Sunday marks the official start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Three years after the start of the elimination-style format, NASCAR’s playoffs have taken on a completely different life with the tension ratcheting up every weekend.
Chicagoland is the first race, but the ultimate target is making it to Homestead-Miami with championship hopes in tact. Only four drivers will have a shot by that point, with the highest finisher being crowned the champion.
Ten races away from that point, I tried to come up with a perfect bracket for the Chase. While I’m sure it will be completely busted by Homestead, throwing caution to the wind is fun. Hours away from the playoffs kicking off, here’s a look at the top storylines to watch, Chase spoilers and championship predictions.
Storylines to Watch
Will the single-car team shine again?
Martin Truex Jr. has never experienced the type of success he’s having with Furniture Row Racing — a single-car team out of Denver. After making the Championship Four at Homestead-Miami last year, he’s on track to do so again in 2016. Carrying two wins into the Chase — including a dominant performance at Charlotte — Truex is rewriting history for FRR.
Chaos in Kansas, revisited
What started in Kansas between Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano boiled over into Martinsville, ultimately eliminating both from championship contention. After being taken out in Kansas by Logano, Kenseth responded by slamming the championship favorite into the wall at Martinsville. Both happened to be in the lead on each occasion. After a recent scuffle with Logano’s teammate Brad Keselowski at Richmond, the bad blood between Kenseth and Team Penske will be fun to watch in the Chase.
Smoke’s last ride
It’s been a wild season for Tony Stewart, to say the least. Despite missing the first eight races of the season due to a back injury, Stewart shocked the NASCAR world with a win at Sonoma. He then racked up five top-five finishes and seven top 10s to make the Chase. While his last few seasons have been tumultuous on and off the track, Stewart is driving like he has nothing else to lose. Going off past results — 2011 being a great example — Smoke could very well be in the thick of the championship mix late in the Chase.
Young guns making waves
When Tony Stewart won his first Sprint Cup championship in 2002, Chase Elliott was six years old. Now, Chase Elliott joins Chris Buescher as the first pair of rookies to make the Chase in the same year. The only previous driver to accomplish the feat as a rookie was Denny Hamlin. Along with the rookies, Kyle Larson, at the ripe old age of 24, made his first Chase after winning at Michigan. The young guns are slowly pushing the veterans in NASCAR, and this season is further proof that the next wave is extremely talented.
For two straight years, NASCAR fans watched in awe of what Kyle Larson could do behind the wheel. He challenged some of the best drivers on a constant basis as a rookie, but never made the Chase. The only question was: When would his first win come? That question was answered at Michigan, where Larson dominated on the final restart to clinch a Chase berth. One of the most drivers and willing to sacrifice anything for a win, another checkered flag could propel him to Homestead.
Despite a huge amount of hype prior to his first NASCAR season, Chase Elliott lived up to every bit of it by making the Chase. How he got there, however, wasn’t exactly ideal. Elliott looked like a lock early, finishing inside the top 10 in 11 of the first 15 races. Then the second-half struggles saw Elliott finish outside the top 20 five times in the final 11 races. Which Elliott will we see in the Chase? If it’s first-half Chase, NASCAR might rename the whole postseason after him.
Coming into 2016, Dillon looked like a solid driver who would never live up to the hype of driving the No. 3 car. This season changed all that. Dillon amassed more top-five finishes (four) and top-10’s (10) than he had in his entire career. Always seemingly a step behind Larson, who won the 2014 Rookie of the Year over Dillon, the N.C. native can separate himself this fall. Expect a strong showing from the lone Richard Childress Racing driver with the entire team’s focus on his performance.
It’s weird calling Johnson a Chase spoiler, but the six-time champion has been far from his superior self. His two wins, seven top fives, 10 top 10s and 266 laps led are all career lows. He hasn’t finished better than 10th in the new Chase format since its inception three years ago. Even with all this negativity, Johnson is still capable of pulling off wins at tracks like Charlotte, Martinsville or Dover in the Chase to break into the Championship Four. Let’s not forget who this is we’re talking about here. Johnson is one title away from record-tying seventh, and he’s still capable of getting there this season.
The Blue Deuce has been on fire all season, racking up four wins — two of which came at tracks in the Chase. Keselowski has also finished inside the top three in six of the last 10 races. With 10 races remaining, Kes already has one less win and top five from his 2012 championship season. Part of a Ford fleet that will be introducing Stewart-Haas Racing next season, look for Keselowski to hoist the Sprint Cup trophy and prove Team Penske is still the top of the Ford stable.
Last year, Kyle Busch had one of the best rebound stories in sports history. This time around, Rowdy isn’t sneaking up on anyone with 1,234 laps led and four wins — leading or tied in both categories. Busch could very well be at the top of this list, but his last four races prove he’s inconsistent this season. Expect Busch to suddenly flip the switch once the Chase starts, but he’ll come up just short in the finale.
Had it not been for the aforementioned annihilation of Logano at Martinsville by Kenseth last year, he may have won the championship. Logano won three races in the Chase last year, but doesn’t quite shown that dominant form this season. The No. 22 team has one win and 10 top fives, while also finishing outside the top 20 five times. Sliced Bread will get the job done again in the Chase, but will finish second in the Team Penske garage.
Only two drivers — Busch and Truex — have more laps led than Harvick’s 1,211 this season. Somehow, he only has two wins and four top-two finishes to show for it on the year. Here’s the thing though, Harvick has always survived in this format to finish inside the top four. He’ll do exactly that again this year, likely clinching his seventh win in the last nine attempts at Phoenix before the finale. However, his consistency won’t win him a title if he can’t win in Homestead.