NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup field is spreading out a little more week to week. Still, a handful of men have risen above the pack. How did they get there? And will they remain on top after this weekend's race at the short track at Martinsville Speedway? Here's a look at how each of the drivers has fared to this point - and where he could go from here.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Team: Hendrick Motorsports Points position: 12th, 122 points behind Keselowski Gained/lost this week: Earnhardt Jr. was sidelined at Kansas, which caused him to drop further back off the Chase pace. Analysis of Chase to date: Earnhardt Jr. has run well in the Chase, but after missing the last two races with symptoms of a concussion, he’s well out of the running. Outlook in coming races: Earnhardt Jr. returns to his No. 88 team this weekend. In 25 starts at Martinsville, he has 14 top-10 finishes, 10 of them top fives. He has an average finish of 12.640 there, with 868 laps led.
Team: Roush Fenway Racing Points position: 11th, 62 points behind Keselowski Gained/lost this week: Biffle was running well prior to a spin at Kansas last weekend, finishing 27th. That dropped him five spots in the Chase field and an additional 19 points behind the leader. Analysis of Chase to date: Biffle was effectively eliminated from title contention with his setback last weekend. Already on the edge of the Chase, he had rallied with finishes of sixth at Talladega and fourth at Charlotte. But with his Kansas setback, he’s now fighting to get back into the top 10. Outlook in coming races: Martinsville just hasn’t been Biffle’s strong suit over the years. In 19 starts at the track, he has two top-10 finishes. He has an average finish of 21.947 with 21 laps led there.
Team: Richard Childress Racing Points position: 10th, 59 points behind Keselowski Gained/lost this week: Harvick finished 11th at Kansas. He remained 10th in the standings, though he did lose three more points to the leader. Analysis of Chase to date: Harvick and his team just haven’t been able to match the pace of the frontrunners. He still is seeking his first top-10 finish in the Chase, though he has finished 11th three times. He has a worst finish of 16th, so he is running consistently just outside the top 10 week to week. Outlook in coming races: In 22 Martinsville starts, Harvick has one win. He has 10 top-10 finishes, three of them top fives, with an average finish of 16.045. He has led 363 laps at the track.
Team: Roush Fenway Racing Points position: Ninth, 55 points behind Keselowski Gained/lost this week: Kenseth gained two spots – and cut another 12 points off his deficit – with his win at Kansas Speedway. Analysis of Chase to date: Kenseth has two wins in the Chase – leaving one to wonder just how strong he might have been without his early setbacks. The opening trio of Chase races left him deep in the standings and well behind, but he’s rallying nicely now. Can he break into the top five? Outlook in coming races: Martinsville hasn’t been Kenseth’s best track, but he’s shown he can handle it. In 25 starts there, he has eight top-10 finishes with three of those being top fives. Still, he has an average finish of 15.960 with 72 laps led there.
Team: Hendrick Motorsports Points position: Eighth, 51 points behind Keselowski Gained/lost this week: Gordon struggled at Kansas, managing a top-10 finish on a day when he and his team really went to work on the car and used strategy to gain ground. That boosted Gordon one spot in the standings, but he dropped one more point to the leader. Analysis of Chase to date: Gordon was tough in the early Chase races, but has dropped off a little in the two most recent races. Still, he has five top-10 finishes and is challenging to move into the top five in the standings despite his opening-race setback. Outlook in coming races: Watch out this weekend; Gordon is one of the best at mastering Martinsville. In 39 starts, he has seven wins at the track (and seven pole positions). He has 31 top-10 finishes, 25 of them top fives, for an average finish of 7.077. How many laps has he led at the track? A stunning 3,423. So this could be the weekend when he gets back on track. Just how much ground can he make up on the field?
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing Points position: Seventh, 47 points behind Keselowski Gained/lost this week: Stewart overcame an early pit-road penalty to finish fifth at Kansas. He gained one spot in the standings and trimmed three points off his deficit. Analysis of Chase to date: Stewart seems to be starting out in the hole every week – either deep in the field from qualifying or struggling with the handling of his car early in the race – with varying levels of success. He has three finishes of seventh or better in the Chase, with two worse than 20th. That has the defending champ struggling in his repeat bid. Outlook in coming races: In 27 starts at Martinsville, Stewart has three wins. He has 15 top-10 finishes, nine of them top fives, with an average finish of 13.185. He has led 1,208 laps at the track and started from the pole position three times. If he starts up front again Sunday, he has to be the one to watch.
Martin Truex Jr.
