NASCAR.com's Alan Cavanna sat down on Monday with NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion Kevin Harvick to recap his championship run, his bond with crew chief Rodney Childers and celebrating a title with his family.
Bobby Labonte and Alan Cavanna teardown the top stories, including the fight, from Richmond and look ahead to the weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.
Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski also aboard
Alan Cavanna brings you up to speed with the latest from the Charlotte testing session and the changes at Michael Waltrip Racing.
Panel of experts debate that and more as the roundtable returns RELATED: Play Perfect Chase Grid Challenge and Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota 1. OK folks, the field of 16 for this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup has been determined. Looking at this year's roster, is there a favorite in the field? Alan Cavanna : I filled out my Chase Grid (like I hope you have, print a blank one out here) -- and started with my champion, Jeff Gordon . Huge year, fast speed, and the sense that the driver from the late '90s is back. Brad Norman: I'm not so sure there is a "favorite," but there's definitely a group of "favorites." That would be the Team Penske duo and the three heavyweights at Hendrick Motorsports – sorry, Kasey Kahne . Throw in Kevin Harvick , if he gets the pit-road problems cleaned up with a new over-the-wall crew. I can't imagine a scenario in which the final four drivers at Homestead don't come from that group. Kenny Bruce: For the first time in, well, a long time, I don't think you can assume that Jimmie Johnson is a clear-cut favorite. The No. 48 team started the season slower than many expected, caught fire at mid-season but has been "average" (for them) recently. Cavanna : OK fellas, I'm the only one going out on a limb with a solid pick. C'mon now. Norman: True, Alan . If forced to pick one, I'd go with top-seeded Brad Keselowski . He's back to form, he's got a great strategist in Paul Wolfe calling the shots and the Team Penske cars have been phenomenal on those intermediate-type ovals. Of which there are five in the postseason. Bruce: I'll lean toward Alan on the Gordon pick, but I've got to give props to 2012 champ Keselowski as well. The No. 2 team has been pretty stout of late, and that momentum's got to be worth something. Cavanna : I understand though. The four drivers in the Championship Round aren't necessarily the four "best." They're the three winners, and the most consistent. A great driver will be left out of the championship race at Homestead. Norman: One thing that's most interesting about Keselowski is that Joey Logano is one of his biggest challengers. They share a garage, share info. After Logano won at Bristol and Keselowski finished second, Bad Brad was asked about how those two will continue to share info during the Chase -- and it was a topic the 2012 champion was reluctant to discuss. Bruce: I think it's interesting that Gordon and Keselowski probably feel as if they have something to prove. Keselowski for not making the Chase last year and Gordon for not winning a title in the Chase-era. And I'm not sure how much you can compare 2013 to this season, but Mr. Kenseth reeled off back-to-back wins to open the Chase a year ago, I believe. Cavanna : You beat me to it, Kenny. Ten weeks from now we'll all look like fools when Matt Kenseth is hoisting the Sprint Cup trophy. Bruce: My biggest concern with the entire JGR group is their win total this year. Three teams, two combined wins. That probably won't cut it in the Chase. Norman: For Gordon, I imagine what he's feeling is just like what a veteran may feel at any job. You see these upstarts come in and win races, you don't perform as well and perhaps you wonder if you can still hang. That's a wonderful motivator. Mr. Gordon (hey, respect your elders) can most certainly still hang. 2. Speaking of JGR, Kenseth is one of three drivers in the Chase without a win this year and two drivers, Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger , are making their first appearance in the "playoff." How do we expect these guys on the bottom half of the board to fare? Norman: Certainly, you expect more from Kenseth than you do Almirola or Allmendinger because of his pedigree, his team, his equipment ... all that stuff. I'm not sure Kenseth can get to Homestead still in contention for the championship, but there's no reason he shouldn't be in the Eliminator Round. Of all the guys on the bottom of the board, I think he's clearly got the best chance. Cavanna : I'm not totally worried about the winless drivers just yet. The consistency we've seen from drivers like Kenseth and Ryan Newman should carry them forward for a round or two, even without wins. Bruce: You're spot on Brad. Given Kenseth's consistency, I expect him to advance beyond the first round, probably the second. Gets tougher after that, though. Newman has been consistent all year, Greg Biffle more so of late. I think Aric and AJ test the waters and see what it's like. But advancing would be a surprise. A nice one, but a surprise just the same. Cavanna : I hate to say I have little faith in the 47 team (Allmendinger) moving on. But, Aric Almirola is riding into the Chase with two straight top-10 finishes. If he gets three more, that will put him in the next round. Norman: I do think we're going to see a "surprise" driver advance, though. I'd pick Allmendinger, if forced to give a name. He's gotten better at intermediates. More than that, though, I can foresee a scenario in which a guy more favored to advance wrecks at Chicago, and then has a couple of gambles fail as he tries to get back in it over the next two weeks. Cavanna : Brad, I like your thinking for a roundtable rookie. I think the sport and fans are in for a big surprise. It's easy to think of the better drivers and assume they all advance. But one glance at any NCAA Tournament tells you that never happens. There's always an upset or three. Bruce: The thing about it is if a driver advances beyond the first round (Chicago, New Hampshire and Dover), Talladega looms as the cutoff race for the Contender Round and as we know, anything can happen there. How cool would it be, Alan , to see the 43 battling for a title? OK, battling for a spot in the next round? A lot of history there. Cavanna : It's a long shot, but the 43 will certainly be a chic pick for advancing to the top-12. Norman: I am the Kyle Larson of the roundtable, Alan . Cavanna : You're a dry wiper? 