CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Drivers have been fretting about the second round of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup championship for weeks.
The three-race stretch that begins Sunday at Kansas Speedway ends on Oct. 19 at Talladega Superspeedway, where four drivers will be booted from the field.
“I think that bracket will break some hearts,” Brad Keselowski said three days before winning the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway last month.
He hasn’t changed his mind. The field has been trimmed from 16 to 12 drivers, and although they are all even as they head into Kansas, the margin of error will be small. Drivers will be desperate to run well at Kansas this week and Charlotte next week so that the crapshoot that is Talladega will not decide their championship fate.
“Two of the three races are as much of a wild card as you can get in NASCAR racing these days,” Keselowski said Wednesday during a fan event for the 12 Chase drivers at NASCAR’s Hall of Fame. “One of the great teams that has a shot at winning this will probably be left at home after this series of events, because you don’t control your destiny as much as you do the other races of the season.”
A championship cannot be won this weekend at Kansas, but it most certainly can be lost.
Kyle Busch has rolled into the 1.5-mile speedway in solid shape in the Sprint Cup standings time and time again, only to see his title hopes slip away. He crashed out of the Chase race there the last two seasons, and suffered the same fate in 2007 when he arrived at Kansas within a handful of points of the leader.
Under the new Chase format, a win in any of the three races guarantees a driver an automatic berth into the next round, so a bad day at Kansas can be overcome. But with Talladega, where one wiggle by one driver can wipe out half the field, few want to head to Alabama later this month in desperation mode.
Busch is doing his best to get to Kansas with a strong mindset that he can pull out a strong finish. It worked for Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin last week. Hamlin, who counts Dover among his most disliked tracks, finished 12th to stave off elimination.
“I don’t think we are out there to set the world on fire at Kansas,” Busch said. “A solid top-10 is what we need to get out of there with. I thought I was just starting to figure it out there on the old asphalt ... and once they repaved it, I haven’t been able to find my rear end with both my hands. I’ve definitely got to figure that out.”
The field has been reset since Dover last week and all drivers are again equal. That means everyone has caught up to Team Penske drivers Keselowski and Joey Logano, who won the first two Chase races, and Kevin Harvick, who has the fastest car seemingly every week.
It’s a comfortable spot for Kasey Kahne, who barely made the Chase and at one point was down four laps at Dover and in danger of being eliminated. He raced his way back into the top 12 and feels good about this second round.
Kahne has an average finish of 13th at Kansas and has four career victories at Charlotte.
“I like this format a lot, this format was made for me,” he smiled Wednesday. “I like this round, looking forward to this round. I’m excited to get out there and get started, and then Charlotte is probably my best track for results.”
All 12 drivers will be trying hard to get a win the next two weeks to avoid the pressure at Talladega. That goes for defending champion Jimmie Johnson, who has not led a lap in six races and has yet to show he’s again a threat to win his record-tying seventh title.
“I’m not necessarily scared of the round, but I’m scared of Talladega,” Johnson said. “Talladega in the Chase is not as fun as the Talladega spring race. I guess the only way it could change is for two fortunate racers who win the race at Kansas or Charlotte and roll on into Charlotte and have one of the better weekends of your life — just chill out and have some fun.”