Team: Michael Waltrip Racing Points position: Sixth, 43 points behind Keselowski Gained/lost this week: Truex finished second at Kansas, his second runner-up finish at the track this season. That boosted him one spot in the standings and helped him shave six points off his deficit. Analysis of Chase to date: The Michael Waltrip Racing cars have been fast in the Chase, but haven’t always managed to finish in a top position. Still, Truex has four top-10 finishes in the segment, including in the last two races. Outlook in coming races: In 13 starts at Martinsville, Truex has four top-10 finishes, two of them top fives. Truex has an average finish of 21.385 at the track. He’s certainly hoping to top that in order to keep gaining ground this weekend.
Team: Hendrick Motorsports Points position: Fifth, 30 points behind Keselowski Gained/lost this week: Kahne finished fourth after challenging for the win last week at Kansas. That allowed him to hold onto fifth in the Chase, and shave five points off his deficit. Analysis of Chase to date: Kahne and his Kenny Francis-led team have often been fast in this Chase. He has four top-10 finishes in the Chase. Outlook in coming races: Kahne has shown flashes of strength at Martinsville. In 17 starts at the track, he just has two top-10 finishes, though, one of them a top five. He has an average finish of 21.706 at the track. But he and his team have been improving in recent races and this is only his second trek to the track as a Hendrick driver, so look for a stronger showing this time. Now, he just needs to change those races in which he challenges for wins into ones that conclude in Victory Lane.
Team: Michael Waltrip Racing Points position: Fourth, 25 behind Keselowski Gained/lost this week: Bowyer finished sixth to continue his recent climb in the standings. He remained fourth overall, but trimmed another three points off his deficit to the leader. Analysis of Chase to date: Bowyer has surprised some critics in cutting his deficit to the points leader in half in the last pair of races. Certainly he still has a long way to go, but with five top-10 finishes in the Chase – including a victory in Charlotte – he’s showing that once he makes the title-determining field, he can really shine. Outlook in coming races: Martinsville is not his best track for gaining traction. In 13 starts at the track, he has seven top-10 finishes, one of them a top five, for an average finish of 14.692. He’ll need to do better than that to keep gaining ground on the frontrunners this weekend.
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing Points position: Third, 20 points behind Keselowski Gained/lost this week: Hamlin finished 13th at Kansas. He maintained third in the standings, but lost five more points to the leader. Analysis of Chase to date: Hamlin has endured his share of setbacks in the Chase. He has three finishes outside the top 10 – and three inside it, including a win and runner-up performance. He needs to keep those top 10s coming to catch the two in front of him. Outlook in coming races: Like Johnson, this is Hamlin’s chance to shine. In 14 Martinsville starts, he has four wins. He has 12 top-10 finishes, nine of them top fives, and has started from the pole position twice. He has an average finish of 6.429 at the track, with 1,127 laps led. Hamlin could definitely challenge not only for the win, but also for the Chase lead Sunday.
Team: Hendrick Motorsports Points position: Second, seven points back Gained/lost this week: Despite a spin during the race, Johnson and company finished ninth at Kansas last week. That could turn out to be the repair that saves his Chase hopes. Johnson lost no ground to Keselowski with the setback and remains seven points back, in second. Analysis of Chase to date: With the exception of the Talladega race, Johnson has been strong in the Chase. He has yet to win in the segment, but has a pair of runner-up finishes and two other top-five runs. He’s holding firm with Keselowski – and heading to a track where he could certainly make up some ground. Outlook in coming races: Could Johnson be any happier about the next race on the schedule? In 21 starts at Martinsville, he has six wins. In addition to starting from the pole position once, he has 18 top-10 finishes, 14 of them top fives, for a stunning average finish of 5.762. He’s led 1,788 laps there – and generally really turns it on at the track in the Chase. This could be his week to shine.
Team: Penske Racing Points position: First Gained/lost this week: Keselowski finished eighth at Kansas Speedway and held steady in the standings. He both entered and left the Kansas race with a seven-point lead over Jimmie Johnson. Analysis of Chase to date: Keselowski has been the cream of the crop in the Chase for weeks. He’s been no worse than second in the standings and has been in the lead following all but one Chase race. He has a worst finish of 11th in the Chase and has two wins in the six races to date. Outlook in coming races: This weekend is Keselowski’s toughest in terms of facing the competition. In five starts at Martinsville, he has two top-10 finishes and a best of ninth – which came earlier this year. He has an average finish of 13.4 and has led two laps there. That’s certainly not bad, but his closest Chase competitors - Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin – have combined for 10 wins at the track and could be threats to steal the lead this weekend. So Keselowski needs to match his best performance at the track this weekend.