3. Now that we've determined who will win, who will advance and who can go ahead and start taking the yellow ID markings off their cars ... which teams on the outside are most likely to pick up a win during the final 10 races? Norman: It was rare to see that happen with frequency when there were 12 (or 13) drivers in the postseason. Now with 16? I think it'll be even more rare. The biggest contender to me, the roundtable rookie, is ... Kyle Larson. Maybe at Charlotte. Heck, he could win any of them. Bruce: I don't think it was that rare ... but the folks that won were often guys you thought would have been in the Chase to begin with most of the time. Tony Stewart , Jamie McMurray , Biffle, Denny Hamlin , Gordon. But you make a good point about the numbers decreasing the likelihood. Cavanna : Prior to the start of the season I picked Austin Dillon to win a race, with Talladega in mind. I'll stick with that. Clint Bowyer showed some promise at Richmond Saturday night, but I worry that may be the team's best performance of the season. Norman: To be fair, it happened three times last year. And if you look at who won those races, two of those guys are in the Chase field this year – Keselowski and Hamlin. And McMurray was the other, winning at Talladega which is a wild card. So if anyone outside the Chase field wins, I think it could portend a big 2015 season. Larson, Bowyer, Dillon ... what about Stewart? Cavanna : I think a lot of people are overlooking what a win by a non-Chaser does to the championship run. Every time that bell rings, it's one less automatic spot for a guy going after a championship. Bruce: Bowyer is tough at New Hampshire, so maybe it's better late than never for him and the MWR team, Alan . But I wouldn't be surprised if one of the rookies, Dillon or Larson, gets a win now that there's no Chase pressure. Norman: Alan , you make a good point about the championship run. Can you imagine in any round, if somehow a non-Chaser wins two in a row? Bruce: Your comments reminded me of something, guys. If a non-Chase driver wins a race in the Chase, does he get one of those yellow "winner" stickers to go above his window? For that matter, does anyone? Cavanna : Everyone likes rewards, Kenny. I hope the stickers remain. Norman: Everyone's a winner here, Kenny. Cavanna : Even Brad Norman's Chase beard. MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: NASCAR Chase Grid games WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL CHASE COVERAGE • Chase hub page • Chase Grid games • #MyChaseNation
Panel of experts debates the hot topics in NASCAR 1. Now that the season has been completed, what do you think? What stands out about 2014? Alan Cavanna : The Chase and everything surrounding the Chase. It worked out better than expected and I think it's sent the sport in a good direction. Kenny Bruce: It's definitely a long list, some good and some not-so-good. Dale Earnhardt Jr . winning the Daytona 500 , Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger winning for the first time and making the Chase, the excitement of the new format and the intensity that it generated. You had must-win situations for Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick , and they came through. The whole situation surrounding Tony Stewart late in the season will be memorable for all the wrong reasons, unfortunately. But it's become a part of what the '14 season was all about. Zack Albert: So many storylines to choose from and not just with the new-look Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Five guys -- and there for a while, a sixth -- rose to fantastic heights: Kevin Harvick , Brad Keselowski , Joey Logano , Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr . all either enjoyed resurgences or breakout years. The sixth slight nod goes to Jimmie Johnson , who was hot as a firecracker heading into the summer, but wasn't quite up to his usual Chase standards. Cavanna : As a storyteller, I loved the emergence of Brad K. as the "black hat" to some. The only way to really earn that is through great performances. Fans love having someone to hate, and Brad gave them plenty of wins to hate on. Bruce: The more you think about it, the more things slide back into focus, Zack. The Johnson hot streak you mentioned, the post-race altercations at Charlotte and Texas that Alan alluded to. And we haven't even touched Nationwide or Trucks, which had incredible moments as well. A rookie wins the NNS title? The first back-to-back champ in the Truck Series? Albert: I distinctly remember sitting in the Atlanta Motor Speedway media center watching Ryan Blaney and German Quiroga duke it out on the final lap of the trucks' visit to Canadian Tire Motorsport Park . The whole room stopped what they were doing to watch. Between that and the whole aura of Eldora for the second straight year, many great Truck Series memories. Cavanna : I really believe people will be talking about this first Chase, and first championship race, for a long, long time. To have three contenders with three laps to go still racing for a title was unreal. Bruce: Safe to say the season gave us plenty to talk about. But you're probably correct Alan . When it was all over, the new format and the final race seemed to stand above the rest. Albert: Very true. It all played out with a great finish and all four drivers putting in a championship-worthy performance. And whether you love the new Chase or are one of its critics, the bottom line is: Was the racing good? At Homestead and many other tracks week-in and week-out, the answer was yes. Bruce: Now the question is how do they top that, Zack? Albert: Always room for an encore, methinks. 