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Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup 2015: The Contender Round

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Four are down and 12 move on in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Yesterday, I gave y’all my prediction for all three races in the Challenger Round. I won’t recap it too much so as to give you a reason to read it if you haven’t yet. Today, I’ll preview the Contender Round of the Chase. This round takes the traveling circus of the Sprint Cup Series to NASCAR’s backyard, America’s heartland and the backwoods of Alabama.

For those who aren’t as familiar with NASCAR or American lingo, those three tracks are Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan. and Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Ala.

Let’s start in the sport’s backyard.

Charlotte Motor Speedway is a 1.5 mile (2.4 km) intermediate track in Concord, North Carolina, 13 miles northeast of the city of Charlotte. It’s the home track for just about all NASCAR teams with most of them based within a few minutes to an hour’s driving distance of the speedway. It’s also the centerpiece of the Bruton Smith empire with his company Speedway Motorsports Inc. based at the track.

There’s no other track we go to every year that has a track surface that swings wildly due to changing temperature conditions than Charlotte. One minute your car could be running perfectly. Suddenly the temperature goes down a degree and your car is evil. I don’t think it’s that extreme, but the surface at Charlotte really is that temperature sensitive.

Thankfully, the teams don’t have to chase the car to the degree they would if this was the Coca-Cola 600. In May, the race starts in the evening daytime and ends under the cover of dark. When the circus comes back in October, it’s Saturday night under the lights. However, this is the time of year when the ambient temperature starts getting a bit chillier and the cars go from loose in the Carolina heat to tight in the autumn cool.

The Bank of America 500 is a 500 mile (800 km) race. It’s vital to preserve your car and not anger others if you want to win in front of all your family, friends and guys at the race shops who almost never go on the road with the race teams.

This one is tough. I could see drivers like Carl Edwards or any of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable winning. Martin Truex Jr., who hit a summer slump with only three top-ten finishes since winning at Pocono in June, dominated the Coca-Cola 600 before settling for a fifth place finish. Edwards played the fuel saving game correctly, was able to stay out when Truex pitted and took the checkered flag.

When all is said and done in the sport’s backyard, I believe it’ll be Martin Truex Jr. who’ll be standing in victory lane and moving onto the Eliminator Round.

Next, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to America’s heartland for the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

Kansas Speedway is a 1.5 mile (2.4 km) intermediate track (it’s also not the last). I’ve said on many occasions that Kansas is my favorite of the intermediate tracks. It tends to be the one 1.5 track that keeps me on my feet with an average number of lead changes and double-digit caution flag periods. The cautions have been heavily more wrecks than other things. Only a few have been for debris, fluid on the track and burning bushes. I didn’t make that last one up. That actually happened once.

This is also a track that tends to favor different winners. In the 19 race held here, only five have won more than once.

I have a list of drivers I think would win this race. Topping the list is Jeff Gordon. He’s got three wins, 11 top-fives, 13 top-tens and an average finish of 9.9 in 19 starts at Kansas Speedway. He ran up front and finished fourth at Kansas in May.

Kyle Busch has been on a roll as of late and the JGR team has been on top as of late as well. However, Kansas Speedway has not been kind to the driver of the No. 18 Toyota. He’s got zero wins, one top-five, three top-tens and an average finish of 21.4 in 15 career starts at the track.

Here’s how I see it playing out: Jeff Gordon leads the most laps, dominates the race and loses on a late restart to Busch and finishes runner-up to Kyle. Jeff Gordon for the last few seasons has been notoriously bad at restarts while Kyle Busch is quite honestly the best at restarts.

So in the end, I believe it’ll be Kyle Busch who punches his ticket for the Eliminator Round.

To close out the Contender Round, we go from the plains of Kansas to race at racing’s own roulette wheel in the backwoods of Lincoln, Alabama.

Needless to say this is going to be the biggest race of the Chase. If there ever was a place where speed is the name and mayhem is the game, that place is Talladega.

Talladega Superspeedway is a 2.66 mile (4.28 km) super speedway where you must work with the very people you’re racing against for both the race win and the championship. This is a track that requires the use of restrictor plates to keep the speed of the cars under control.

