Is the Chase shaping up to be a Penske-Hendrick battle?
Larry McReynolds examines whether or not the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup is shaping up to be a battle between to of NASCAR's biggest powerhouse teams.
Roger Penske and Rick Hendrick's two teams will likely battle it out to determine the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.
By Larry McReynolds
Brad Keselowski had a record-setting performance this past weekend. He became the first driver to ever sweep both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series races in the same weekend at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Sunday's performance was purely a dominating show Brad put on. So I guess the question now becomes, is there any other organization out there other than Penske Racing or Hendrick Motorsports capable of stepping into the championship picture?
If I had to base it on what we already have in the books after 19 races in 2014, I would think you would have to say there really isn't anyone else out there to challenge those two powerhouses. You could easily make a case today that the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion is going to come from one of those two camps and from one of their combined six drivers.
Having said that, remember that our Chase and championship format is different this year. All it would take is when the Chase starts, for any of one of those 16 teams in the Chase to get on a hot streak, win races, make no mistakes along the way, and we could be looking at someone as our champion that isn't even remotely on our radar right now.
If you have been watching the Joe Gibbs Racing camp for the last two or three weeks, you've noticed they've started to come to life a little bit. Kyle Busch finished second Sunday and he finished second in Kentucky. He already has a win from earlier this season and moved up to eighth in the points. So we know he'll be in the Chase.
If Kevin Harvick and that No. 4 team could ever -- I'm not sure they ever will -- but if they could put all their mistakes behind them that will be a driver that we truly know can and is a contender for the championship. Kevin's got two wins and sits 13th in the points, but their self-inflicted wounds are really holding them back.
The best ever example I can give you of someone that wasn't even on the radar that came out of left field to win the championship, of course has to be Tony Stewart. Sure the format was a little different, but Tony barely made it into the 2011 Chase on points. Tony himself told anyone and everyone who would listen that he and the team didn't even deserve to be in the Chase. He even took it a step further to say publicly that they were taking up a spot for another more-deserving team.
Hopefully you all know how the story ended. The No. 14 team got hot -- red hot -- when the Chase started. Tony went out and won five of the 10 Chase races. He ended up literally in a tie in points with Carl Edwards after the last race of the season, but Tony won more races and that was the tie-breaker. Tony came out of nowhere and won his third NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. It truly is the stuff of legends.
So my point is, granted it's a slightly different format, but we've seen it happen where the unexpected happened when the expected driver didn't win the championship. I mean Tony didn't even win a single race during what we call the regular season, which are the first 26 races of the year. In December however, he is sitting at the head table at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards banquet being crowned our champion.
I easily promise you, despite the new Chase format that begins this year, if there is a driver in the Chase that can mirror Tony's Chase performance and win five of the ten Chase races, well he will be our 2014 champion hands down. So it can be done, but the question becomes will it.
So again, right now today, I see the championship coming down to a battle between Hendrick Motorsports and Penske Racing. If you put a gun to my head today and told me I had to predict the overall winner from those two camps, I'd easily say it's Brad's championship to lose. In watching and listening to that team, they really are hitting on all eight cylinders. They have fast race cars, they have great communication and unlike others, they simply aren't making any mistakes.
Again though that's today, and trust me, in NASCAR racing with seven races to go until the Chase begins a lot can and usually does happen to shake up the Chase picture. That's just to get to the Chase. Then with this new format, a lot can and probably will happen to determine who our champion is. Tony proved it three years ago it's possible to come out of nowhere and win it all.