H2H: Debating who's next as a first-time winner in 2017
RELATED: Driver Tracker for 2017 " New season, new looks Breakthrough victories in NASCAR's top division are often career-altering, a boost that helps aspiring drivers shed the "contender" label by advancing to the "winner" echelon. Last season, two drivers -- Chris Buescher and Kyle Larson -- filled their void in the win column in a fanciful August stretch that saw both visit Victory Lane. With the 2016 calendar out the window, the prospects for a new driver reaching the ranks of the first-timers are promising. As New Year's resolutions still fresh on their minds, NASCAR.com's George Winkler and Zack Albert size up their top candidates for new winners in 2017. Winkler: Chase Elliott was close to winning on a number of occasions last season, as evidenced by 10 top-five finishes, including two second-place showings at Michigan. In the second of those Michigan races, he fell behind Larson on a late restart that led to the aforementioned breakthrough win for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver. But Elliott is a hard worker and will learn from his close calls and eventually will get a breakthrough win of his own. The Hendrick Motorsports driver had top-10 finishes in 17 of 36 races last year, and out of those top 10s, five came on tracks two miles or longer like Michigan, five came on short tracks and seven were on intermediate tracks. That says he can get it done almost anywhere, and to have that kind of talent at 21 years old is impressive. Plus, Elliott proved to be a worthy replacement in the No. 24 Chevrolet for legend Jeff Gordon, so although expectations will remain high, at least he he has that first year under his belt. And with the combination of Elliott's talent and Hendrick's top-notch personnel and equipment, it's just a matter of time before he's in Victory Lane. Albert : Won't disagree with a Chase Elliott pick at all. In many regards, it's surprising he didn't reach Victory Lane in his rookie year last season. Ditto Ryan Blaney and the Wood Brothers. But there's one other driver new to the rookie ranks who bears watching. Erik Jones may just have three Cup Series starts (and one long relief stint -- see: Denny Hamlin , Bristol, April 2015) to his credit, but he's stepping into a prime position for his Sunoco Rookie of the Year campaign this year. Jones will join Furniture Row Racing 's just-born No. 77 Toyota team in 2017, drawing on the Joe Gibbs Racing resources that have aided his accelerated climb up the NASCAR ladder. The 20-year-old driver already has plenty of prep at the XFINITY Series level, with six victories in his two full seasons. While growing pains for Jones and his newly expanding team are to be expected, a first-time triumph wouldn't register as a total shock, either. Expect Elliott to break through, but leave room for Jones on the list, too.
H2H: Chase tension hits a rapid clip at Martinsville
RELATED: Meet the Chase's final 8 " Martinsville entry list The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs grinds on, with four races to go and one more elimination before the Championship 4 is determined for next month's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway . With Talladega Superspeedway behind us and the final three-race series staged and ready for the Sprint Cup Series' return this weekend to Martinsville Speedway , our Holly Cain and Zack Albert tackle three pressing topics for the season's homestretch: 1. After a hectic day at Talladega, the Chase's Round of 8 is finally set. Any surprises at who's in, who's out? Cain: I think obviously not having this season's winningest drivers in the final eight is a major upset. I would have expected Martin Truex Jr . and Brad Keselowski to easily advance and frankly felt either might have visited Talladega's Victory Lane, not end their day in the track's garage. The four-car Joe Gibbs Racing sweep into the next round also defies odds, but more power to the team. They will have their hands full, however, with Chevy's Kevin Harvick and a certain six-time series champion, Jimmie Johnson . Albert : Agreed, the omissions of Truex and Keselowski counted as at least mild jolts, but at this phase of the process, there's only so much water that can go into the funnel. All of the final eight drivers have visited Victory Lane at some point this season, with all but one -- Kurt Busch -- making multiple trips. The only thing we're missing is a true underdog (see: winless Ryan Newman in 2014, a much more lightly regarded Truex in 2015), and that also qualifies as a subtle surprise. 2. NASCAR announced rules Wednesday designed to limit Sprint Cup drivers' participation in other national series starting in 2017. What's the net effect? Cain: The obvious upside to this is improved opportunity for up-and-coming drivers to truly show their wares against similar talent as they ascend the NASCAR ladder. More trophies, more winner's checks, more attention. They also will have to showcase their personalities more, however, to keep the story lines interesting in absence of the popular Cup drivers that more naturally fill newsfeeds. This is great opportunity, but it will require great work, too. Albert : Besides the increased opportunity overall, I believe the greatest impact will be felt once the playoffs roll around. With both XFINITY and the Camping World Truck Series just now dabbling in their first ventures into Chase waters, those series now have a greater chance to establish their regular drivers' stardom when it counts -- in the postseason. 