At the restrictor plate races, you have this huge pack of cars racing three, four and sometimes, five-wide for laps at a time. It’s like watching a live amoeba seeing these cars race in these packs for 188 laps at 200 mph (I think that’s well over 300 km/h). The slightest twitch can send one car spinning and collect half the field in a wreck we call “The Big One.”

I’ve been to two plate races in my life. I went to Talladega in 2008. But I was 13 at the time so I don’t remember much from that race. Back in February, I went to the Daytona 500 – the biggest race in NASCAR – and it was an experience I’ll never forget.

Just look at this.

Jeff Gordon leads the field to the start of a new season of NASCAR.

Jeff Gordon leads the field to the start of a new season of NASCAR.

Or this…

Joey Logano leads after 47 laps in the Daytona 500.

Joey Logano leads after 47 laps in the Daytona 500.

Or this…

Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads the field with 85 laps remaining in the Daytona 500.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads the field with 85 laps remaining in the Daytona 500.

Or this…

Jimmie Johnson leads the field of car racing three-wide multiple rows back with 32 laps remaining  in the Daytona 500.

Jimmie Johnson leads the field of car racing three-wide multiple rows back with 32 laps remaining in the Daytona 500.

Or this…

Denny Hamlin leads with 11 laps remaining in the Daytona 500.

Denny Hamlin leads with 11 laps remaining in the Daytona 500.

It’s just one of those things you have to experience in person. To see these drivers race for 200 laps at 200 mph packed together and only separated by inches is truly a marvel. There is nothing in the world of motorsports that compares to restrictor plate racing.

And the pictures above are from Daytona. A track that’s more narrow and can sustain three-wide racing. Talladega is much wider and can sustain three, four and even five-wide racing.

While Talladega is a wild card race than any driver can win, it tends to be won by drivers who race on the NASCAR circuit full-time. I see two favorites for this race.

Jeff Gordon has more points paying restrictor plate wins than any driver in NASCAR history. When you include points and non-points races, plate races are far and away owned by the late Dale Earnhardt. I could go on all day about The Intimidator’s plate prowess, but I’d get off-track.

In his 91 plate race starts, Jeff Gordon has amassed 12 restrictor plate wins: six at Daytona and six at Talladega. However, he hasn’t won a plate race since 2007 at Talladega. This’ll be Gordon’s last chance to notch another plate win.

The other favorite is none other than the favorite son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. He’s got ten plate wins to his name: four at Daytona and six at Talladega. He’s won the last two plate races this season and will be a force to be reckoned with at a track his father won at ten times. June Bug has the biggest fanbase in NASCAR, and nowhere on the schedule is this more apparent than in Lincoln, Alabama.

As Barney Hall of the Motor Racing Network would say, “They don’t race anywhere in the world like they do at Talladgea.” This is a race that must not be missed. Restrictor plate racing is the hallmark of NASCAR.

When all is said and done, I believe it’ll be Jeff Gordon standing in victory lane celebrating his 13th plate win in his 92nd and final career restrictor plate race.

Here’s the eight drivers I believe will move onto the Eliminator Round (After the first three, the drivers are in no particular order. So don’t harp on me for it.):

  1. Martin Truex Jr.
  2. Kyle Busch
  3. Jeff Gordon
  4. Kevin Harvick
  5. Brad Keselowski
  6. Joey Logano
  7. Matt Kenseth
  8. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

That means the four drivers who don’t make the cut are Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards. I just haven’t seen the performance as of late from these four that tells me they’ll make noise in the Chase.

Do you agree with my picks? Leave your thoughts in the comment section and tell me who you think makes it into the Eliminator Round.

Speaking of that, I’ll preview the Eliminator Round tomorrow and tell you the four drivers that make it to the Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

That’s all for now. Until tomorrow…peace!

 

About Author

My name is Tucker Carmen White. I'm from Knoxville, TN. I'm here because I have a deep love of NASCAR and I'm currently studying to become a sports journalist. While NASCAR is my primary focus, I've recently gotten into Formula 1. Being from Knoxville, I'm naturally a diehard fan of the Tennessee Volunteers.

The Chase is on. (NASCAR Media Group, LLC.)

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