Watch as NASCAR.com writer Holly Cain rides along with Jimmie Johnson through Las Vegas on the NASCAR Victory Lap.
NASCAR.com writer Holly Cain's in-car video of her Victory Lap ride with Jimmie Johnson.
Six-time champ says it never gets old during "Victory Lap" burnout
No NASCAR.com expert correctly picked more than one driver in the Championship Round RELATED: Follow your picks in the Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota Way back in April during the NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four -- which was in Dallas the same weekend NASCAR visited Texas Motor Speedway -- our NASCAR.com panel of experts gave their own version of which drivers they envisioned being the last ones standing in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship Round finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway . With Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET, ESPN) upon us, we decided it was the perfect time to look back at which drivers they picked and why. As you'll quickly learn upon reading those entries, the new Chase format, which debuted this year, lent itself to even more unpredictability than first imagined. The four drivers remaining -- Kevin Harvick , Joey Logano , Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman -- each have a shot to pick up their first title, but every single one of our experts had exactly two former champions on their ballot in a mixture of Jimmie Johnson , Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski . Johnson was eliminated after the Contender Round finale at Talladega, while Keselowski and Kenseth were both eliminated this past Sunday at Phoenix. Johnson, the defending champion in search of a record-tying seventh title, was the only driver to appear on every expert's ballot. Johnson's teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr . was also eliminated at Talladega, while Jeff Gordon -- considered by many to be the favorite entering the Chase following the regular-season finale at Richmond on Sept. 6 -- did not make a single ballot. The four-time champion nearly made it to the Championship Round, finishing second to Harvick at Phoenix on Sunday and one point behind Newman, the last driver in. Take a look at how our experts picked back in April, with their reasoning at the time, and be sure to see who they view as the favorite heading into Sunday in this week's NASCAR.com Power Rankings . Zack Albert Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jimmie Johnson Matt Kenseth Brad Keselowski "Jimmie Johnson 's history of turning up the wick once the Chase begins certainly guarantees him a spot among the title contenders, and the momentum that Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr . has shown dating back to the end of 2013 will likely push him into the title mix at Homestead. Add in Kenseth's recent excellence on 1.5-mile tracks and the sheer speed shown by Keselowski and the Team Penske camp at nearly every venue so far, and these four are the likeliest to not only survive, but thrive and advance in the new format on the road to Homestead." Kenny Bruce Kyle Busch Kevin Harvick Jimmie Johnson Matt Kenseth "The majority of the nine tracks leading up to the season-ending championship at Homestead have been kind to these four drivers. Johnson and Kenseth have won on eight of the nine, while Harvick and Busch have earned wins on seven. With winning races guaranteeing advancement into the next round, it's hard to discount what these drivers and their respective teams have accomplished at these particular facilities in the past." Holly Cain Jimmie Johnson Kyle Busch Brad Keselowski Kevin Harvick "Johnson, Busch and Keselowski seem like gimme picks based on their history, their current performance and their potential down the stretch. The fourth choice was between Jeff Gordon -- who is having a better than average year, can never be counted out and I think is racing with a sense of career urgency -- and Kenseth, who is fresh off a career year in wins during a new era that rewards that. But in considering the new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format, Harvick looks like the best choice, having proven himself in the clutch and boasting an enviable track record at most of the 10 tracks that comprise the Chase." Alan Cavanna Jimmie Johnson Brad Keselowski Kevin Harvick Dale Earnhardt Jr. "A final four without a Joe Gibbs Racing car? I can't believe it either. But it comes down to scheduling and the three races before Homestead. Jimmie Johnson will win Martinsville, Brad Keselowski will win Texas, and Kevin Harvick will continue his streak at Phoenix. The final spot in the championship race goes to the most consistent driver of the year: Dale Earnhardt Jr ." 