After only three playoff games, the Los Angeles Angels, the team with the best record in Major League Baseball, are done for the season, swept out of the first round. The Washington Nationals, the MLB team with the best record in the National League, avoided an identical fate with a season-saving win on Monday (but still need back-to-back wins to advance to the next round).
In similarly stunning news, after one race in the Contender Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup the four drivers most in danger of being eliminated are Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson. These four are in points positions 9-12 right now and if they stay there over the course of the next two races at Charlotte and Talladega, they will be knocked out of championship contention.
On the flip side, winless drivers Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth are both in the top seven in points, in great shape to be among the eight drivers who will advance to the Eliminator Round of the Chase. Remarkably, Newman is fourth in points, despite having only two top-five finishes all season long. No one in the top 20 in points has had fewer top fives this season than Newman.
How topsy-turvy is this new flavor of the Chase? With 30 Cup races in the books on the season, the top six drivers in points collectively have posted 12 wins, 46 top fives and 84 top 10s. Meanwhile, the drivers in positions 7-12 have had much better results, with 16 wins, 59 top fives and 98 top 10s.
But because of knockout rounds and some bizarre circumstances at Kansas Speedway on Sunday, several of the sport’s best drivers likely won’t advance out of this round.
How one feels about that likely has a direct correlation to how their favorite driver is faring under this new Chase system. Fans of Earnhardt or Keselowski, for example, probably are very unhappy now, while Joe Gibbs Racing fans have to be thrilled that all three of their drivers are in the top seven in points.
When I first looked at the points after Kansas, I admit I was surprised and disappointed. The possibility of seeing four guys who had won 12 races potentially eliminated, with two winless drivers and several more with one victory advancing, just felt weird and unnatural to me.
But then I started thinking about the aforementioned baseball playoffs and the many upsets that occur each year during the men’s basketball championship and figured the new NASCAR format might be OK, too.
This much is certain: Despite four of 16 Chase drivers being formally eliminated already and four more on the bubble, the championship is more wide open right now than it would have been at this time in years past.
Last year at this time, there were only five drivers within one full race worth of points of the leader. Now there are 12 still in the hunt. Yes, Johnson, Keselowski and Earnhardt are in a deep hole right now. But a victory at Charlotte or Talladega would automatically advance any of them to the next round, and they could still make it in on points, too.
More importantly, nobody knows what’s going to happen over the final six races, which has dramatically added to the tension and the drama. It’s only going to get crazier from here. And that’s a very good thing indeed.
VIDEO: The Chase War Room – Picking The Eliminator 8