After dominating Sunday's GEICO 400 Jimmie Johnson finished second to Brad Keselowski who tracked him down and passed him on green-flag pit stops. The win was Keselowski's first in the Chase format and makes him the points leader in the Sprint Cup for the first time in his career.
Unlike Keselowski, however, the day was a long one for a number of drivers. Some Chase contenders suffered issues, such as Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth, but others made significant starts. Kasey Kahne, for one, picked up six places and now sits fifth in points after racing hard to a third-place finish behind who might be this year's top Chase combatants. Denny Hamlin almost had a solid start to the Chase, but ran out of fuel on the final lap, throwing away points in the process. All, however, now chase Keselowski and Johnson.
The Chase rewards drivers who win, and consistency, while necessary, is no longer the differentiating factor. This week the Chase heads to New Hampshire International Speedway, where turning the car from corner entry through the middle of each turn is the key to a fast lap. Track position will always be important, while pit stops could become a critical factor. Chase drivers typically win Chase races, and momentum means everything.
Brad Keselowski - Two top-5 finishes and a pole position in the last five New Hampshire starts indicate that Keselowski could have a fast car this week. He worked his way into the lead in Chicago, taking the win. Momentum is everything, and considering most Chase races are won by drivers in the Chase, Keselowski looks even more attractive to fantasy owners this week. Excluding the two New Hampshire races he failed to finish on the lead lap, his average finish increases to 7.8. This team is prepared for the Chase and is taking the fight to its competitors. Keselowski is a streaky driver, and with Penske preparation he could be very difficult to beat this week, and for the rest of the Chase.
Denny Hamlin - With three New Hampshire top-5s in the last five races, Hamlin claims a 10.0 average result. He rarely finished outside the top 10 at this particular track, and that consistency will pay dividends in the Chase. Running ninth in the final laps, the No. 11 ran out of fuel and came home in 16th position, the last car on the lead lap. It was a very disappointing result. Hamlin was upset after the finish, understandably so, and gave up some valuable points in what he hoped would be his championship run. Two wins prior to the final regular season race at Richmond indicate Hamlin will bounce back, learn from mistakes and break through.
Tony Stewart - Not only did Stewart win the last race at New Hampshire, but he also has the best recent record at the track next to Jeff Gordon. Stewart's average finish in the last five NHIS races is 8.2 with three top-5s, and he is third in the Chase standings. He described his afternoon in Chicago as "long." It was a tough race for a number of drivers, and despite his sixth-place finish Stewart was clearly looking for more despite picking up ground on a few competitors who dropped valuable points. After dominating last season's Chase, Smoke hopes his luck can carry him forward and turn also-ran efforts into more wins in these last nine races.
Jeff Gordon - Gordon turned his early season struggles around to make the Chase, and grew a mustache to celebrate the effort. Chicago was disappointing, but he might have reason to celebrate again this week when he comes to New Hampshire. He has the best results of any driver through the last five races in the Granite State, making him a great fantasy selection despite last week's problems. His five-race New Hampshire finishing average is 6.2 and only includes one classification outside the top 10. His throttle stuck while running in fourth position in Chicago, but if the team can overcome niggling issues like that, Gordon looks strong and could impress as this Chase rolls onward.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - After changing an engine prior to Sunday's race, Earnhardt started his Chase in a hole. The team worked hard to gain track position and set the car up to move forward. He finished eighth, which was a strong result after having such an average day. This week could bear something good, however. Junior is due something special at New Hampshire. His average finish in the last five races there is 9.3 despite two finishes outside the top 10. His average finish is still a good one because even though he missed the top 10, he still came home in the top 20. He has never won at New Hampshire, but his results keep getting better the more he races there.
Matt Kenseth - With just one top-10 finish in the last five New Hampshire races, Kenseth has his work cut out for him this week. His average finish in that span is 15.8, with an average start of 30th and zero laps led. After finishing 18th last week Kenseth said his team wasted time and then was mediocre in the race. He lost valuable ground right at the start of the Chase and now needs something special to make up ground. Kenseth's car lost a shock, putting him behind in Sunday's race causing the slide backward. Despite holding station at the top of the points all season, which demonstrates consistency, he didn't start the Chase on top, which represents winning. Kenseth is good, but not winning.
Martin Truex Jr. - Truex claims just one top-10 finish in the last five New Hampshire starts. In fact, it hasn't been since 2008 that he has shown any semblance of consistent top finishes at the track. He finished two of the five most recent tries 20th or worse and only led three total laps. He claimed a ninth-place finish Sunday in Chicago, giving him a leg up on some other Chase contenders who stumbled out of the blocks. That finish could be one that keeps him in the top half of the Chase runners this season, but he simply hasn't shown enough to indicate that he would be a Chase winner. Sure, a win might come before the year is over, but the consistency of top finishes just isn't there yet.
Carl Edwards - Edwards is another with just one top-10 from the most recent five New Hampshire races. He missed the Chase and is mainly fighting for wins these last 10 races, but hasn't been the greatest at this week's venue. He consistently finishes in the teens at this track, and that isn't good enough for fantasy owners. Edwards struggled through Chicago last week, finished 19th, and hasn't shown the spark for which he is searching. This season has been disappointing, but he does have a good history on the Chase tracks. If he can overcome his slump, Edwards could go on a roll, but he still remains a dark-horse driver this week as a result.
Kurt Busch - Busch finished a disappointing 30th in Chicago Sunday. He has a decent resume at New Hampshire, but last week's performance is not a confidence builder. In the past Busch used to be one of the favorites at New Hampshire, but his latest finishes leave much to be desired. His last two New Hampshire efforts haven't even produced top-20 finishes, and fantasy owners will want someone who has success on their side this late in the season. There isn't much time left to turn a slump around, and Busch has been in one since June. A driver without a top-10 since the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma is not one that rosters need this week.
Kyle Busch - Despite scoring three top-10 finishes in the last nine New Hampshire races, Busch's results have taken a hit at the track in recent seasons. His average finish dropped to 16.6 at the track in the last five races. He only led two of those races, albeit for a significant number of laps, but failed to turn those advantages into strong finishes. He finished fourth in Sunday's GEICO 400, the highest-placed non-Chase driver on the afternoon. Busch believes he should be in the Chase field, and perhaps he should, but that leaves him looking for victories for the rest of the season. Gunning for wins can often invite mistakes, and while we're not predicting any from Busch this week, the risk is high and his upside doesn't cover it for fantasy owners this time.
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