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 debate the hot topics in NASCAR RELATED: Follow your picks in the Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota 1. Before we put last week's race in the rear-view, which win was bigger for Dale Earnhardt Jr . this year -- the Daytona 500 or Sunday’s victory at Martinsville? Kenny Bruce: From an appearance standpoint, it certainly seemed as if the Martinsville win meant a lot to Dale Jr. He's one of a very few folks in the sport today who understands and values the history of the sport, and there's no denying Martinsville's place. It's the only track still on the schedule since the very beginning. Had he still been in Chase contention, the importance of that win would have been even bigger. But ... Daytona 500 wins are still cherished, and by the way, that track has a bit of history as well. And when Hall of Fame talk comes up, a win or wins in the D500 carry a lot of weight. Holly Cain : While Junior seemed nearly as emotional for the grandfather clock on Sunday, I think becoming a rare multi-winner of the Daytona 500 always be the highlight of his career. .... until and unless he gets a championship trophy, that is. Zack Albert: Maybe I'm speaking as someone still full of Martinsville hot dogs, but it was quite the reaction that Junior had coming across the finish line and in the infield media center afterward. Crowd reaction was super-loud, too. Cain : Seems like I recall a pretty loud reaction in Daytona too, though. I just feel that second Daytona 500 victory is what will elevate him as a driver. Bruce: Were they cheering in the press box, Zack? Not to dismiss the importance of his other wins this year, but were the Pocono wins as memorable? As monumental? I think you're right Holly , a multi-time winner of the D500 carries a lot of clout. But singling out this year's win ... he already had one win in the 500. He had never won at Martinsville. For him personally, it seemed like this last win was the bigger deal. Albert: Our media corps cheering in the press box? Heresy! Honestly, the Pocono wins, to me, are what elevated crew chief Steve Letarte as a savvy pit strategist. Dale Jr. can't do it alone and he's had a crew chief on top of his game as well this year. Plus, he got a clock. They also gave him two hot dogs after he got out of Victory Lane on Sunday. When he saw they were plain, he left them in the media center. I haven't seen them show up on eBay just yet ... Cain : Are you kidding Zack, two hot dogs unattended in the media center were definitely eaten by a reporter at some point. Bruce: Give 'em time, Zack. Albert: Here again, you know our media corps. 2. At least two drivers are guaranteed to advance into the season-finale at Homestead based on points earned. Could we see a return to "points racing" in the final two races of the Eliminator Round? Albert: Not if your name is Harvick or Keselowski. Maybe the drivers ahead of them in the Chase standings will lean toward being more conservative in these next two, but those two will be going for it. Cain : Maybe it's just me but it feels like points racing is a scary and uncertain proposition. These guys are getting crashed out up front and in back. However, I agree with Zack and think that will be an easier tactic for those higher in the standings this week. Albert: Is it like football? Will a prevent defense prevent you from winning? Bruce: I don't know that we will. Maybe when the Chase began and there were 16 "Nations" involved, a team could look a little more at the points situation. But now, with wins being guaranteed tickets to advance, I think those left are more focused on winning that ever, if that's possible. In reality, they might end up with a "good points day" but that's just the result of a day spent trying to get to the front. Not a goal. Cain : And certainly these two tracks -- Texas and Phoenix -- can be tough on the best of "points" strategies. Bruce: Right, Holly . And how many times have we seen drivers try to play it safe only to have it wind up biting them? Albert: Plus, I still think these guys still set the goal to win every week. If that's not in the cards, we may see more risk-takers than usual, depending on the standings. I should've "points raced" when it came to hot dogs last weekend. Cain : Let's face it, there are only so many times a season when you have THE winning car and you typically know that pretty early on in a race, so making the best of a situation -- points racing -- is always Plan B. But especially at these tracks, you are easily the victim of others mistakes, Zack. Bruce: You were going for the win, Zack. Giving 100 percent. Cain : Glad I DNQ'ed on that one. 3. Both Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth remain winless yet also remain very much in the title picture. How realistic are their chances at advancing and perhaps even winning the series title without winning a race? Cain : I didn't think I'd be saying this a few weeks ago, but I could totally see either Newman or Kenseth advancing on points. But that Homestead race is going to be crazy aggressive