It isn’t easy to find a favorite for the Sprint Cup championship.
Maybe it’s Jeff Gordon, a four-time champion and the biggest name of the eight drivers remaining. But his last title run happened more than a decade ago.
Maybe it’s Brad Keselowski, the 2012 champ who has a series-leading six wins. But he has never won at the next three “Eliminator Round” tracks.
Maybe it’s Matt Kenseth, the 2003 champ who has been one of the most consistent drivers on the circuit. But he’s yet to win this season and the new format is geared to reward winning.
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Those three — Gordon, Keselowski and Kenseth — are the only drivers with championships to their name, but it might be time for some new blood. It’s anybody’s guess at this point.
As Gordon said, “My championships were won under a completely different format. All of them were under a different format than this one, this year. I don’t know if it gives an advantage to anybody. I think the best team that has handled pressure well and that these upcoming tracks suit them well, those are the ones with the advantage.”
Gordon believes that strongest teams this season and ones most likely to be in the “Final Four” at Homestead were himself, Keselowski, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick.
Not many would argue there are four better candidates.
Keselowski and Logano, Team Penske teammates, seem to be at the top of everybody’s mind. They are the two leading drivers in wins, combining for 11.
Keselowski showed he is capable of handling the pressure, too, by winning last week at Talladega. A win was the only way he could have advanced.
And Logano is in the midst of a career year.
“The people I think you’re going to have to beat to win the championship are the Penske cars,” contender Carl Edwards said. “I feel like both Brad and Joey are fast every week, they’re definitely fast at tracks like Homestead, and if they make it to that final round, they’re going to be very tough. You’re going to have to really step up your game to beat those guys to win the championship.”
But beating them doesn’t seem far-fetched. Sure, they have had great seasons, but that doesn’t matter. Under the new format, the playing field is reset where every driver starts with the same number of points each round.
That makes it possible for someone such as Harvick or Edwards or Denny Hamlin to get hot at the right time and win it all.
Hamlin, after all, has a great history of success at the next three tracks with seven combined wins.
“Really, these tracks are statistically my best race tracks in this Chase,” Hamlin said. “I’m pretty excited about our chances. We’ve got a big obstacle ahead of us this weekend at Martinsville. We’re just going to enjoy it, have fun and see where we all stack up.”
The only Chase driver who appears to be in jeopardy without a race even starting is Harvick. He has been running strong the past four weeks, including a win at Charlotte to guarantee a spot in this round, but he had a potentially disastrous qualifying run Friday.
Harvick, with a series-leading eight poles, will start 33rd at a track at which he has one career win.
But it’s too early to count anyone out. As stated, there’s no clear-cut favorite.
“There are usually only a few who have a realistic shot — now we have eight people that are tied,” Kenseth said. “It feels a lot different coming here being tied up.”