2. Kevin Harvick semi-joked that the Chase format could shorten his career because of the intensity it generated. OK, maybe or maybe not. But will the format adversely impact opportunities for a team to win multiple titles? Will we see more guys in the hunt or domination by those who figure out the best approach? Expect Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus to be better in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup next year, now that they have one year of experience under the format. Cavanna : It's so hard to say because we're dealing with such a small sample size. We all made predictions before knowing how this Chase would work, and we were generally all wrong. Bruce: Generally? How about specifically, Alan ? I think I had four different winners in four different Chase brackets and "might" have picked Harvick in one of them. Cavanna : In the end, the most dominant car won. But we also saw how it all came down to one race, and really the final pit stop. That could easily swing a championship, and prevent repeat titles. Albert: The degree of difficulty certainly went up in 2014. But you also have to have the common denominator of performance, year over year, to form a dynasty. Does Harvick have a repeat in him? Absolutely, but some of the new format's nuances can make it tough sledding. It will be interesting to see how teams learn from this first go-round and what the strategies will be for the next Chase episode. Bruce: Listening to post-race comments, Zack, I think you're right. We didn't know what to expect and neither did the teams. I imagine they're already determining what they could have or should have done differently for next year. Albert: Let's hope they can enjoy a little bit of offseason down time before they start number crunching on Chase scenarios. Cavanna : With one Chase to study, I can easily see the No. 48 team planning its strategy for next year. I think teams will take a different approach to ensuring their spot in the final four. Bruce: As far as whether the format favors someone dominating in terms of winning titles, I doubt it. With the elimination races in place, we saw what can happen to even those that were perceived to be the "best" teams. Still, anyone not figuring on Harvick being an early-season favorite should turn in his or her hard card. Cavanna : Once teams "figure it out," I think we could see some teams get good at it. Bruce: Given the format, do we see more "Mark Martin" scenarios? Great drivers who never win a title? Cavanna : That's very possible, Kenny. I feel like every year we'll have a driver who has a Logano-like year, but then just miss it in Homestead. Albert: Not to mention making room for an underdog, a la Newman, in the Championship 4. Bruce: I guess it's a glass half-full or half-empty scenario. Maybe more guys having great seasons that don't win a title, or perhaps the opportunity for more drivers to win it. Albert: Alan's still waiting on his opportunity in a third Penske car. Talk about your Chase bracket buster … Cavanna : My pit crew is stellar! Put me in the race, Captain! 3. OK, we know how 2014 shook out. What’s the outlook for 2015? And by the way, the Daytona 500 is less than 100 days away. Our experts think Kyle Larson makes the postseason next year -- and he may even be a title contender. Albert: Wow. Let me dust off my dart set and start throwing. Bruce: Daytona's rising. That much we know. As for anything else? Lawn Darts, Zack. Go big or go home. Cavanna : The emergence of Kyle Larson will be fun to watch. As long as his team continues to improve, I think he's a lock for the Chase, and a deep run. Albert: A very safe bet that he'll visit Victory Lane on the Sprint Cup side in 2015, probably more than once. Bruce: At least he still has his crew chief, which is more than his teammate can say. Cavanna : I also think some drivers will look at Larson's 2014 season and be even more motivated to get that win. Remember, if Larson had just one regular-season win, it could've been him taking a title in Homestead. No driver will want to be saying "what if" after having a great Chase but not being in it. Bruce: Actually, I think the crew chief movement will play a bigger role in '15. A lot of guys on the box seem to be on the move -- McMurray and Earnhardt Jr. will have new guys in place, we're still waiting to see what unfolds over at Joe Gibbs Racing. Kahne and Kenny Francis are no longer together. Maybe the season-opening question should be, can change top the tried-and-true? Cavanna : Kenseth switched teams and won seven races (in '13); Harvick switched and won a championship. What's next for Carl Edwards ? Albert: Plenty of movement, even though this silly season seems to be sprinkled with less hilarity. I'll be very interested to see if Team Penske can keep it up after a banner season, and how Hendrick Motorsports regroups after going 0-for-4 on title-eligible drivers at Homestead last weekend. Will also be watching to see if Chase Elliott takes those first steps into Sprint Cup, as hinted. Cavanna : We haven't even mentioned the 2015 rules package. The no-ride height made for a big change this season. Next year will be another adjustment, hopefully for the better. Bruce: If that's the case, Alan , then we should probably play close attention to next month's anticipated test at Charlotte. I seem to recall one team being ahead of everyone at that point a year ago ... and look where they ended up. Albert: Who knew that simulated races in December would mean so much? Cavanna : I'm filling out my Chase bracket based on next month's test. MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView
Panel of experts debates the hot topics in NASCAR RELATED: Follow your picks in the Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota 1. After 35 races, nine Chase battles and three rounds of elimination, we're down to just four drivers battling it out for the championship. Gentlemen, in the succinct words of Mr. Albert, "Who ya' got?" Zack Albert: Without trying to overthink, I'm going with Kevin Harvick just based on how solid his team's performance has been, everywhere they've unloaded. Alan Cavanna : I'm sticking with my pick from the NASCAR.com Preview Show . Joey Logano is winning the championship on Sunday. Kenny Bruce: If I were wagering, and just for the record I'm not (yet), I'd go against Kevin Harvick , the favorite of most folks, simply because I like to bet the upsets. I'd go with Ryan Newman , who said Wednesday that it's not a big deal, he only has to beat three other guys right? Who also happen to be among the best in the series. The smart money is on Harvick, though, and I think it's his to lose. I think Joey Logano is equally strong, but Harvick's riding a dominant Phoenix victory, so that's got to be worth something. Don't want to dismiss Denny Hamlin , but I think he and Newman will need the race of a lifetime, or troubles for Logano/Harvick, to walk off with the title. Cavanna : Harvick is the safe pick. He's got all the speed and performance. But I'm thinking yellow flags and restarts toward the end. That's where I think Logano will separate himself from the field. Albert: Nice plug, by the way, Alan . I think Hamlin is a strong second favorite -- he prevailed here last season and has had a rock-solid pit crew all year long. Cavanna : I've heard strong cases for everyone but Newman this week. And Newman's made it clear he doesn't really care what everyone else is saying. Bruce: Hamlin's pit crew has certainly gained him plenty of track position this year, Zack. But I think the rule changes in the offseason pretty much negated any success, or problems, teams had here in the past. 2. Now that we've nearly completed the first Chase under the new guidelines, what, if anything, would you change about the format for 2015? Albert: This is above my pay grade, but given the keys to the postseason system, I'd like to see the rotation of tracks shaken up a bit. Probably still best that we're in the warm-weather climes of sunny South Florida for the finale, but I'd be open to shifting up the 10 races. Bruce: As much as I agree with those who think one season is too soon to start tinkering, I do have an opinion. Of course. I like the win and you're in, then win and you advance aspects. I like that points can keep you going, too. A nice mix. My biggest issue with the format? I think the "must be in top 30 in points to be eligible" is way, way, way too loose. Who fights for 30th place? Who even runs back there? Make it top 20 for those with or without wins. There are usually some pretty decent teams battling around that neck of the woods and I think it would put a little pressure on those teams to step it up. As it stands, you can just show up and be in the top 30. Cavanna : I'd love to see some sort of reward for winning during the Chase that comes into play during Homestead. I fully understand why the rules are the way they are. "Make everyone equal, first one to the finish is the champ," no doing math during the race. BUT, fans are able to deal with that stuff the rest of the year. I think they can handle it during the finale. Harvick and Logano won in the playoff, and while they've been rewarded handsomely, they should be separated from Newman and Hamlin if only by a point or two Bruce: I like your thinking, Alan . Maybe if a Chase driver wins a Chase race, he is locked in final? That would give us a heck of a field. But I haven't thought about the potential problems there. Still ... sounds good on the surface. Cavanna : That's one step further that I thought, Kenny. Not a bad idea. Bruce: I'm putting it in the suggestion box now, Alan . Albert: And is a Chase field of 16 too many or too few? All interesting points, but believe it might be best to let this new format simmer for a while, rather than keep throwing too many tweaks at it in its infancy. Bruce: Agreed, Zack. Pretty easy to say, "Well, you should have done this" after only one year. But who knows how different it might play out in future years if left alone. Cavanna : Good call, Zack. The best thing that can be done is to leave it alone. A change we can all agree on. 3. After Chase drivers dominated the first two rounds, non-Chase drivers took two of the three Eliminator Round wins. Which driver outside the four qualifiers stands the best chance to end the season with a victory? Cavanna : Safe money is on Jimmie Johnson . He and Chad Knaus were down here testing a few weeks ago, said they learned something that helped them dominate Texas. I see it helping here. A not-so-longshot has to be Kyle Larson . This track rewards those who run as wide as possible. That's got Larson written all over it. Bruce: The list of potential winners sure got a lot deeper when we booted Brad Keselowski , Jeff Gordon , Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth to the side last week at Phoenix. I wouldn't be surprised to see Brad or Jeff win this week. If everyone on the outside is still in 2014 mode and not looking ahead to '15, I think Gordon's the guy. I picked him to win the title, missed it there, so I'm hoping to look less wrong with a win by the 24 team. Albert: I'm with you there. Wouldn't be surprised at all to see Keselowski in Victory Lane come Sunday, especially with the Blue Deuce's or White Deuce's (or whichever color is it this week) performance this season on 1.5-mile tracks. Even though they're not in the title hunt, it would be a fairly convincing exclamation point. Cavanna : "Very wrong" is a great way to describe my Chase grid. Bruce: Sounds like a book title: My Very Wrong Chase Grid. We keep mentioning Larson, Alan , and I'm as guilty as anyone. While I think it would be a great story, I think they've leveled off for now. Cavanna : I don't know, guys. This seems like a great environment for someone (cough ... 24) to get some revenge on the (No.) 2 car. Little on the line for those guys now. Bruce: Revenge? Surely not. Maybe NASCAR should have a "payback" race before Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 . The Settle Your Score 150 perhaps? Albert: Or the Eco-Boot, where your rivals are efficiently punted out of the way. Cavanna : Winner gets a spot in the Chase? Ha! Bruce: Maybe someday Alan . But remember, we agreed to leave the Chase unchanged. For now at least. Cavanna : Deal! Bruce: Eco-Boot. Love it Zack. Albert: Where the rivalries have drivers shaking in their Eco-Boots. MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL CHASE COVERAGE • Chase hub page • Chase Grid games • #MyChaseNation