so I'm not ready to give them a trophy yet. Albert: There is something to be said for keeping fenders on the car, isn't there? I know that a win comes with all kind of incentives, glitz and extras, but there's still a reward for being consistent. Bruce: I don't think they've over-achieved, or been more fortunate than most. It's more just the way the system is set up. You don't have to win to advance, but it certainly helps. And with at least two spots in the final race now based on points, their chances look even better. I don't see them all of a sudden going out and dominating a race and winning, they've had 30-plus races to accomplish that and it hasn't happened. But advance? Sure. Cain : It's been amazing … just when you think Kenseth is out of if, he crosses the line just where he needs to be. Homestead is just going to be unlike anything we've ever seen. Albert: Kenseth is as good a pick as any to win Texas, but as Kenny says, I think it's going to be tough to make too many inroads into converting so-far-elusive victories this late in the season. Bruce: Kenseth's Texas stats? Two wins and the best average finish in the field. So maybe this is his week after all. But I wouldn't wager two Martinsville hot dogs on it, Zack. Cain : Kevin Harvick only said Kenseth wouldn't win a championship. He didn't say anything about winning races! Albert: If they continue to mess with each other, perhaps neither will be in the final four -- wins or not. And there it all comes full circle. Enjoy a Texas sirloin while you're down in the Lone Star State. Bruce: Everything's bigger in Texas, Zack. Including the sirloins. 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
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Holly Cain tells her story The reality of my diagnosis as a cancer patient set in this summer during a rain delay at the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway . While race teams and fellow reporters scrambled to change travel plans and make dinner arrangements, I took a deep breath, looked around the emptying media center and remember distinctly feeling very alone with my secret. Just before shutting down my computer to return to the hotel, I Googled "How to tell your children you have cancer." That was the moment when it all hit me. I am one of those people that never catches a cold. And all of a sudden, after feeling a sizable lump in my breast three weeks earlier, I was caught up in a surreal whirlwind of mammograms and ultra sounds and biopsies and jaw-dropping bad news with every test and doctor visit. In the midst of it all -- a week before the Daytona race -- I had asked my doctor to delay giving me some results by one day because I was scheduled to travel to the White House to cover NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson 's meeting with President Obama. The doctor gave me a huge grin and conceded that was the best excuse he'd ever heard to postpone an appointment. On Wednesday, July 2, the day before I left to cover the Daytona race, I received the full diagnosis. I had advanced stage breast cancer and faced an aggressive -- honestly, frightening -- treatment plan. But the scope, gravity and magnitude didn't immediately set in. I didn't even cry. I didn't know what had hit me. The understanding flooded in during that computer search in the Daytona media center, on what seemed an appropriately rainy summer afternoon. As everyone else was packing up their computers, their minds grappled with where they would eat dinner or if they could change a flight to accommodate the race postponement. Mine was on my family. For me, the very thought of sharing my news with my precious 11-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son in the coming days was so gut-wrenching it made me physically ill. I felt so utterly guilty -- and still do -- of my diagnosis robbing them of their innocence and of the carefree days of childhood they deserved -- a time when they shouldn't have to worry about their mom being sick. Or worse. I was supposed to worry about them, not the other way around. Before her diagnosis, Holly Cain ran in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure with her daughter, Sydney, in honor of former Atlanta Motor Speedway Marketing & Promotion Director Marcy Scott. Sydney finished third overall in the 5K, then scored three goals in a soccer game later that afternoon. As online resources and my doctors advised, I very calmly explained in simple, but appropriate and truthful terms, that doctors had found a tumor and that I would need a couple of operations. I explained that I would need special intense treatment called chemotherapy and that it would make me tired, extremely sick to my stomach and after a few weeks I would lose all my hair. But, I promised and reassured -- enough to convince myself -- that, even as I wasn't feeling well physically in the next few months, I would still be their "mom" and