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Cup Stars Out Of Alignment As Eliminator Kicks Off

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 26 2014

Jeff Gordon is the lone Hendrick Motorsports driver in the Eliminator Round of the Chase today at Martinsville. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Six-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, former NASCAR champion Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle; a stellar list of drivers that are always viewed as title contenders – but that’s no longer the case this season.

Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kahne were surprisingly eliminated from the Chase after last week’s Talladega race. Kurt Busch and Biffle were among the four that fell by the wayside following Dover in September. Among those who remain in title contention only three of the eight drivers have won championships – Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski.

Joe Gibbs Racing has struggled this year, but two of that organization’s drivers remain. Hendrick Motorsports and Penske Motorsports were picked as the primary title contenders, yet only one Hendrick team remains while both of Penske’s entries continue. Despite that fact, Gordon said he doesn’t feel as if he’s on an island.

“We always share information and work together and have our debriefs,” Gordon said. “The crew chiefs are constantly talking about setups in cars and how we get better as we go into each race weekend and our own theories. I feel like that will continue. I think the only difference is that we’re not racing them for the

Carl Edwards is a quiet Eliminator. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)


Perhaps the biggest surprises have been the continued advancement of Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards and Richard Childress Racing’s Ryan Newman. Prior to the Chase’s beginning, most people didn’t pick them to advance pass the first and certainly not the second rounds. However, their consistent finishes have proven invaluable. In the Chase’s first six races, Newman’s worst finish came at New Hampshire where he placed 18th. That was the last time he finished outside the top 10. Edwards’ finishes haven’t been as good with only two top-10s. However, his worst finish occurred at Talladega where he placed 21st.

“There’s been a couple races where you look back and you think they’re going to finish in the 20s and they take tires late or whatever and make a charge to the front,” said title contender Denny Hamlin. “They’ve really been as solid as anyone on finishing. That’s what’s going to be the key this round is finishing – really similar to what those guys have been doing for the first two rounds. Breaks have to come your way for those things to happen and the cautions have to fall right for you.

“I think they’ve both done an amazing job with the speed of their cars, the finishing, I think, better than what the speed of their cars are. They’ve done a great job and I would consider them just as big of a threat as I would Brad or Joey or Kevin (Harvick) simply because they seem to close really well at the end of these races.”

Johnson noted that Edwards “quietly” made it through the Chase’s first two rounds.

“It shows that collecting points is still important,” Johnson said. “We’ve been so focused on winning that there is an argument that overlooked just having solid runs; although, we did that in the first three races and transferred with ease. It’s not a bad approach to go out there and be conscious of top-fives, top-10s and staying alive.”

Edwards was previously in championship contention this far into the season in 2011 when he and Tony Stewart battled down to the season finale’s conclusion. For Newman, however, being in championship contention with four races remaining is a new experience.

“We admittedly have not been a dominant team all year, so this Chase format gives us an opportunity to be tied for the points lead with four races left,” Edwards said. “We got a win early on (in the season), which was spectacular. Up until the Chase started we were just kind of having fun and there wasn’t a lot of pressure. Just my guys and being here this weekend, I can sense it (pressure intensifying). I think there will be something that happens (in the Martinsville race) that we don’t expect.”

That unexpected event could be a non-Chase driver winning or a title contender no one expected in the Championship round visiting victory lane.

“I think the best team that has handled pressure well and that these upcoming tracks suit them well; those are the ones with the advantage,” Gordon said. “It’s obvious there have been some surprises as to who is in and who is not. But, the way I look at it, the four that I feel like have been the strongest teams all year long are in there. And that’s the No. 22 (Logano), the No. 2 (Keselowski), the No. 4 (Harvick) and ourselves. I’m not saying that’s going to be who makes it to Homestead, but those to me, are the teams that have the best chance.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 26 2014
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