3. Four races remain in the championship battle, with Martinsville Speedway next up on the schedule. Whether it's a Chaser aiming for a free pass to the Homestead finale or a non-Chaser hoping to play spoiler, who's your winning pick for the weekend? Cain: This is truly shaping up to be one of the most compelling Martinsville races in a long line of fantastic Martinsville races. Denny Hamlin is buoyed by the dramatic entry into this round of the Chase and has an enviable and proven track record here. But my pick is Jimmie Johnson , who will remind everyone of his massive talent and determination in pursuit of a record-tying seventh Cup in 2016. Albert : Record-tying seventh championship? Sounds like a storybook tale. But how about the chances of a Jeff Gordon sunset-riding repeat of his Martinsville victory in 2015? How about Denny Hamlin finally getting another shot at making good on his childhood promise to Coach Joe Gibbs that he'd drive to a title for him someday? The heart's pick at Martinsville goes with Gordon; the brain's vote takes Hamlin on the tricky sliver of a race track that still packs 'em in.
H2H: Chase's Round of 12 set to stir at Charlotte
RELATED: See the Chase Grid Story lines abound, and NASCAR.com's Holly Cain and Zack Albert tackle three pressing topics as the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup enters the Round of 12 at Charlotte Motor Speedway . 1. What surprised you most from Dover weekend in terms of who advanced in the Chase elimination race and who did not? Cain: I was surprised by the results in several areas, but more so by drivers who did not advance as expected. Like many, I believed Chip Ganassi Racing driver Kyle Larson would advance well beyond the Round of 16. In fact, I had him in my Championship 4. I do believe he will win another race before the season is over. And perhaps I was being sentimental in expecting Tony Stewart to advance, but I still remember the amazing Chase charge in 2011 and saw the motivation in the three-time champion's eyes after he won at Sonoma this summer. Albert : Austin Dillon 's advancement on the basis of pure consistency didn't send shock waves through the ol' surprise meter, but fate's cruel hand for Chip Ganassi Racing did. To see both Larson and teammate Jamie McMurray ejected from the Chase field at least qualified as a mild stunner. It's a solid dozen that remain, but Dover showed again how exacting this postseason format can be. RELATED: Larson, McMurray ousted from Chase after Dover woes 2. With the points standings reset for the Chase Round of 12, all drivers resume with a clean slate. Are there any incentives you would add to enhance the current format? Cain: A case could be made to give drivers who have won in the Chase a small points bonus in the ensuing round. But the equal reset given to all 12 drivers in the current format certainly increases the drama in a very different way from the Chase start, when regular-season wins are factored in. It's the first time since the Daytona 500 green flag that the top-tier drivers are ranked evenly, and it should make the next three races even more dramatic. Albert : It may not rate highly on the drama scale, but I've always maintained that the top points-earner during the regular season should be rewarded -- nominally if not handsomely. A first-round bye might be a stretch, but a bigger bounty of points would offer a larger incentive for consistent performance over the opening 26 events. Offering bonus points through each elimination round would be an inviting enhancement, but keeping them out of the championship race -- leaving the calculators at home -- has valuable merits. RELATED: Are added incentives for regular-season winners on horizon? 3. Among the remaining 12 Chase drivers, who's your pick to win this weekend at Charlotte and lock in early in the Round of 8? Cain: There's a certain six-time champion who I believe will collect his eighth win at Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend. Jimmie Johnson has been close to wins already in the Chase only to fall victim to pit-road miscues -- something uncharacteristic of his Hendrick Motorsports organization. You've got to think that will be cleaned up, and I believe there's no one more motivated to remind naysayers why he is the modern era's very best. Albert : Is there any stopping the Truexpress? Wins in two of the first three Chase races have established the Furniture Row Racing No. 78 Toyota as a strong title favorite, and the team returns to the site of Truex's crushing victory in the Coca-Cola 600 in May. Placing former Charlotte winners Kevin Harvick , Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson under the heading of "sleepers" ranks as a testament to Truex's formidable stature this season. Upcoming wild-card races at Talladega and Martinsville have the potential to derail the No. 78's march; don't count on that happening this weekend at Charlotte.
