherwise Truex has two top-tens and a top-five to his credit in the last five races. His negative variance of .06 between his 10-race average of 10.4 and his 5-race average of 11th is an indication of his consistency throughout this timeframe. As with every contender, we’ll know a little more about about his Chase performance after the New Hampshire, Sylvania 300 race ends.
Greg Biffle last week p6, this week p6 – Biffle’s worst finish in the last five races is 19th at Bristol and his best is 1st at Michigan, with two top-15’s at Atlanta and Chicagoland and one top-ten at Richmond. Biffle’s 10-race average is 11.10, while his 5-race average is 11.4, down just .3. Consistency has been Biffle’s mainstay leading up to and including the first race of the Chase. This team needs to pump it up for the final nine races with more top-fives and maybe some more wins to compete against the top contenders for the 2012 title.
Clint Bowyer (+) last week p5, this week p5 – Bowyer is the first Chase contender to have a positive variance between his 10-race average finish of 11.1 and his 5-race average of 10.4 – the variance is .7 on the positive side. In the last five races, Bowyer has three top-tens and a 1st place finish at Richmond. His worst performance is 27th-place at Atlanta. The win with top-tens make all the difference in countering his one bad race. He’ll need to notch it up just a bit to contend for the Sprint Cup with the other top performers in this analysis.
Matt Kenseth (+) last week p11, this week p4 – Kenseth, has struggled in the Race to the Chase and the first race of the Chase was no different. After losing a shock from his car, Kenseth finished 18th at Chicagoland. So although he’s showing a slight sign of improvement, his average finish is not where it needs to be to win the championship. Kenseth’s 10-race average finish is 15.5 and his 14.6 average over 5-races gives him a positive variance of .9. It’s a glimmer of hope, but with a 4th at Richmond, a 9th at Atlanta, 17th at Michigan, 18th at Chicagoland and finally a 25th at Bristol, Kenseth can’t afford to finish outside the top-five. Matt Kenseth currently sits 11th in the point standings and will need top-fives or better to improve his chances of contending.
Kevin Harvick (+) last week p9, this week p3 – Harvick is up six spots, but like Kenseth, his average performance could use a boost. Harvick’s 10-race average is 13.3, while his 5-race average is 11.6, giving him a positive variance of 1.7. And that’s all good, except Harvick’s point standings place him in 10th position with zero wins. One point of note here. Johnson, currently second in points, has an average finish over the past five races of 15.6, and that represents 1.7 below his 10-race average. This gives a clear indication of the importance of winning before the Chase begins. In fact, Johnson’s 5-race average finish ranks 11th of the 12 Chase contenders. The defending 2011 champion, Tony Stewart, has the lowest average finish of 18th for all Chase contenders. This is why it’s said…it’s all about winning and getting more top-fives and more top-tens than anyone else, which Jimmie Johnson has done. However, it seems all three of these drivers will need to improve their average finish performance from here on out to enhance their chance of bringing home a Sprint Cup trophy.
Dale Earnhardt Jr (+) last week p7, this week p2 – Dale Jr’s average finish improvement is impressive at 3.8, with a 10-race average of 12.8 and a 5-race average of 9, Junior is second only to Brad Keselowski’s 5-race average of 8.6. Dale Jr has one top-five, two top-tens with two top-15’s in the last five races. The interesting point of note here, is that non-Chase contender Kyle Busch ties Dale Jr with an average finish of 9th over the past five races. But Kyle has three top-tens, one top-15 and a 16th at Richmond. It’s going to fun to see how these drivers finish out the final nine races, as they are certainly moving their teams in the right direction.
Denny Hamlin (+) last week p8, this week, p1 – Hamlin has the most impressive average finish improvement of 4.9, with a 10-race average of 14.3 and a 5-race average of 9.4. Although his two wins at Bristol and Atlanta have certainly helped to make that happen, what is worrisome is his 18th at Richmond, followed by a 16th-place finish at Chicagoland. Hamlin also has a total of four wins that keep him at the top for now, keeping in mind that he lost three spots in one race from first to fourth after the first race of the Chase. So, wins will only be helpful to Hamlin, if he continues to improve his average finishes on the final stretch to Homestead-Miami. And Hamlin is definitely looking for redemption and a boost for his team going to New Hampshire this weekend.
Checkered Flag commentary – Chase Tracker was purposefully done this way to illustrate several key points, some already articulated above – see Kevin Harvick commentary for one example. But to further illustrate the point of this week’s Chase Tracker, just because Keselowski’s average finish is declining by 1.5, he still has the highest average finish of all his competitors and has been the most consistent driver leading up to the Chase and including a win in the first race of the championship showdown. Even with a 2nd-place finish at Chicagoland, Jimmie Johnson has his work cut out for him to beat his toughest competition for the Chase. Yes – It is indeed still too early to know who will have the stand out Chase performance in this year’s Chase, but at this stage of the process, it seems crystal clear that every contender will need to step up their most recent performance to out duel, Brad Keselowski for the 2012 Sprint Cup. It’s currently his championship to keep and earn over the next nine Chase events. Will he do it? We’ll know more after New Hampshire’s Sylvania 300 this weekend.