Panel of experts debates the hot topics in NASCAR MORE: NASCAR issues penalties for post-Texas tangle " Chase bubble " Clinching scenarios RELATED: Follow your picks in the Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota 1. In doling out punishment for last Sunday night's post-race fight on pit road, was NASCAR too harsh, not harsh enough or did the punishment fit the crimes? Alan Cavanna : I think the right message was sent to the crew guys about getting involved and crossing some major lines. I was right there watching some of those guys throw wild haymakers. Some were just simple cheap shots. It was awful. Kenny, you were even closer! I can't imagine what you saw. Brad Norman: It was stout, but delivered a clear message -- you can't throw punches. Crew members are not like the goons in hockey. You don't bring them there to fight. And you don't use someone else's melee to settle an old score with a cheap shot. Kenny Bruce: My initial takeaway was "Huh. No penalties for anyone on the No. 2 team; no penalty for Mr. Harvick." Understandable that the drivers involved (Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski ) weren't penalized for what amounted to some pushing, shoving, grabbing. But when folks start throwing punches? Yeah, NASCAR should step in and dole out some punishment. I think they got it right. Norman: The fine of $25,000 is a lot to a crewmember -- to anyone, really, even Hendrick Motorsports (which will pay the fines). But I'd be willing to bet the crew guys were more upset with their respective suspensions. Can you imagine working literally years toward this moment, and not being able to see it through? Bruce: As for what I saw, Alan ... a big pile of folks jammed into a tiny space. It's not something I'd recommend. You pretty much go whichever way the pile decides. Cavanna : I learned not to mess with Kenny Bruce! Norman: We saw some dialogue on Twitter about this, Alan . If you're suspended for six races, someone else does your job for you. You're allowing someone to come in and do your own job. What if they do it better? Cavanna : Along with "don't throw punches," I hope it also sent the message to let the drivers hash it out between themselves. The drivers get themselves into these situations; they should be allowed to settle. Let the crew guys break it up if need be, but it shouldn't be a brawl. Bruce: I think you hit on a big difference there, Brad. Missing out on an opportunity to possibly celebrate a title? Yeah, that's large. Norman: I'm still not certain Brad Keselowski did anything wrong, either. Cavanna : Certainly not in the pits, Mr. Norman. As for what Brad did on the track ... it'll remain in the eye of the beholder. Bruce: As a former "driver," Alan , I'm sure you can understand Gordon's displeasure at the contact. But it seems a lot of folks believe Keselowski did nothing wrong. The guy was trying to win a race, and possibly a championship. No different from any of the others still in the Chase. Cavanna : I agree fully, Kenny. I liked Brad going for the win with everything on the line. But there are some online and in the garage who disagree. Bruce: And they were all crowded around the No. 2 car after the race, right? 2. With only 18 points separating the eight drivers in the Eliminator Round, who is the most likely and who is the least likely to advance into the Championship Round? Cavanna : Most likely, for me, are Jeff Gordon and Joey Logano . I picked Gordon to win on the FedEx Preview Show , and Logano just needs a top-10. I think he gets it. Norman: At this point, you're almost making a bold prediction by picking the four drivers who have been the best (and most consistent) all year -- the 2, 4, 22 and 24. Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick , in particular, face an uphill slog to advance. It's hard to imagine Harvick not being in contention for the win given his Phoenix dominance, and the same with Keselowski, really. That Talladega must-win situation in which the No. 2 team came through is still top of mind. Bruce: I don't think any one of the eight can go into Phoenix thinking "let's just get out of here with a decent finish." The points are just too close. Playing it safe, as Denny Hamlin noted Tuesday, means something like a 17th-place finish. And that's probably not going to put you in the final four. Cavanna : I think you're spot-on, Kenny. It's possible Harvick could have a top-five run and miss out if he doesn't win. Keselowski too. Harvick's six-point deficit doesn't sounds huge, but with the way everyone is running, it's nearly must-win. Norman: The guy most in trouble to me is Matt Kenseth , which may seem kind of strange. He's one point back of fourth-place Jeff Gordon , but Matt is just not very good at Phoenix. And there are a lot of guys in the Chase who are really good here. It's sort of the same situation with Ryan Newman , but Newman has a points cushion to fall back on where Kenseth has none. I really think either Harvick or Keselowski wins and shakes this thing up a little bit. I also expect Gordon to run well. Bruce: So I guess it's wide open. But I think Logano is the safest bet to advance, based on his current position and his team's consistency. The least likely would seem to be Carl Edwards, who isn't in the top four at the moment and hasn't had much of a Chase. Which of course means he'll probably win Phoenix. Norman: That Edwards still has a real shot is fascinating. He was so bad at Texas, yet logged a top-10 after all those cautions. And he's the only guy to have won at Phoenix other than Harvick in the past four races there. Cavanna : He came within a half-gallon of gas of sweeping last year, Kenny. Edwards to Homestead!!! Bruce: Good points, guys. And based on what we've seen so far in this year's Chase, I wouldn't feel comfortable locking anyone in, or out, going into this weekend's race. 3. Chase Elliott can wrap up the NNS championship this weekend. Is the 18-year-old ready to move up to the Sprint Cup Series in 2015? Cavanna : He's absolutely ready, but that doesn't mean he'll suffer from another year of Nationwide , I mean XFINITY Series, action. Norman: Not quite. He's obviously tremendously talented, and he's going to get great equipment when he makes the move, but I think one more full-time year in the XFINITY Series is the right move. Chase will win the