Staff picks for Talladega Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race
RELATED: See all the cars lined up for Sunday's race Denny Hamlin : The Daytona 500 winner has experience in getting to Victory Lane at restrictor-plate tracks. If his tendency for sour luck in the Chase -- see last year's odd roof flap issue in this race -- doesn't bite him, Hamlin has a strong shot at advancing with a Talladega win. -- Zack Albert Brad Keselowski : He was backed against a wall in 2014 and came through with a dramatic win to advance in the Chase, and he'll do it again on the heels of winning at Talladega this spring. -- George Winkler Brad Keselowski : Seems like an obvious pick because of Keselowski's two restrictor-plate wins this season coming into Talladega. But the former Cup champ is so good at this form of racing, particularly at Talladega where he got his first career Cup win and three more including this spring. And most importantly ... he needs a good showing to advance in the Chase. This is his race. -- Holly Cain Jimmie Johnson : The man who doesn't need the win -- thanks to his Charlotte victory -- gets the W to lock some strong competition out of the Round of 8. -- RJ Kraft Joey Logano : The talented Team Penske driver hasn't had exceptional results this season, but he's been lurking. We saw what he can do in this round last year, and I think he turns it on when it counts and takes Talladega for the second year in a row. -- Pat DeCola Matt Kenseth : One year after a Round of 12 he'd rather forget, the Joe Gibbs Racing veteran leaves no doubt and secures his second career win at Talladega. -- Brad Norman Make your picks in Streak to the Finish !
NASCAR.com staff predicts 2016 Sprint Cup champion
RELATED: Stats breakdown reveals championship favorite Carl Edwards : Went with the No. 19 as a championship pick on my pre-Chase grid, thinking the postseason schedule lined up favorably. The Championship 4 -- especially this season -- is a toss-up, but Edwards' history at Homestead (two wins, two poles) may tip the scales. -- Zack Albert Joey Logano : The Team Penske driver has been loose and fast throughout the Chase and comes into this weekend's race with much-needed final-round experience. Crew chief Todd Gordon is one of the best. -- Kenny Bruce Jimmie Johnson : Jimmie was my preseason pick to win his seventh championship, and I feel even better about the selection now. No one in his era is better at winning titles and he has shown the ability to do whatever is necessary at Homestead to secure the prized hardware. -- Holly Cain Jimmie Johnson : Now that Johnson has figured out how to outlast his competition in the new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format, don't expect him to let a historic seventh championship slip from his grip. -- Pat DeCola Kyle Busch : The Joe Gibbs Racing driver enters with the least amount of pressure as the defending champion, and that should lead to a relaxing and celebration-filled weekend in Miami. -- RJ Kraft Joey Logano : Over the last four races he's won twice, led for 302 laps and has finished no worse than ninth. To say he's on fire is an understatement. -- Maggie MacKenzie Kyle Busch : Let's not overthink this. The defending champion is back in the title race, as the best driver on the best team in NASCAR. He also has been the best driver in the Chase, with six top-five finishes through nine races. Busch repeats. -- Brad Norman Jimmie Johnson : Johnson & Co. showed speed in practice and fought through a tough qualifying session, proving they have the calm resilience -- and long-run speed -- needed to win the coveted title No. 7. -- Jessica Ruffin Carl Edwards : All the reminders of that tiebreaker loss in 2011 have stoked the fire of title desire. Edwards' No. 19 has the speed, and we know JGR equipment is stout. A will and a way combine for a championship. -- Kathy Sheldon Carl Edwards : Sentimentally, I'd like to see him get redemption for 2011 and for Concrete Carl to cement a Hall of Fame-worthy career, but he's also a good pick from a stats perspective. He has the best average finish at Homestead among the Championship 4 drivers and the most career wins there (two). -- George Winkler
