Don’t Call This a Three-Man Race Just YetBy Nick DeGroot
Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson seem unstoppable at the moment but no matter how fast they are and how dominate they can be, there will always be forces outside of their control that could halt their crusade for the Cup in an instant. These three are far from immune to bad luck and to count out 4th on back right now would be imprudent. It’s incontrovertible that it’s their chase to lose but to completely discount the chances of some of those behind them isn’t a smart idea just yet. It would obviously take a mechanical issue, a blown tire or a wreck to stop the top three but with how solid and consistent some of the driver’s chasing them are, they would be launched right back into the battle should fate decide to be so kind.
Martinsville and Talladega still loom and until we get past those two races, I’m going to hold my tongue on eliminating anyone still within 50 points of the leader. The next race on the schedule is Kansas which is statistically one of Kyle Busch’s worst tracks. When we raced there earlier this year, Busch’s day ended after a vicious crash with Joey Logano. In fact, he’s crashed out of the last two Kansas events and in twelve starts, the highest finishing position he could ever manage was a 7th back in 2006. As for his teammate, the only weak spot I see left on the schedule for Kenseth is Martinsville; a track he’s never won at in 27 starts.
Despite the fact that Kyle rarely has a good showing at Kansas and Matt is less than spectacular at Martinsville, that won’t be enough to take control of this chase away from them if they have rough days. I haven’t mentioned Jimmie Johnson yet because there really isn’t a track that he isn’t great at except for Homestead but five consecutive years of just needing to finish to win the title could be partially to blame for that. In reality, the only thing that will stop these three are problems that they can’t predict or counter. Johnson would have been the champion last year if it weren’t for a blown tire at Phoenix followed up by rear gear issues at Homestead. 5-time was at that mercy of both unfortunate circumstances and in the end, it cost him a 6th Sprint Cup.
At Talladega, you can give up 30+ points quicker than you can think about it. Just look back at 2012 when Tony Stewart entered turn three on the final lap with the win in hand and ended up with a DNF and a 22nd place finish. On the flip side of that, Jeff Gordon went into the final corner outside the top 15 and ended up 2nd so to say that 4th on back have no chance with Dega still to come is ignorant. Talladega doesn’t necessarily have to be the game-changer either. You can blow a tire or have an engine failure just about anywhere. The possibility of bringing more bodies back into the fight at the paperclip, aka Martinsville are very high as well.
If these three do indeed stumble, who will be the beneficiary? I see four drivers that aren’t performing anywhere close to the level of the three leaders but are consistent enough to capitalize should bad luck plague the guys at the top. They are Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards. Yes, there is an obvious dichotomy between the performance level of these two groups of drivers but it’s like the tortoise and the hare….sometimes slow and steady wins the race. Before I go any further, I think we can discount Carl who now faces a 65pt deficit and sits back in 11th after an engine failure at Dover….something out of his control. He would need to go on an incredible run that I don’t see Roush capable of doing right now as well as hoping that a lot of the people in front of him have trouble.
Lets first take a look at the most talked about driver as of late and for all the wrong reasons, Clint Bowyer! The 2012 runner-up is 8th in points, 51 back of the leaders and would have been the regular season champion had he not partaken in the Richmond shenanigans. He would have been the points leader with no wins simply because he was quietly consistent. He does need to pick it up if he wants to have an outside chance of getting back into this fight because finishes of 9th, 17th and 10th are okay but with the caliber of driver’s he’s chasing, he’ll keep losing ground on them every single race until he’s too far behind to catch back up. He needs more top 5′s and wins in order to augment his chances at this championship.
Jeff Gordon…the 13th seed that some people say doesn’t belong in the chase in the first place. Jeff is certainly making the most of this incredible opportunity given to him by NASCAR. Right now, he is tied for 4th place and is within 39 points of the championship leader. When we think of Gordon lately, we think of all the bad luck that has haunted him but his recent results prove that he can make a run at this title should something go awry with the three men everyone is chasing. In the last six races, he has five top seven finishes and the other result is still a respectable 15th which could have been a win if 4-time didn’t make a mistake on pit road. Jeff’s also put his car out front and led multiple laps in each of the last five events so don’t underestimate this future Hall of Famer and his ability to win it all in 2013.
Now we go to Kevin Harvick, “The Closer,” “Mr. Where Did He Come From?” Both of these nicknames are well deserved as Harvick is famous for showing up out of nowhere to be in contention at the end of races and he’s also got an uncanny way of doing that when the fight for the championship comes down to the wire. Kevin is able to fly under the radar for the most part and more importantly, keep his nose out of trouble. In 2013, he only has two DNF’s and they both came at plate tracks; places where trouble finds you no matter where you try to hide. He’s shown this year that his team is fully capable of winning races and even when they don’t bring home the trophy, this Daytona 500 champion always does a stellar job of bringing home the most points possible which is crucial if you want to win the championship. In the last four years, he’s finished inside the top five in points three times and was always on the heels of the title contenders waiting for them to stumble. If those top three do falter, you can bet that Kevin Harvick will be one of, if not the first person to capitalize on their misfortunes.
Like I said before, this chase is their’s to lose in reference to the top three. No one has shown the speed that they have showcased in 2013 and without bad luck, I highly doubt that any driver can catch them. If fate is not in their favor though, look for drivers such as Harvick and Gordon to be right there and ready to pounce. Until we get past the two wild card races left on the schedule, you shouldn’t rule out anyone still within reasonable striking distance of the top. You can try, but you can’t truly ascertain who the champion will be with seven races remaining no matter how blistering fast those top three are. I hate to sound cliche but remember, it’s never over until it’s over.