Chris Estrada

Five drivers to watch in Miami

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Here are five drivers to keep an eye in Sunday’s Sprint Cup season finale on NBC at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson

Should Johnson make history by capturing a record-tying seventh Sprint Cup title, it’ll be one of those “Where were you when …” moments for every NASCAR fan. But we shouldn’t forget that this is the first time he’s faced Miami in a one-race, winner-take-all situation. Johnson has won twice on 1.5-milers this season, but has never won at Miami and has never led more than 28 laps in a single Cup start there.

 Joey Logano

The Miami tire combination has been used three times earlier this season, at both Texas races and the Chase opener at Chicagoland. With that in mind, Logano may have an edge over his Championship rivals on Sunday. He finished third, second, and second in those previous three races with the Miami tires. Furthermore, he led 178 laps at Texas two weeks ago with an average running position of 1.8. To see how the other three Championship drivers have done with the Miami tires, check out Dustin Long’s article from Tuesday.

 Carl Edwards

Title heartbreak in 2011 aside, Miami has been a solid track for Edwards. He’s the only one of the Championship 4 with multiple wins there (2008, 2010) and he has the best average finish there (9.2) among the group. He also may have another thing going for him: He’s the only Championship 4 driver who took part in the October test session at Miami. How much will that help Edwards, and perhaps to a point, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch? We’ll have to see.

KYLE BUSCH

In 2015, Kyle Busch’s last win entering the Chase came at Indianapolis – and during the Chase, he didn’t win until the Championship race at Miami. Guess where his last pre-Chase win was this year? You guessed it: Indy. And Busch has gone winless in this year’s Chase as well. The difference is that this year, he’s had better performance in the playoffs. He’s figured out how to work the Chase and he knows how to perform with everything on the line. Expect a strong effort from him and the 18 team on Sunday.

 Martin Truex Jr.

In 2015, Truex was racing for a championship at Miami but handling woes kept him from being a real factor. This year, he can just go for a win, and he stands a good chance of doing it. Let’s go back to the Miami tire combination and the previous three races where it was used: Truex finished sixth and third at Texas, and between those races, he won the Chase opener at Chicagoland. If that form holds on Sunday, Truex may have the race he was hoping to have a year ago.

Five drivers to watch at Phoenix

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Keep an eye on these drivers Sunday in the final race of the Round of 8 at Phoenix International Raceway.

Kevin Harvick

How many Championship 4 spots are on the line in Sunday’s elimination race at Phoenix?

The standings say two, but among Chase drivers who have yet to clinch, it’s likely they’re thinking just one. That’s because of Harvick’s sheer dominance at Phoenix (eight wins, including six in the last eight races there) and his remarkable ability to win when the chips are down (he’s 18 points behind the cut line to make the Championship 4). Everyone’s luck runs out eventually, but if Harvick does run into trouble Sunday and cannot recover, it still would feel shocking.

Kyle Busch

The defending Sprint Cup champion has figured out how to play the Chase, and that’s made him almost as under the radar as a defending champ can get in the playoffs. But he’s been impressive: His 8.0 average finish in the Chase is the best among the Round of 8 drivers, and that includes a 30th-place finish at Talladega, where he ran in the back by design. If he can’t win Sunday, he definitely is capable of popping a top three that can get him to the championship round.

Matt Kenseth

He has followed the same path as Kyle Busch in the Chase, posting a steady 8.3 average finish. But he hasn’t won at Phoenix since 2002. Furthermore, he has only one top-five finish there since 2008, and he hasn’t led a lap there since the 2012 fall race. No doubt Kenseth can run near the front, but if a ticket to the championship comes down to a handful of points, he needs to be at the front, leading laps and getting as many bonus points as he can.

Joey Logano

Logano finished 18th at Phoenix in March but has shown strong pace as of late. He’s notched three top-three finishes in the past four races, including his win at Talladega and leading a race-high 178 laps in finishing second at Texas. If he carries that speed into Sunday, he’ll have a shot at his second Championship 4 appearance.

Kurt Busch

Carl Edwards erased a 32-point deficit by winning at Texas, so what’s a 34-point gap for a former Sprint Cup champion?

Unfortunately, Busch and the No. 41 team have had a horribly ill-timed dip in performance. They’ve been non-factors so far in the Round of 8 (22nd at Martinsville, 20th at Texas). Busch has rattled off four consecutive top-10 finishes at Phoenix, but that won’t be enough. Can they find the winning pace and pull off a stunner?

Five drivers to watch at Texas Motor Speedway

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Keep an eye on these drivers this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson

After his win at Martinsville secured his place in the Championship 4, one may think Johnson can afford to relax. But when you have Kevin Harvick and all four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers still vying for their own Championship spot, keeping the hammer down is the only option – and a fifth consecutive Chase race win at Texas by Johnson would increase the pressure for all of them. Johnson leads all major categories at Texas, including wins (six), top fives (14), top 10s (20) and laps led (1,023).

Matt Kenseth

He is also coming into this weekend with momentum. Since finishing 11th at Texas in April, Kenseth has posted six consecutive top-10 finishes on 1.5-mile tracks. He’s also led over 100 laps in two of the last three races – that includes the most recent race on a 1.5-miler at Kansas (116 of 267; finished ninth) and last week’s race at Martinsville (176 of 500; finished fourth).