H2H: Chase hits halfway; Talladega tempest next
RELATED: See the Chase grid " Chase Bubble Watch The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason is making the turn for home -- five races down and five to go. This weekend's stop on the 10-race ride is among the most pivotal of them all, Sunday's Alabama 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM) at Talladega Superspeedway . With the playoff field about to be cut from 12 drivers to a final eight, our Holly Cain and Zack Albert tackle pressing topics ahead of a true Chase wildcard: *** Halfway through the Chase, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr . have each won twice, leaving Jimmie Johnson as the only other race winner in the postseason's first five races. Will the champion be one of these three or is there still room for a Chase dark horse? Cain: It is highly likely that the champion will come from among these three drivers, who have not only won lately but set the bar this year. With half the Chase remaining, someone else may -- and needs to -- step up, figuring it would be Brad Keselowski or Joey Logano or one of the four remaining Toyota drivers who have led the way. No dark horse here. Albert : There's time left, but that clock -- not to be confused with the Camping World Truck Series' caution clock -- is ticking more urgently. Harvick, Truex and Johnson may be the main Chase triumvirate so far, but I'm holding the door open for a Keselowski-led Penske effort or another Joe Gibbs Racing entry to stage a Round of 12 rally, starting at Talladega. Next year, a schedule shake-up for the Chase's Round of 12 will have Kansas trading places with Talladega to be the three-race series' elimination event. Do you favor the move or was the Charlotte-Kansas-Talladega progression a suitable schedule? Cain: Depending on whom you talk to, Talladega settling the third-round Chase grid was either a huge opportunity or a crazy wild card. Everyone goes into the unpredictable Talladega race feeling like either he/she has a big opportunity or scant chance to emerge. That makes for a heightened excitement level, but the question is whether this type of race should solidify the next round of elimination. Cases can be made either way, but I think the switch-up is a good idea. Albert : Talladega races are heart-clenching enough as it is -- whether it's in the regular season in May, in the playoffs in October or a 20-lap offseason trophy dash for funsies (just a suggestion). Making the schedule shift may slightly reduce spectator palpitations, but the track loses little in stature as the middle event in a three-race series. A more conventional venue such as Kansas makes more sense as the host of an elimination race. The Chase's current bottom four: Austin Dillon , Denny Hamlin , Brad Keselowski , Chase Elliott . Of those four, who is best positioned to take out the math and guesswork and emerge with a season-saving Talladega win? Cain: I truly see any and all four of these with the possibility of point-climbing their way up to Chase advancement. Among them, it's hardest to argue with Keselowski's Talladega resume. He already has two restrictor-plate wins at Daytona in July and at Talladega in the spring. He has lots of good Alabama juju -- scoring his first-ever Cup win at Talladega in 2009 and amassing four total wins there. He's finished in the top five in three of his last trips to the track. Albert : With such a stacked quartet in the Chase basement, this is a tough one. All four drivers have the backing of teams with standout superspeedway programs, and Keselowski has evolved into one of the sport's best at the large, fast ovals where horsepower is restricted. While still imagining some No. 3 magic for Dillon or a No. 24 breakthrough for Elliott, Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin gets the slight nod from these parts in a plate-track pick 'em.