title this year, and will be in a great spot to win it next year. That's Ricky Stenhouse-esque. When he moves up, though, I think he'll be like Kyle Larson right away -- competing for wins. Bruce: I think he's ready -- three wins and perhaps a championship look pretty good -- but that doesn't mean I think he'd step up and run as well. The competition gets a lot tougher at the top. Cavanna : His best wins have come against some of the best in Cup. And given the changes to the 2015 Cup cars, he may be more qualified than any Nationwide driver in recent years. Norman: It's really a pretty ridiculous story when you consider Chase didn't have a ride, in any series, at this point last year. Something came together with NAPA late, and here we are. I'm eager to see how Mr. Elliott does with a new crew chief in 2015 as well. Cavanna : If he didn't have a quality ride waiting for him in the future, I could see him easily moving up in 2015. But really, no need to rush if you don't have to. Bruce: Makes me think of Logano and getting tossed in the No. 20 car after Tony Stewart 's departure. Talented kid, but ... Norman: He's like that incredible pitching prospect in the farm system, Alan . Cavanna : I'll give you that, Brad. At Chase's young age, it can't hurt to learn about transition and working with different people. Going through that change, and succeeding, will make him better in the long run. Bruce: Mentioning Stenhouse, Larson, then there's Austin Dillon as well. Great NNS efforts. But even as well as Larson has run, he's not winning at Cup. Getting close, no doubt. I don't know how another year in the series would benefit Elliott. Would it hurt? No. He's still got a lot of years ahead of him. I think a lot of it just depends on what's available, team-wise and sponsor-wise. Norman: I think the most intriguing question is ... which ride does Chase get? Does Jeff Gordon retire? Does Kasey Kahne move on? Hendrick's stable is outstanding, but they have three guys 39 and older. Cavanna : If Hendrick could have five cars, I think Chase moves up immediately. Bruce: Seems pretty obvious he's destined for a Hendrick ride. A lot of talk about Gordon sticking around (sponsor signings) and a lot about Kahne being the odd-man out. Norman: Just think of the headline possibilities when a guy named Chase wins the Chase. I meant to say "if," and it came out "when." Maybe that's a sign. Bruce: They'll have to re-name it, or him. Anyone know his middle name? It isn't Sprint, is it? Cavanna : Chase Winston Grand Nationals Elliott Bruce: Wiki says William Clyde Elliott II Norman: First name William, but he goes by something else. I can respect that. Bruce: Not Billy Clyde? Cavanna : Wow. I learned something today. I think he should stick with Chase. Norman: That's the name they'll put on that championship trophy, at least. Bruce: Some great names out there ... but that's a discussion for another day. (Right William?) For now, it's on to Phoenix and another stop in the Chase. Not that Chase. Hold your punches, gentlemen. Cavanna : From someone who knows. 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NASCAR.com discusses the hot topics of the week RELATED: Follow your picks in the Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota 1. The Eliminator Round consists of three very distinct tracks with the shortest on the schedule (Martinsville), a 1.5-miler (Texas) and a relatively flat 1-mile oval in Phoenix . Do any of the three stand out as more likely to adversely impact the Chase drivers? Alan Cavanna : They'll all have their challenges, but I think the biggest may be the first one. You can find trouble in Martinsville on the track and in the pits. One small thing can put you in a big hole right away. Zack Albert: Two potential schools of thought here. In terms of track, I think Martinsville is so difficult to figure out that it's very particular with who runs well there. On the other hand, Phoenix will be so much of a pressure-cooker with the final four drivers trying to lock into the Homestead championship finale that it could be an anything-goes type of race. Kenny Bruce: I want to say that Martinsville, with its slower speeds, isn't as much of a risk for those guys. Typically damage there is minimal, with teams being able to fix most problems and still be in the hunt. Then I remember the run-in between Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch earlier this year, with Keselowski eventually finishing 38th. So it definitely can happen. Cavanna : My mind goes right back to Clint Bowyer 's dive-bomb a few years ago at Martinsville that took out the 24 and 48. We won't see those moves at other tracks. But at Martinsville drivers will try. And who won that day? Current Chase surprise Ryan Newman . Bruce: After being at Talladega and witnessing the added pressure of it being a cutoff race, I have to agree with you Zack. The pressure will be there in all three, but at Phoenix it could be incredible. Albert: The spring race at Phoenix wasn't particularly nutso, but pressure works in mysterious ways. Cavanna : I agree about the Phoenix factor. At the very least we'll have five drivers competing for one at-large spot, possibly more. Bruce: If you think about it, all three tracks have had their share of memorable moments. The Bowyer incident, as you mention, Alan , at Martinsville; Gordon and Jeff Burton at Texas and Gordon and Bowyer at Phoenix . Hey, what is it with Gordon and Bowyer? Albert: Doesn't the 15 still owe the 24 one? Bruce: Possibly, Zack. If Martinsville was truly the site of paybacks, we could see a record number of cautions. Fortunately, I think some folks have too much at stake to get in the middle of a meltdown. Cavanna : I hope Gordon isn't a San Francisco Giants fan. A new rivalry may have started with Bowyer's Royals. 