By Jerry Bonkowski
What would happen if this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup came down to two drivers who haven’t won a race in 2015, and two others that have won just one?
It’s not out of the realm of possibility heading into the midpoint of the Chase, this Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway.
With Jimmie Johnson already eliminated and Matt Kenseth (currently 12th in the standings), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (11th) and Kyle Busch (10th) bringing up the rear of the Chase standings after this past Sunday’s race at Charlotte, it would not surprise me if all of the top drivers that came into the Chase are eventually eliminated before they reach Homestead.
Sure, Joey Logano won at Charlotte, giving him a free pass into Round 3, but that’s no guarantee he’ll continue on to the season-ending final round at Homestead-Miami Speedway next month.
Which brings me back to my original premise: What if winless Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman, and one-race winners Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. (barring they don’t add to that total in the remaining six races of the Chase) somehow are the beneficiaries if all the other top drivers get eliminated in either Round 2 or 3?
Honestly, I don’t think that will happen, as I still believe Kevin Harvick will win a second consecutive championship.
But we all saw how close Harvick came to being eliminated at Dover last week. Had he not won that race, he would no longer be in the Chase equation.
And even though Logano has advanced to the third round, who’s to say the same kind of unrecoverable misfortune that befell Johnson in Round 1, won’t also impact Earnhardt, Kenseth and Kyle Busch in Round 2 after the way they all finished at Charlotte and potentially Logano in Round 3.
Sure, there are plenty of race fans that believe Earnhardt will be a slam dunk to advance to Round 3 after he wins yet again at Talladega next week. Granted, that’s a big supposition, but because Earnhardt won at ‘Dega in April and has had significant success at restrictor plate tracks over the last few seasons, many believe Junior will once again prevail at the biggest and most unpredictable race track on the Sprint Cup circuit.
But, just like winning the Chase, there’s no guarantee Earnhardt will win at Talladega. And given the hole (32 points behind series leader Logano) Earnhardt is in heading to Kansas, as well as the 45-point hole Kenseth is in and the 23-point hole Kyle Busch is in, three of the Chase’s biggest names are in serious risk of being ousted two races from now.
So what happens if guys with zero or just one win ultimately make the championship round six weeks from now? What will that say about the Chase format? Will people criticize that many of NASCAR’s best drivers during the regular season aren’t around to battle it out for the season’s top prize?
To me, that’s just the nature of the beast – and the Chase format. Sure, drivers that win in the Chase and regular season are rewarded with automatic advancement into the next playoff round or receive extra points for taking the checkered flag.
But at the same time, if drivers like Johnson, Earnhardt, Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Logano, Harvick and others indeed are eliminated before they reach Homestead, that leaves true Cinderella-like stories for the four drivers that remain.
When Harvick won last year’s championship, Hollywood could not have written a better story.
Granted, there’s still a lot of racing remaining, but if things continue to shape up as they are and the final round becomes the end result of David vs. Goliath in the first three rounds, the 2015 Chase sequel may be different in its makeup – but just as compelling and as much of a best-seller as last year’s Chase outcome was.
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for NBCSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.