H2H: Sizing up the first Chase cutoff at Dover
RELATED: Chase Grid " Bubble Watch Story lines abound, NASCAR.com's Holly Cain and Zack Albert tackle three pressing topics before the 2016 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason makes its first elimination at Dover International Speedway . 1. Which driver currently below the Chase cutoff line is most likely to advance to the Round of 12? Cain: I realize this is a long-shot and a sentimental pick, but I'm not counting Tony Stewart out of his final Chase run quite yet. I remember watching him win five of the 10 Chase races -- including the 2011 season finale -- to grab his third title from Carl Edwards ' clutches. Stewart is 11 points from the transfer position heading into the weekend, but he also is a three-time winner at Dover. Albert : Jamie McMurray , primarily based on the performance increase that Chip Ganassi Racing has enjoyed in recent weeks. While his teammate Kyle Larson has more regularly competed for wins, McMurray has been a tick more consistent. In the opening round, staying steady and avoiding the Monster Mile's pitfalls may be enough. 2. Which driver currently above the Chase cutoff line is most likely to be eliminated at Dover? Cain: Kurt Busch has only one top-10 finish in his last nine starts at Dover. Similarly, Carl Edwards has only a single top 10 in his last eight starts at the Monster Mile. They are 16 and 15 points, respectively, above the cutoff line. While that's some cushion to the good, they will need to perform well Sunday as this is a place where crazy things have happened. Ask Jimmie Johnson . Albert : The provisional top 12 is a pretty stout list. While Chase Elliott has righted the ship to a degree from his dreadful July and August stretch, he'll need to conjure up the positive mojo from his third-place finish at Dover in May and avoid the mistakes that he tends to lament so bitterly. 3. Of the two, who is more likely to win the championship: Martin Truex Jr . or Kevin Harvick ? Cain: This is the $10 million question. In the preseason and again before the Chase I picked Jimmie Johnson to hoist the trophy. But clearly Truex and Harvick have proven themselves -- again -- as the drivers to be dealt with. Truex drives a Toyota, which has shown itself the power of the field, and his Furniture Row Racing team is exactly the kind of "all-in," underdog, feel-good story that would make anyone smile. But as Harvick showed this past weekend, he should never, ever be underestimated. He's as motivated, focused and ready as he's ever been for a title and is the only driver in the series that has been in the Championship 4 each year of the new elimination format. Albert : Truex and Harvick have certainly made a case for their championship credentials in the opening two races of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason. No weak links, regardless of the venue, for either of these two, save for Truex's early season tendencies to have odd occurrences make victories somehow slip away. Still, it's hard to anoint either one with eight races left in the 10-race playoffs with plenty of opportunity for mess-ups, especially at wild-card tracks Talladega and Martinsville. Forced to pick one of the two, I'll call the coin toss in the air for Harvick.
Chase pursuit, Truck Series tussle remain hot topics
RELATED: Provisional Chase grid " Series standings With just one regular-season race left before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field is locked in, several pressing questions remain. Before playoff time ramps up in earnest for all three national series, NASCAR.com reporters Kenny Bruce and Zack Albert sat down to discuss a trio of topics before this weekend's events at Richmond International Raceway : Among the drivers who haven't won so far this year, who is your favorite to score a last-minute victory to secure their ticket for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs? Bruce: The veterans on the outside of the Chase haven't run well enough of late to be a threat while the youngsters lack the experience. But give the kids a nod at Richmond, specifically Chase Elliott . He's been in the top five enough this year to handle the pressure of racing for a win with so much on the line. Albert : Here's rating the likelihood fairly low for rampant 11th-hour movement along the Chase cut line, but forced to pick a best-chance ticket puncher, Ryan Newman deserves a look. Granted it's been more than a decade, but Newman has won at Richmond before. Plus, as if the postseason wasn't motivation enough, Wednesday's 15-point penalty for a Darlington infraction should leave the RCR No. 31 bunch with a point to prove Saturday night. How do you rate Chris Buescher 's chances for maintaining his top-30 position in the Sprint Cup points standings and meeting that requirement for Chase eligibility? Bruce: If Buescher goes to Richmond and focuses on running his own race, he'll be fine. If the team gets caught up in