2. Team owner Roger Penske said after Talladega that he thinks other drivers are jealous of Brad Keselowski because of his driver's success this season. So, are others jealous of Bad Brad? Cavanna : I don't think you'd ever hear a driver say they're jealous of BK. I think some might be annoyed with him. And deep down, some of that has to be rooted in jealously. Albert: I think there's an element of every driver wanting to be the top dog. I think there may be some jealousy of the team he's with, but I don't know if it reaches a more personal level. Cavanna : At some point, I think it does Zack. In the hierarchy of the garage, Brad K. stepped over a lot of people who seemed to be next up to be crowned champion. Carl Edwards , Kevin Harvick , Denny Hamlin , Kyle Busch are all still searching for that first title. Bruce: Either they were laying it on thick earlier this week, or the other Chase drivers respect and admire what Keselowski has been able to accomplish since coming into Sprint Cup. Maybe they aren't fans of the way he carries himself, or the way he races in some instances, but they all know how difficult it is to be successful in this sport. Even Matt Kenseth said he admired how Brad came up through the ranks and what he's done. As you said, Alan , I think "annoyed" is a better description of how others feel about him at times. Albert: True, admirable. And the success without a perceived paying of dues can ruffle feathers. But actual respect only goes so far through all of Keselowski's outspoken nature in his comments through the years and the on-track antics in the Charlotte cool-down lap. Cavanna : I get the feeling some hoped BK would be an annoying fly they could swat away. But that doesn't appear to be happening. Bruce: Take his personality out of the equation and you have a driver that has won six times this year, won five poles and is considered one of the favorites for this year's title. Stout stuff. But as Zack noted, it's the "other" items that perhaps have some people questioning his position in the sport. Albert: Keselowski said in his 2012 championship speech in Las Vegas, "As a champion, I want to be your leader, and I want to help you make it happen." Are we there yet? Bruce: Well, maybe not just yet, Zack, but we could be getting there. Keep the cameras rolling, just in case. Cavanna : I don't think so Zack, and part of it may be other drivers' personal feelings toward him. It's like a reality TV show competition; you have to play both the professional and social game to win. 3. We mentioned Martinsville earlier. What is the likelihood that we will see payback in some form or fashion this week when the series heads up the interstate for this weekend's race? Cavanna : Payback just doesn’t seem worth it if you’re a Chase driver. Let's say Hamlin takes a cheap shot at Keselowski during the race. Then what? It certainly wouldn’t be over. Keselowski would have nothing to lose by coming back a getting Hamlin the week after. It'd be lose-lose for both of them. Albert: If we're going to see any, it's most likely going to be at Martinsville. Still, let's remember back to the spring when Keselowski leaned on Kurt Busch – it ultimately didn't matter since Kurt went on to win the race. So sometimes purposeful retaliation doesn't have all that much effect beyond the principle of the thing. Bruce: Payback comes in all forms and fashions, Alan . As Kevin Harvick noted earlier this week, payback isn't always about wrecking someone. At a track such as Martinsville, you can make it extremely difficult for another guy to get around you. You can be a pain on pit road. It doesn't even have to be in the actual race - you can annoy someone during practice if that's your goal. Albert: Or you can sneak into the infield concession stand and spike their hot dogs. Bruce: I know NASCAR cautions drivers each week during the Chase to "let the race play out" and not get involved in paybacks or things of that nature, but there's an awful lot that goes on out on the track that doesn't always come to light. Is that a P3 penalty, Zack? Or a guarantee that your car will be the random after the race? Albert: Doctoring hot dogs certainly falls under the heading of "actions detrimental to stock-car racing." At least a P3, season-ending probation and cutting off the supply of Goody's to the pit box. Cavanna : Excellent point, Kenny. We've seen Hamlin and Harvick have issues at Bristol. And I can remember a few drivers making it tough on Logano in the pits in the past. I forgot about those little things. Bruce: A driver never forgets, Alan . Just as Jimmy Spencer. Cavanna : Still, if you’re a driver with unsettled business, I'd be working the phones and text messages before Sunday. I think we saw some of that happen with Logano and Danica Patrick . Bruce: Which may or may not be settled, depending on whom you ask. MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL CHASE COVERAGE • Chase hub page • Chase Grid games • #MyChaseNation
Our experts address this week's hot topics in NASCAR RELATED: Follow your picks in the Perfect Chase Grid Challenge for chance at $100,000 prize 1. Were the penalties for the post-race turmoil at Charlotte appropriate for all parties involved? Alan Cavanna : I think not issuing a points penalty was the proper call. The incidents in question were not competition-related, and I don't feel the penalty should have been. That said, I do think the fine for Brad Keselowski could've been higher to send more of a message. The garage is crowded after a race, and it needs to be respected. Kes is among the best drivers in the world, but one small slip while trying to do even a small burnout could be disastrous. Zack Albert: I don't know that if I were in any sort of ruling position that I'd have gone to the lengths of issuing a suspension, but I felt like the punishment could've been stiffer -- especially for Keselowski as instigator and Hamlin for that cut-through in the garage. Stewart's fine seemed about right. A Kenseth probation could've at least put him on notice, but making a no-call there was OK by me, too. Kenny Bruce: I know the big kickback from the fans is that taking away money isn't much of a penalty for these guys. And probation? A slap on the wrist. But I think taking away points should be left for technical infractions, because those incidents can impact the results of the race. Taking away points for bad behavior doesn't make sense. The money might not seem all that much, but keep in mind, it would escalate for a future offense. Albert: And even if you do penalize with points deductions, a victory this weekend would advance a penalized driver to the Chase's next round, no matter how many points you take away. Bruce: Good point, Zack. It could impact a driver trying to advance without a win, but if they take points away and the guy wins, where's the penalty? … I was surprised that Kenseth wasn't at least fined for his role in the altercation with Brad. Would have liked to have had a better explanation of how they came to that determination. C avanna : No punches thrown, Kenny. I think Matt inched up to the line, but didn't cross it. The Ambrose/Mears conflict at Richmond in the spring featured a direct punch and left another competitor with a black eye. Once Kenseth got a hold of Kez, I think he just wanted to talk. Albert: Is giving a noogie a P1 violation? If we'd had a Kermit Washington impersonation by Kenseth, maybe there's more to it, but I think it falls under the heading of a shoving match with no blood spilt. Bruce: Oh, he wanted to talk, all right. But Mears threw no punches and was fined. Of course, he was deemed "the instigator." Should have a T-shirt made up with that on it. Albert: I know we dealt with a good amount of unhappy fans Tuesday, but had there been a suspension, the howls would've been about NASCAR officials hand-picking a champion whose name doesn't rhyme with Reselowski. C avanna : Gad Reselowski? I think he raced in the '50s. 2. Brad Keselowski , Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr . rank as the bottom three in the Sprint Cup standings. Who has the best chance of staving off elimination in the Contender Round finale at Talladega? C avanna : Tough question to answer. I picked Dale Jr. to win the race in this week's NASCAR.com Preview Show . So by that logic, he has the best shot. Albert: By that logic, he's jinxed beyond all hope. Cavanna : But in terms of points, Kes can at least see a light at the end of the tunnel. If he avoids a big wreck that takes out someone like Kenseth or Kahne, Brad advances. Kenny Bruce: I think Mr. Reselowski, I mean Keselowski, has the best shot. Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. are tied, and eight points or so behind Brad, so that's eight positions they need just to finish ahead of him -- not including all those ahead. Plus, teammate Joey Logano made no bones about helping his teammate this weekend. Also, Ryan Blaney , who will be in a third Team Penske car, mentioned helping BK out. Cavanna : Hey! I've picked a few winners, Zack! Bruce: Isn't that our version of the SI cover jinx, Alan ? C avanna : I don't need the Nation mad at me. ... I like your point about the Penske cars, Kenny. Logano and Blaney need no other agenda than helping out the 2 car. Albert: That said, I think Brad is going to need all the aero help and/or reinforcements he can get after last weekend. But to your point, Alan , I think Dale Jr. finds some of that 'Dega magic from days of old. Bruce: Correct, Alan . Hendrick guys and the Joe Gibbs Racing bunch have enough on their own plates without worrying about a teammate; Harvick, Edwards, Newman ... they're lone wolves out there. C avanna : This format is so odd. Who's more nervous on Sunday? Kes/Junior/Jimmie or Hamlin/Edwards/Newman, etc.? Albert: It's going to be crazy. The live standings might resemble a roulette wheel. ... Funny that there's this guy we haven't been talking about -- Johnson. How does a six-time champ fly under the radar like this? In years past, I don't know that I'd have bet against the 48 camp come Chase time. Now? Just not seeing the bulletproof aura around them. C avanna : Radar only extends so far. Jimmie is barely within striking distance. Bruce: Right about the 48, Zack. Who would have thought we could have described them as average? But truthfully, that's where they're at right now. They need to change the Lowe's slogan from "Never Stop Improving" to "Improve Faster." Albert: Maybe they surprise us, but there's room for (home) improvement. Bruce: Nice. 3. The last few Talladega races have given us surprise winners, major multi-car crashes and stunning finishes. Will we see more intensity in Sunday's Chase elimination race? Is that possible? Bruce: I think so. The racing there has gotten so crazy the last few years. If they come across the start/finish line six-wide with half of them upside-down, I wouldn't be surprised. C avanna : It'll all depend on the situation and who is running where and when. If the "bottom 3" are in the back half of the top 10 with two to go, I predict chaos. Albert: The only two drivers sitting pretty right now are Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick , who have already punched their tickets to the next round. The rest? Who knows. C avanna : If it's a guy like Edwards/Newman/Hamlin, etc., I think they do all they can to bring it home in one piece and advance. Bruce: I've wondered all week if there was a chance that we "over-sell" the race, but honestly I just don't see that being the case. Heard someone say the other day that even with the multicar incidents in the spring race, there were still 20 or 21 cars on lead lap at the end of the race. So more than half the field still had a shot. How often do we see that? C avanna : It'll be interesting to see if someone advances because his team makes quick repairs from an early wreck. Every position is going to matter. Bruce: I don't think we'll see shades of Benny Parsons' team rebuilding his car to get him back out and win the title, but you're close, Alan . Albert: Not only that, all the alliances and grudges will come into play. And even if crews tell you they won't pay attention to the standings as they run, here's betting they'll have it in view out of the corner of their eye. Bruce: I more expect pit-stop calls of "So and so stops for four fresh Goodyear tires, two cans of Sunoco fuel and a shot of Mylanta ..." Albert: Will officials allow an extra crewmember over the wall for antacid relief. Cavanna : What would Gad Reselowski do? Kenny Bruce: Drive it like he stole it? Zack Albert: Someone stole the pace car during pre-race at Talladega several years back. He also drove it like he stole it (fans, don't get any bright ideas). MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL CHASE COVERAGE • Chase hub page • Chase Grid games • #MyChaseNation