September 19, 2015

Chicagoland: Three To Watch 400 Race Preview

Brad Keselowski started off the 2014
Chase with a win at Chicagoland. (Getty)
The Chase is here!  For sixteen drivers, the opportunity to win the 2015 Sprint Cup championship is real.  The points have reset and no contender is more than 12 points behind the leader with three races to earn his way through to the next round of the Chase.  Everyone else will just be turning fun laps for the sponsor at this point.

From here on forward this season, the race preview will focus only on drivers still in contention for the championship.  Here are three to watch at Chicago:

Green Flag - Brad Keselowski

His only 2015 win came in Fontana back in March, but that doesn't mean the Blue Deuce hasn't raced well.  Keselowski has a top-10 finish in each of the last nine races.  He won at Chicagoland last year, and also in 2012, a win that eventually springboarded him to his first championship.

September 10, 2015

Richmond: Three To Watch

Federated Auto Parts 400 Race Preview

Clint Bowyer needs to make sure that if a winless driver
ends up in victory lane at Richmond, it's him. (Getty, 2012) 
This is it!  It's the final race before the Chase, and the final opportunity for a driver outside the bubble to get inside and burst it for another Chase hopeful.

The beauty of the new system means that anyone in the top-30 in points could make the Chase with a win, so the dream won't die until the checkered flag drops at Richmond.  It also causes tense moments for the winless drivers that are in by virtue of points, as an unexpected winner could leave them out of a seat at the Chase table.

Here's a look at three drivers that have yet to clinch their spot in the Chase and their chances for doing so:

Green Flag - Ryan Newman

Things look good for the No. 31 team.  Sure, Newman hasn't won a race since joining it in 2014 and only led 60 laps in that time, but he's made the most of his points, finishing second in the standings last year and positioning himself in position to make this year's Chase on points alone.

For Newman to miss the Chase, someone lower than Clint Bowyer in the standings would need to earn the win, and Newman would virtually need a DNF.  Comparing him to other winless drivers projected to make the Chase: he sits 14 points in front of Jeff Gordon; 22 in front of Paul Menard; 32 in front of Bowyer.  Even if he registered a DNF, those other three would need to do well enough to finish in front of him.

In his career at Richmond, Newman has 16 top-10s in 27 starts and his finished 15th or better in the last eight races at that track.  He seems like a lock for the Chase at this point.

Yellow Flag - Clint Bowyer

Michael Waltrip Racing and Clint Bowyer are parting ways at the end of the season with MWR closing up shop on its Sprint Cup Series operations.  If you look back to where it all went awry for the seemingly on-the-rise team, it was this race two years ago.  A suspicious late spin by Bowyer, an unnecessary pit stop to give up position with a few laps to go, and a debacle that allowed Martin Truex Jr., then in the No. 56, to earn the final Chase spot.  The team faced fines, suspensions, and lost points, and things haven't been the same since for anyone involved.

This race could be an opportunity to create a new memory at Richmond.  It could be the evening that Bowyer punches his Chase ticket to give MWR a final run at a championship.  Or, it could continue to be a house of horrors.  Bowyer has a 29-point lead over Aric Almirola, so nothing short of a DNF would be likely to knock him low enough to miss on points.  That is, unless the race winner comes from below him in the standings.  He's 10 points behind Paul Menard and the first driver on the chopping block should an unexpected driver win.

Bowyer has a win and three top-three finishes in seven starts at Richmond since joining MWR in 2012.  Like Newman, he needs to run his race and hope that a race winner doesn't jump him on the Chase grid.

Red Flag - Kyle Larson

The sophomore slump is almost complete for the most promising new talent in the Sprint Cup Series.  After barely missing the Chase last year and dazzling down the stretch, Larson has failed to conjure up the same magic in 2015.  His crew chief, Chris Heroy, gambled in the first Michigan race, keeping his driver out with almost no fuel as heavy rain approached.  Unfortunately, he ran dry with the track still dry, and needed to pit moments before rain brought out a red flag that ended the race.

That was that team's best chance to steal a win and earn a Chase spot.  Barring an unexpected performance from Larson, who has never led a lap at Richmond in three starts, he will finish nearly 100 points shy of contending for the championship this year.

September 9, 2015

Magic Mile Power Rankings: Darlington

Next Up: Federated Auto Parts 400
at Richmond International Raceway

Getty Images
The retro-themed Bojangles' Southern 500 on Sunday night brought back everything from old-school paint schemes to legendary broadcasters. But in the end, it was Carl Edwards, whose new school approach to winning – choosing a backflip instead of a burnout – brought everyone back to the present in the penultimate race of regular season at Darlington Raceway.

It was the second win of the season for Edwards, and the seventh in the last 10 races for Joe Gibbs Racing, which has all four of its drivers locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship – starting on Sept. 20 at Chicagoland Speedway before heading here for the SYLVANIA 300 on Sunday, Sept. 27.

With just one week left in the regular season, here's a look at the rankings heading into the 26th race on Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Va.:

September 3, 2015

Darlington: Three to Watch

Bojangles' Southern 500 Race Preview

Jimmie Johnson has three wins at Darlington, his last in 2012. (Getty)
The Chase doesn't start for another two weeks, but the final off-week for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has passed.  The next 12 weeks will be the most intense run of the season.  Drivers have two races to lock in their Chase contention, and then it's 10 weeks of bracketology in NASCAR as the drivers eliminate one another.

Here's a look at three drivers to watch at Darlington:

Green Flag - Jimmie Johnson

He really puts the dog days into summer.  For whatever reason, when the weather is at its hottest, Johnson is at his coldest.  Then the calendar turns to September, he flips a switch, and the run at another championship seems inevitable.  Well, it's September now and Johnson could start his next run with a win at Darlington, where he has three career wins and nine tops-fives in 16 starts.

August 25, 2015

Magic Mile Power Rankings: Bristol

Next Up: Bojangles' Southern 500

Getty Images
For the 10th time this season, Kevin Harvick has been relegated to second place. Not a bad stat for the defending Sprint Cup Series champion, but what might get under his skin a bit is that for the second time this year, the car in front of him was the No. 22 of Joey Logano.

Logano's win at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday night was his third of the season and second in three weeks. Logano took over toward the later stages of the race and never looked back for his second career win at the half-mile Colosseum, having won the August race there last year, too.

It will likely be Logano and Harvick battling it out at the end of the season once again this year, but it will hardly be a two-horse race for the title with so many quality drivers having won races this season. But, with that said, who's the hottest right now? Did Logano climb into the top spot or has Matt Kenseth done enough over the last five weeks to put a blown-engine finish behind him and into the rearview mirror?

Here's a look at the rankings heading into the 25th race of the season on Sept. 6 at Darlington Raceway in Darlington, S.C.: