By Jared Turner
In college basketball, the final eight teams left standing each year are dubbed the “Elite Eight.”
Good luck finding eight race car drivers who are more elite than the ones still in the hunt for the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
With the Chase field reduced by four with the running of last Sunday’s elimination race at Talladega Superspeedway, only Joey Logano, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin remain in the mix for NASCAR’s most coveted prize.
And of those eight remaining contenders, there’s not a weak link to be bad. Not even close.
Johnson, Harvick (2014), Kurt Busch (2004), Kyle Busch (2015) and Matt Kenseth (2003) are all former Sprint Cup champions, with Johnson being a six-time champ of NASCAR’s premier division.
Edwards, meanwhile, is twice a championship runner-up and holds the unenviable distinction of being the driver to suffer the all-time narrowest championship defeat – which occurred in 2011 on the basis of a tiebreaker.
Hamlin, likewise, is no stranger to championship heartaches, having entered the final race with the points lead in 2010 before ultimately losing out to Johnson.
Then there’s Logano, who was part of the inaugural Championship 4 in 2014 but finished last among the title contenders in the decisive winner-take-all finale. Logano was on course to make it back to Homestead last year, but got effectively eliminated in the Round of 8 when Matt Kenseth decided to settle a score with him at Martinsville Speedway after the two had tangled two weeks earlier at Kansas Speedway.
“I learned some valuable lessons last year,” Logano said. “I learned a whole new level that I didn’t know I had, which was really cool and now I know how to reach that level mentally inside our race car to really make things happen and be a great leader for my team. There are a lot of things like that that I took out of last year that I feel like, I don’t think of anything as a waste of a season. You always learn something from something. … Hopefully, we can take some of the things that we learn about yourself personally as much as anything and about your race team to be able to move on and go to Homestead.”
All of this brings us to Sunday’s race at Martinsville, where a win by any of eight finalists would automatically punch their ticket into the Championship 4. Of the title contenders, only Logano, Kenseth and Edwards have never been to Victory Lane at the fabled .526-mile short track. But any of the eight could win on Sunday, considering that all eight have prevailed at least once in 2016 and that each of the eight has triumphed no fewer than 16 times in NASCAR’s top series.
Think basketball has the ultimate Elite Eight? This year’s final eight Sprint Cup title hopefuls could go toe-to-toe with any Elite Eight that college hoops has offer.
Johnson, for his part, is an eight-time winner at Martinsville and has every reason to be confident heading into this weekend’s first of three races in the Round of 8.
Then again, Johnson hasn’t won at Martinsville since the spring of 2013, so the six-time champ doesn’t consider himself to have any real advantage.
“We haven’t won there lately, so you are only as good as your last race,” Johnson said. “We will see how it goes.”
As for his competition in this round, Johnson – not surprisingly – offers a rather blunt but appropriate assessment.
“We kind of knew who it would be and who we expected to be in the hunt,” he said. “It’s time to go racing.”