focusing on what others are doing, they'll wind up as the only team with a win that's not in the Chase. The key is for the folks on the No. 34 to not beat themselves. Albert : Front Row Motorsports has made an impression with their scrappy nature, and Buescher has provided the underdog No. 34 team with a shot at its first postseason appearance. Only complete catastrophe coupled with an improbable David Ragan top-10 would unravel those hopes. Provided FRM leans on its Roush Fenway Racing affiliation this weekend, Buescher should cruise into the field of 16. Will Sunday's Camping World Truck Series dust-up between Cole Custer and John Hunter Nemechek have a lasting impact into the Chase? Bruce: It's very likely that Cole Custer 's Chase hopes went up in smoke -- and grass and dirt, etc. -- in the last-lap incident with John Hunter Nemechek this past weekend at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park . With Nemechek already qualified, the likelihood of a forgive-and-forget is slim. Custer's JR Motorsports team is solid enough to win -- or keep someone else from doing so if the situation presents itself. Albert : Nemechek's last-lap mugging at Mosport made such a dramatic impact that not only will Cole Custer race him differently going forward, others in the Camping World Truck Series garage may think twice about giving the youngster the benefit of the doubt on the track. The truck series has already established itself as a solid proving ground for young talent. Sunday's race offered a reminder that it's a launching pad for the NASCAR rivalries of the future, as well.
H2H: Answering the Chase's biggest questions
The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoff field is finally complete, setting the stage for a 10-race dash to the finish and the championship glory that awaits Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway . Story lines abound, and our Holly Cain and Zack Albert tackle three pressing topics before the postseason gets underway at Chicagoland. 1. Can anyone stop the Joe Gibbs Racing alliance in the Chase? Cain: There is no denying the strength of the JGR alliance from top to bottom. The question is whether it can sustain this level of performance over the next 10 weeks with a larger bull's-eye on its defending champion back. At this point JGR is favorite. But that's the crazy thing about letting these championships play out. Heart and motivation count, too. Albert : The quintet of JGR-affiliated drivers may look nearly invincible now, but the two-year sample size of the current Chase format has proven to be a petri dish of unpredictability. Team Penske has two drivers -- Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski -- in position to drive a wedge into the Gibbs dominance, but Kevin Harvick and his Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Chevrolet -- already champions in the new playoff system -- have a substantial shot at fending off a Toyota triumph. 2. With a handful of new, young faces making their Chase debuts this season, are we witnessing a changing of the guard? Cain: With such a talented group of young drivers in the series, their participating in the Chase was inevitable. It was simply a matter of "when." Best of all for them -- and the sport -- Kyle Larson , Chase Elliott , Austin Dillon and Chris Buescher have not only earned their way into the Chase mix, they look to be legitimate players. The old guard has a big wake-up call and there are other young talents who may well join this mix next year. All good signs for the sport and the fans. Albert : The influx of Chase newbies this year would suggest the opening stages of an overhaul to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver roster. It's refreshing, a dash of blossoming names alongside the familiar faces in the playoff brackets. Now the challenge is for the youth movement to make deep dives into the postseason, rather than go quietly in the Chase's early rounds. 3. Who's your best bet for a Chase surprise? Cain: I don't know that Kyle Larson and his talent is a surprise to anyone. But, he is peaking at the right time of the season and has an envious track record at the upcoming Chase venues. And just for good measure, his Chip Ganassi Racing team knows a little about winning racing championships, too. Albert : This is going to sound odd to talk about a driver with six championships to his credit and multiple wins this season as a surprise candidate, but Jimmie Johnson 's current 21-race dry spell equals the longest of his Sprint Cup career. Is there a charge left in the No. 48 camp? Time will tell, but it's still difficult to discount a group that has turned up the boost again and again come playoff time. A record-tying seventh title for Johnson remains a real possibility.
John Hunter Nemechek penalized after Loudon
NASCAR.com's Zack Albert gets you up to speed as John Hunter Nemechek is assessed a P2 penalty following the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.