that my spirit would stay strong. I swore I would get better. The apprehension and anxiety showed on the kids' faces, but they asked good, thoughtful questions. I could tell their minds were racing trying to make sense of it all. And somehow, instead of this moment completely breaking my heart, my children reinforced my heart. My son, always practical, wanted to know if I would lose my eyelashes and eyebrows because, he said, they served as a natural protection against raindrops. My daughter wanted to know if I would still be able to run in our local Susan G. Komen 5K. She and I had run the race together for years in honor and memory of dear friends suffering from breast cancer. As it turns out, my friend and colleague at NASCAR.com, Kate Davis, organized " Holly's Hotties," a team of co-workers and friends (including some dear people I've yet to even meet) to run the Komen Race for the Cure earlier this month in Charlotte, North Carolina. Kate raised more than $3,000 for the cause thanks to the heartfelt generosity of so many at NASCAR.com and friends in the NASCAR community. I still have two more rounds of chemotherapy remaining and I'm glad to report that my eyebrows and eyelashes are still mostly intact. And while they do keep the raindrops from falling in, they don't work as well keeping the tears from dropping out. But the tears now aren't just due to fear and pain. They flow because every single day I am reminded how blessed I am. I genuinely feel that way. Whenever doubt and anxiety creep up, I try to instead think of what I have to be grateful for and glancing at my "thank you" to-do list is overwhelming. I simply cannot keep up with the notes owed to so many. Amazingly, I have yet to meet someone not affected by breast cancer on some level -- a friend, a relative, a co-worker. It sounds cliché, but I find myself stopping to take in the beauty in each day. I don't sweat the small stuff. And as fellow cancer patient and fellow journalist Steve Byrnes of FOX Sports has reminded us all, you have to live in the present. Byrnes -- one of the first to call me and offer support -- along with fellow cancer patients, such as former driver Shawna Robinson and Sherry Pollex (longtime girlfriend of Martin Truex Jr .), surely know what it is like to be surrounded by a NASCAR community that doesn't just care deeply, but gives generously and is committed to making a difference. Clint Bowyer's sponsor 5-hour Energy, which allowed him to put my name on his No. 15 Toyota this month at Kansas, is donating at least $200,000 to Living Beyond Breast Cancer. Danica Patrick 's sponsor, GoDaddy, also placed names (including mine) on her car last week at Martinsville, Virginia, and handed the National Breast Cancer Foundation a check for $50,000. So many others have participated in the month-long push for breast cancer awareness. Elliott Sadler , Greg Biffle , Kyle Busch , Regan Smith and Trevor Bayne are among those who have driven pink cars. Dale Earnhardt Jr . has used pink driving gloves. Kasey Kahne and Joey Logano have helped paint track walls and curbs pink. And as Breast Cancer Awareness month wraps up this week, I wanted to share my own very personal story of diagnosis, treatment, hope and, most of all, gratitude. Gratitude for a network of friends that have been bringing my family dinners, sending me cards and flowers, lovingly crafting chemotherapy "care baskets," handling soccer practice carpools. And gratitude for an extended NASCAR family that has rallied around me in huge and humbling ways, from text messages, Twitter well-wishes and long phone calls of support. I am forever indebted for the smiles on my children's faces as I officially became the "coolest mom in the world" with my name on race cars representing the thousands others fighting to survive this pervasive disease. Fortunately, there is another condition even more widespread -- the spirit of kindness and generosity. Pass it on. MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView
Holly Cain reminisces on her interactions with NASCAR's most popular driver over the years RELATED: Track your picks in the Perfect Chase Grid Challenge and Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota So often, our strongest connections to a person lean on a first impression, an early interaction. I first met Dale Earnhardt Jr . when he was still "Dale," not "Juuuuuuuunior;" before he'd collected the Daytona 500 trophies and the NASCAR Nationwide Series championships, before Junior Nation rivaled the size of some small countries and boasted a frenzied fandom like no other in racing. And when I realized Earnhardt Jr. was turning 40 this week, it seemed implausible. The number sounds so officially adult. Listening to him recently reflect on the past, appreciate the present and size up the future makes you wonder: Can you even imagine walking in his shoes during the last 15 years? A pedigreed son full of promise and