Where Did It All Go Wrong?
If we write another blog post about Jimmie Johnson or Matt Kenseth, it might be time to send a letter to Lowe's and/or Dollar General/Husky/Home Depot asking for some royalties for all the free advertising. Of course, those two drivers deserve the press they're getting, it's what comes along with the success of being in contention for the championship throughout the Chase.
But, I really don't have a lot to add to what I've said the past couple weeks: Johnson will go down as one of the most successful drivers of all time, and Kenseth has competed with him throughout the Chase by using Five-Time's championship formula for consistency. Nothing that happened during Sunday's AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway did anything to alter that line of thinking.
With those two firmly entrenched in a head-to-head battle for the championship, it's a good time to lay to rest those that won't be raising the Sprint Cup Trophy. Each had a shortcoming that will need to be addressed should they choose to unseat the driver who goes on to win the ultimate prize.
14. Brad Keselowski - This list is really for Chasers only, but the 2012 winner should be on here to acknowledge when his title went from "defending champ" simply to "reigning champ." He failed to capitalize on strong runs early in the season, and when the hot streak ran out, he didn't have the luck nor the wins to even make the Chase.
To win in 2014, Keselowski will need to get his mojo back.
13. Kasey Kahne - He's had a miserable Chase, but having picked him preseason to win, I bailed before the postseason even started. He was inconsistent and finished 13th in the points during the regular season. He also finished second on four different occasions before the Chase started (and once during the Chase). Some might consider that good, but it also showed an inability to step up come winning time.
To win in 2014, Kahne will need to figure out how to cap off good days with wins.
12. Ryan Newman - Let's play Devil's Advocate for a second: when the final race of the regular season ended at Richmond, Newman wasn't in the Chase. Perhaps anything he got past the berth should have been considered gravy. He's led a total of 97 laps this season. That ranks behind drivers like Juan Pablo Montoya and Mark Martin and certainly doesn't lead to championship success; Jimmie Johnson, by comparison, has led 1,984.
To win in 2014, Newman needs to run up front much more often.
11. Carl Edwards - "Where did it all go wrong?" is a very fitting question for the No. 99. Edwards actually led the points before they reset for the Chase, so why didn't he stick around and contend for the elusive title? He had bad luck at two tracks where he's normally very strong: Dover (35th) and Texas (37th), but he also only managed to run on the cusp of the top-10 in most of the other Chase races.
To win in 2014, Edwards needs to get back to the consistency he defined in 2011.
10. Kurt Busch - There's nothing to be ashamed of here. Busch got his emotions under control and took a single-car team to the Chase. The team, as a whole, just ran out of skill, and never really gave its driver a chance to compete for the championship.
To win in 2014, Busch needs to stay mentally strong. The switch to Stewart Haas Racing will certainly give him the chance to compete.
9. Joey Logano - He's not a very consistent driver. It seems that every time Logano got on a hot streak, he put together a few momentum-killing clunkers. Consider this: on three different occasions in 2013, he followed up a top-five finish with back-to-back finishes of 22nd or worse. That's no recipe for success. It's definitely been more steps forward than back for Logano in his first year with Penske Racing, but the consistency isn't there.
To win in 2014, Logano will need to eliminate his propensity for bad days.
8. Greg Biffle - His four top-five finishes leaves him with half as many as every other Chase driver with the exception of Ryan Newman (six). Combine that with Biffle's average starting position of 16.0 (worst in the Chase) and you can see why he's not in contention: he doesn't start up front, so he doesn't finish up front.
To win in 2014, Biffle needs to find more speed throughout the race weekends.
7. Clint Bowyer - It's pretty clear where it went wrong for Bowyer: he hasn't been the same driver since the debacle with Michael Waltrip Racing after the race at Richmond. He even admitted that it affected his mental game, and that's been evident, as he's only finished better than ninth once in eight Chase races.
To win in 2014, Bowyer needs to refocus on competing.
6. Jeff Gordon - It wasn't until Martinsville on Oct. 27 that Gordon picked up his first race win of the season. Sure, NASCAR gifted him a 13th spot in the Chase, but that all could have been avoided. If he'd found victory lane once during the regular season, he would have been among the original 12. He's still good, but he no longer flashes greatness on the track.
To win in 2014, Gordon needs to win at least three races.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. - He only has one win since the 2008 season and none in 2013, yet he's still fifth in the points. Junior has definitely learned the art of points racing, and while that will get him into the Chase every year, it won't lead to him being crowned a champion.
To win in 2014, Earnhardt Jr. needs to win a race. Seriously, one would be a good starting point.
4. Kyle Busch - Toss out a bad luck 35th-place wreck at Kansas (photo above), and Busch would have been putting together a pretty solid Chase campaign with five top-fives. All in all, it wasn't a bad season, as he proved he has the patience and consistency to run for a championship.
To win in 2014, (it sounds odd to say about someone that wins as much as he does, but ...) Busch needs to win a couple Chase race.
3. Kevin Harvick - He's known as "The Closer" and is considered to be someone that makes up a lot of ground late in the race. He needed that too this year, as his 15.8 starting position ranked only in front of Greg Biffle among Chase drivers. He runs with a lot of consistency and seems to stick around for most of the Chase, so there's no reason that he can't win a championship with a few improvements.
To win in 2014, Harvick needs to qualify better. (Four top-five starts through 34 races makes for a lot of ground to cover.)
That wraps up the list of drivers that are no longer within reasonable striking distance of the Chase. Only seven points separates Kenseth from pulling even with Johnson at the top of the standings, and it's only two more weeks until we'll be analyzing what led one to a championship and the other to come up just short.