NASCAR'S Contender Round Produces Some Surprising Eliminations

by Ryan Isley

Sometimes, things shake out exactly how you expect them to – even if they don’t shake out exactly how you expect them to. That was the case this past Sunday in the Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Confused? Let me explain…

When the new format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup Series was announced, there was one date everyone circled on their calendars – October 19. Every driver knew that if they were still in the Chase at that point and had not picked up a win at Kansas or Charlotte in the two weeks prior to Talladega, they would be leaving their championship hopes to chance.

And even though that is exactly what happened, it may not have happened to the drivers people were anticipating. While the elimination part isn’t a surprise, the drivers who no longer find themselves in the Chase for the Sprint Cup are somewhat shocking. When the checkered flag dropped on the conclusion of the Geico 500 on Sunday afternoon, it signaled the end of the line for Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr and six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

Kahne wasn’t so much of a surprise, as he struggled for most of the season but drove his No.5 Chevrolet to victory lane in Atlanta just two weeks before the Chase field was set. Kahne had just three top-5s this season and had just one top-10 finish in six races in the Chase.

Kahne’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates Johnson and Earnhardt Jr were more of a surprise to miss the next round, as each had three wins entering the Chase. Unfortunately for three-fourths of the Hendrick garage, Kansas Motor Speedway will leave them wondering “what if” this offseason. While Jeff Gordon finished 14th at Kansas, his teammates weren’t as lucky. Kahne finished 22nd, Earnhardt Jr 39th and Johnson 40th. This put all three drivers on the outside looking in after the first race of the Contender Round and trying to swim upstream.

Kahne was able to tread water by finishing 10th at Charlotte to put him one point to the good of the elimination line before a 12th-place finish at Talladega ultimately knocked him out of the Chase when Brad Keselowski won to gain automatic advancement and Matt Kenseth finished second to pass Kahne in points. For Johnson and Earnhardt Jr, their bad luck continued to Charlotte with Johnson finishing 17th and Earnhardt Jr 20th, leaving them both needing a win at Talladega to advance. Johnson came home 24th despite leading a race-high 94 laps while Earnhardt Jr was caught up in a late wreck and limped home 28th.

While their demise ultimately came down to what happened at the wild card that is known as Talladega, it was the terrible start to the Contender Round at Kansas that did in the three Hendrick drivers.

Busch, on the other hand, can point directly to Talladega to explain why he is no longer racing for the 2014 Sprint Cup Series championship. Busch had finished each of the first five races of the Chase in the top-10 heading into Talladega. Hell, he had finished third and fifth in the first two races of the Contender Round prior to Talladega and was second in points with a 26-point cushion over Matt Kenseth in ninth place – the first spot to be eliminated.

But by not winning either of the first two races of the round, Busch – and nine other drivers – were forced to lay their fate into the hands of Talladega. And you just never know what can happen at the superspeedway. For Busch, what happened was nothing short of a disaster. He was involved in an early wreck and spent a good amount of time off the track trying to get the car repaired. By the time he was able to return to the race, he needed a lot of help that just never came. He finished 40th and when the dust was settled, he had missed the next round of the new Chase.

And just like that, four more NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers are gone. Eliminated. Never to be heard from again this season. Well, they will actually be a part of the next five races. They just won’t have a chance to win the championship.

Boom. For them, there won’t be any confetti. Jimmie Johnson included.

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