Chase favorite? It’s easy to pick … or is it?


MARTINSVILLE, Va. — The Round of 8 has yet to run its first race and half the championship field is all but set some would believe. 

Shortly after Jimmie Johnson won earlier this month at Charlotte, expectations increased that he would make it to Miami because this round sets up so well for him, beginning with Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway on NBCSN.

Then, the thinking goes, Kevin Harvick, will make it to Miami for a third consecutive year because of his dominance at Phoenix, figuring he’ll win there next month for the seventh time in the last nine races.

Such an outlook leaves Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch fighting for the final two spots.

“You can go off of numbers as much as you want, and they’re there for a reason, but what you’ve done in the past doesn’t predict what’s going to happen in the future as much as you think in this sport,’’ Logano said Friday at Martinsville Speedway. “You never know what is going to happen.’’

Even if it is Johnson in this round?

It’s hard to ignore Johnson’s success at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix.

— He’s won eight times at Martinsville.

— He’s won the last four Texas fall races.

— He has 17 top-10 finishes at Phoenix in his last 22 starts, including four wins.

“You just cannot take anything for granted,’’ said Johnson, noting how an inexpensive part eliminated him in last year’s Chase. “Sure they are great tracks, sure we expect to be competitive, but if you have a bad race at one of the three, and you don’t win, you aren’t going to make it. 

“You need to have three clean ones or win. Three top threes or three top fives to advance with points, I believe. It’s no lay up by any means.’’

Even with that belief, Johnson admits that things are different this time. He said Friday that “this Chase has such a different feeling than Chase’s I’ve won in the past.’’

What’s so different?

“There are eight guys on the table, and then it goes down to four with equal points at Homestead,” he said, noting that in Chases he’s won the list of contenders was much less at this point.“You can’t build a feeling or pick a favorite. It is fun to do, and it creates conversation, but it is impossible to truly pick a favorite at this point.”

Logano, who is coming off a win at Talladega last weekend, is confident his team can be that favorite.

We talk about pressure a lot in the Chase, and a lot of teams crack under it,’’ Logano said. “I believe the 22 team thrives under it. I think we’re excited about that, and I think it’s something that makes us strong. These are three good race tracks for us as well. We’ve won at Texas before (2014). We’ve come close here. Phoenix, we’ve been consistently in the top five, so I think there are three good racetracks to help us get to the next round, and honestly, we don’t think about what other teams have. 

“We think about what makes them strong at each track, but the fact that we can’t go out there and beat them, we know we can do that. We know we can come out here and win all three of these races, so we know we can do that. We’ll go out there and try to.  You have to have an attitude like that or you shouldn’t even strap into the seat.”