NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
By Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor - Archive - Email
NASCAR's elite eight move on
Brad Keselowski (L) Brad Keselowski, left, leads the series with six victories this season.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The Eliminator Round in the new Chase for the Sprint Cup championship begins this weekend at Martinsville Speedway, with the playoff field now trimmed to eight drivers.

NASCAR revised the playoff format for its premier series this year by including a number of elimination rounds to determine its champion. The Chase began with 16 drivers in the field, and then it was cut to 12 following the last race in the Challenger Round, held last month at Dover International Speedway.

While Brad Keselowski remained alive in the Chase by winning this past Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway -- the final event in the Contender Round -- Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jimmie Johnson, the six-time Sprint Cup Series champion, Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver, and Kasey Kahne, as well as Kyle Busch from Joe Gibbs Racing have been eliminated from the playoffs.

Team Penske drivers Joey Logano and Keselowski and Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick each won a race during the Contender Round to automatically advance into the Eliminator Round, which includes the events at Martinsville (Sunday), Texas Motor Speedway (Nov. 2) and Phoenix International Raceway (Nov. 9).

JGR teammates Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman from Richard Childress Racing, Carl Edwards, in his final season with Roush Fenway Racing, and Jeff Gordon, a Hendrick driver and four-time series champion, accumulated enough points during the Contender Round to move on in the Chase.

Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, was in a must-win situation at Talladega in order to advance. After finishing 36th at Kansas Speedway and then 16th at Charlotte Motor Speedway, he entered the Contender Round elimination race at Talladega ranked 10th in the Chase standings, 19 points behind the coveted eighth-place spot then held by Kahne. Keselowski also had been fined $50,000 and placed on a probation period of four weeks for his post-race incidents with Hamlin, Kenseth and Tony Stewart at Charlotte.

Each of the first six races in the Chase has been won by a championship- eligible driver, with Logano and Keselowski scoring two victories apiece and one for Harvick and Gordon.

The elite eight in the Chase begin the Eliminator Round with 4,000 points each. If any one of those drivers wins at either Martinsville, Texas or Phoenix, that person will clinch a spot in the final four for the Nov. 16 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The highest finisher among the four remaining Chase-eligible drivers at Homestead will win the series title.

"I think we're in a really good spot for these next four races, but we've got to still execute," Keselowski said. "It would be nice to go to Martinsville and win, get a grandfather clock (trophy for the race winner there) and have three weeks to really think about Homestead. That's my mentality moving forward. But if that doesn't happen, we still have any one of these four tracks, which I think are good tracks for us."

Keselowski leads the series with six victories this season, but he has yet to win a race at either Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix or Homestead during his Sprint Cup career.

Logano held the lead in Chase points when the Contender Round had concluded. He had finished no worse than fourth in the first five postseason races before placing 11th at Talladega.

"I thought we did a great job - a win (Kansas), a fourth (Charlotte) and an 11th unfortunately at Talladega, but we're doing what we have to do to win this championship," Logano said. "Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix are obviously gonna be very important, and we have to do what we've been doing."

Logano won this year's spring race at Texas. He also finished fourth at both Martinsville and Phoenix earlier this season.

Harvick has one victory at Martinsville, which is the only short track race on the Chase schedule. He won there in the spring of 2011. Harvick placed seventh at Martinsville in March.

"Martinsville can be as crazy as Talladega if things start getting out of hand," Harvick said. "I feel like we should run well there. It's just a matter of, like every other weekend, you've just got to put it all together."

Phoenix has been Harvick's best track in Sprint Cup competition. He won there for a record fifth time earlier this year.

Hamlin has won at Martinsville four times but not since the fall of 2010. He also has two victories at Texas (season sweep there in '10) and one at Phoenix. Hamlin won last year's race at Homestead as well.

"I have said all year that if we made it to the final eight, to this Eliminator Round, that we suddenly had a good shot at this championship," Hamlin said. "This round has three tracks that our team has had a lot of success at over the years, obviously starting with Martinsville. We didn't have a great race there in the spring, but we have made some gains on our short track program. I'm confident we can go there and compete for the win this weekend."

Kenseth led the series with seven victories in 2013 but has yet to win a race this year. He has been consistent throughout the season, though. Kenseth finished 13th at Kansas and 19th at Charlotte but squeaked into the Eliminator Round with his second-place run at Talladega.

"I feel like my team is more than capable, but our performance hasn't been as good as the top three or four guys," Kenseth said. "It's nice to have our points back, and, hopefully, we can go and run the way we know we're capable of."

Newman, in his first season with RCR, has not won a race this year as well. He has won at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix in the past.

"I think winning in one of the next three races is the most important win that you could have, just to give yourself the best shot at Homestead," Newman said.

Newman concluded the Contender Round third in the rankings, just four points behind leader Logano. He finished fifth (Talladega), sixth (Kansas) and seventh (Charlotte) during that round.

Edwards has won at Texas three times and Phoenix and Homestead twice, but he has yet to make it into victory lane at Martinsville.

"Martinsville is a place where we feel like we can go and do some good," Edwards said. "We've run really well there lately. We had a test at Texas, and Phoenix is a place where we know we can win."

While his teammates -- Johnson, Earnhardt and Kahne -- are out of the Chase, Gordon is the only driver from Hendrick to advance into the Eliminator Round, despite his 26th-place finish at Talladega.

"These are three guys that could be major factors in this championship," Gordon said. "They are great teams, great drivers and friends of mine. I hate to see them not in there. But we're going to try to make Hendrick Motorsports proud and go out there and get ourselves to Homestead."

Gordon has 92 career wins in the series, including four this season. He has eight victories at Martinsville as well as two wins at Phoenix and one each at Texas and Homestead.