Martin Truex Jr.

Among the top drivers on 1.5-mile tracks this season (two wins, 817 laps led, 8.2 average finish), Truex looked poised to win at Texas back in April when a late-race decision to stay out instead of pitting for fresh tires backfired. And in last year’s Chase race at Texas, a loose wheel and power steering issue knocked him from contention in the closing laps. He would seem to be due.

Carl Edwards

Kyle Busch may have won at Texas earlier this year, but it can be argued that either Truex or Carl Edwards should’ve won based on performance. In Edwards’ case, he dominated the middle stages of that race until a loose wheel forced him to pit, fall a lap down, and then come back for a seventh-place finish. That was his fourth consecutive top 10 there, but only a win will likely erase his 32-point gap to the cut line and send him on to Miami.

Brad Keselowski

Keselowski has also been stout on mile-and-a-halves this year with victories at Las Vegas and Kentucky, plus a 10.4 average finish across all nine races on this type of track. Considering what he’s been through at Texas recently – the 2014 pit road brawl with Jeff Gordon and his dominant performance last fall dashed by Jimmie Johnson – a win here would mean a good deal to him.

 

Five drivers to watch at Martinsville

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The Round of 8 begins this weekend at Martinsville Speedway. Here are five drivers to watch.

Jimmie Johnson

The six-time Cup champion enters new territory as he makes his first appearance in the Round of 8 under the current Chase format. But he’s always a threat at Martinsville, where he’s scored eight wins and finished in the top 10 almost 80 percent of the time (23 top 10s in 29 starts). A finish in that range would put him in good position for next weekend at Texas — where he’s won the last four Chase races.

Kevin Harvick

He’s posted the best average finish across this year’s short track events (7.0). That’s even with a 17th-place finish in April at Martinsville. Harvick led 72 laps in that race but fell back on a late restart after being stuck on the dreaded outside lane. While Harvick is a past winner at Martinsville (Spring 2011), his best chances to win in the Round of 8 and advance to the championship are still to come. Like with Johnson, a top-10 finish would be a solid start for him.

Kurt Busch

If the Cubs’ No. 1 fan is going to make it to Miami, he’s got to survive Martinsville. He’s a two-time winner at this track, but his most recent victory in Spring 2014 is his only top-10 result there since 2006. So far in the Chase, he has been able to hold steady with a 9.7 average finish and no finishes worse than 15th. But it’s time to turn up the wick.

Kyle Busch

The defending Sprint Cup champion has led more laps than anyone on the short tracks this year (686), but the outcomes have varied. Good: He led 352 laps in route to his first Martinsville win in April. Bad: Later that month at Richmond, he was bumped out of the way by teammate Carl Edwards for the win. Ugly: He crashed out of both Bristol races. 

Jeff Gordon

He makes his final start in place of Dale Earnhardt Jr. this weekend at the track where he scored one of the biggest wins of his career last fall. The results haven’t been especially great for Gordon in the 88 car (best finish: 10th at Dover earlier this month), but his feedback has no doubt helped Hendrick Motorsports’ resurgence. And as we know very well, you can never count him the nine-time Martinsville winner.

Five drivers to watch at Talladega

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Although Talladega Superspeedway can be unpredictable, here are five drivers you should not keep an eye off of this weekend.

Brad Keselowski

With Dale Earnhardt Jr. absent, Keselowski has taken the mantle of top restrictor-plate racer in the Sprint Cup Series. His five plate wins since 2009 are the most of any driver, and he’s won the last two plate races. And who can forget his clutch victory in the 2014 Talladega Chase race when he was 19 points below the cut line? He’s only seven points back this time around.

 Austin Dillon

His advancement out of the Round of 16 was a surprise to some. But an advance out of the Round of 12 wouldn’t be. He’s still looking for his first Sprint Cup win, but Dillon’s been a solid competitor on plate tracks. Not only is he one of two Chasers with top-10 finishes in all 3 plate races this season, his career average finish on plate tracks (14.46) is second all-time only to Dale Earnhardt.

 Kyle Busch

The other Chaser with top 10s in all three plate races this season? That would be Busch, who’s posted finishes of third, second, and second in those events. Additionally, his 4.8 average finish in the Chase is the best among the 12 remaining drivers. But we all remember what happened to him at Talladega in 2014 when he seemingly was set to advance to the next round and didn’t after getting collected in a crash. Nothing is a given.

Matt Kenseth

Not far behind Busch on Chase performance is his teammate Kenseth, who’s posted an average finish of 5.4 during the playoffs. He’s a past winner at Talladega (2012 Chase race), but he hasn’t finished better than 14th in a plate race since the start of the 2015 season. Like Busch, Kenseth stands a good chance of making the Championship at Miami – if he can survive this weekend.

 Martin Truex Jr.

Truex comes to Talladega with a 13-point cushion, but gremlins have hurt him so far in the Round of 12 (clutch problems at Charlotte, fuel system issues at Kansas). He can ill afford to have another setback. He’s one of five Chase drivers who have never won a plate race in the Sprint Cup Series.