Eight races into the 2014 season, NASCAR has hit their first stop in the year where no racing happens at all. It seems odd that no green flag was waving in the breeze, but with the Easter holiday, NASCAR always makes sure to give teams a chance to be with family, and take a break from the weekly grind of action.
The first eight races have shown a lot of different happenings, both expected and unexpected, and certainly have given fans a reason to keep tuning in each week.
The biggest reason of all: parity. There have never been more different winners to start a season in the Chase era. Seven different drivers have won races to start 2014, meaning right now seven drivers are qualified for the Chase, as long as they maintain staying in the top-30 in the points. What’s impressive is both who has won, and also who has not.
It was expected to see some of the usual cast of characters come out and win races to start the year, and we’ve already seen that. Even with a new team, Kevin Harvick got off to a fast start, securing two wins, but has seen rough patches which has left him 22nd in points. However his two victories all but lock him into a Chase spot. Others like Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski have already put their mark on the season, and have continued to show how good they are each week.
Then there’s the surprise winners, such as Kurt Busch at Martinsville, and even Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona. It wasn’t expected to see either of those two drivers win this early, but it has happened and each has continued to stay strong each week in competition.
But at the same time, the usual list of drivers expected to win…haven’t. The two top winners of a year ago, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, have not won a race. Not only have they not won, but they have struggled. The new rules package for this season for both the side skirts and the spoiler has thrown teams a curve ball, and not everyone has adjusted to it. That’s not saying either team or driver hasn’t been competitive, but they only have been at certain tracks. Once both teams figure out what is needed to win races, they each will go on a tear and run harder in trying to get more.
You also have Tony Stewart, who already has three wins this season as an owner, but has continued to struggle as a driver. Ever since his injury before Watkins Glen last year, things for this team have not exactly worked out. It’s no secret that Stewart hits his stride when the mercury rises through spring and summer, but with the new Chase format if one doesn’t win early, desperation sets in, and winning becomes more difficult.
Stewart and his No. 14 team are in need of a win more than anything, and cannot wait long to get it.
The final driver needing a win, but is showing that he can be there when things fall into place, is Jeff Gordon. Currently leading the points, he’s had a very consistent year to this point. The problem with being consistent is unless he holds the points lead after Richmond and hasn’t won a race, that is the only way he will lock himself into the Chase. The way the Chase is this year, the race winners through the first 26 races, so long as they are in the top-30 in points, are in the Chase. If fewer than 16 winners are seen, the first non-winning driver to go in is the points leader, if he’s in that spot after the 26th race. The rest of the Chase field is then set by the top drivers not winning a race.
So for Gordon, if he loses the points lead and still doesn’t have a win by Richmond this September, he’s again looking from the outside in on the Chase.
Bottom line through the first eight races is that NASCAR has seen the best racing, and the tightest competition in many years, and the win-or-nothing attitude has certainly set in for these drivers. A win all but guarantees a Chase spot, but getting those wins are becoming harder as the weeks progress.
Ironically, when NASCAR picks back up next weekend, it will be at Richmond. Looks like the next win on the season will have to be perfect, because Richmond has the nickname of “Racing Perfection.”