pressure was suddenly left to graciously handle unimaginable tragedy; to please and manage a massive fan base with soaring hopes, and then to shoulder the weight of unattainable expectations. Through all this heaped upon him, Earnhardt won two NASCAR national series championships, hoisted not just one but two Daytona 500 trophies and will now celebrate this milestone birthday on Friday as a legitimate and absolutely hard-earned contender for his first Cup title. It's been one helluva ride for Junior. My first handshake and interview with Earnhardt came in a setting that couldn't have more of a contrast to the high-wattage existence NASCAR's mega-star and 11-time Most Popular Driver leads now. It came in the small conference room of a Charlotte chain hotel in 1998 during the traditional preseason NASCAR Media Tour. And the 23-year-old Earnhardt wasn't even the primary focus of the interview session, scheduled to promote the upcoming Busch Grand National season, as the Nationwide Series was then known. Looking a little overwhelmed by his first "media tour," Earnhardt sat quietly at a table by himself, waiting patiently in case any of the handful of reporters wanted a one-on-one interview when the formal portion of the event was over. After nine mostly unremarkable part-time starts, he was set to make his full-time debut in NASCAR's Busch Series driving for his dad. Many of the NASCAR beat writers were in another room interviewing Cup drivers and it seemed like a great opportunity, so one other reporter and I grabbed our tape recorders and notebooks and joined Earnhardt Jr. at a table. I remember him being so thoughtful in his answers and very candid about his life as the son of a sports legend. His father was bigger than life, yet Earnhardt Jr. was quiet, reflecting and shy. In particular, I recall how his face lit up when he spoke about the misnomer that he grew up with a silver spoon. "More like a plastic fork,'' he joked with a huge grin. He spoke fondly about his tough-love childhood -- some time at a military school and days sweeping the floors at his dad's dealership, not test-driving new Corvettes. And you got the idea he was a little rebellious, but absolutely good-hearted. Having covered his father, I figured, "a chip off the ol' block," actually. A couple years later, I remember Earnhardt Jr. showing up for a news conference alongside his dad in Daytona. He was the last to arrive and dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, his baseball cap on backward. Not two minutes after he sat down, his father good-naturedly, but deliberately got up and turned the cap around and gave him a little grief for not wearing a collared shirt. I recall that moment so vividly because it was such a touching father and son moment -- not for the cameras. It was the "Intimidator" just being "dad." Another moment like that occurred high atop Daytona International Speedway . Earnhardt Sr. had just won a race during Speedweeks -- one of the qualifying races he so dominated. Back then, the race winners came into the press box for their interview session, not into the infield media center as they do today. That afternoon, reporters often had to repeat questions to Earnhardt because he was constantly turning around behind him and looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows. He was much more interested in watching his son turn practice laps on the superspeedway below than re-living another win at Daytona, a place where victory seemed routine for him. Earnhardt would talk out loud toward the track, coaching his son each time he whizzed by the start/finish line. And Earnhardt was clearly impressed with what he saw -- flashing a grin so big it made his famous moustache turn up. Two other times I remember a similar expression of pure joy: When Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500 in 1998, and when he joined his son in Texas Motor Speedway Victory Lane when Earnhardt Jr. got his first Cup win in 2000. I've spent a few significant moments with Earnhardt Jr. since and it is striking the way he seems to stay as grounded as ever, while impressively balancing the adoration and critiques. Among a handful of journalists that landed on the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier with Earnhardt Jr. (and his then-Nationwide Series driver Brad Keselowski ) several years ago, it was striking to see the servicemen and women's awe and excitement that this NASCAR star would travel mid-week to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to sign autographs and shake hands. Earnhardt Jr. was the one, however, offering the thanks. More recently, I spent some time back in Texas Motor Speedway 's Victory Lane with Earnhardt Jr. This time, he was standing off to the side watching another son of a legend, his Nationwide Series driver Chase Elliott , celebrate his first ever big-time NASCAR win. There was a lot of pride and personal connection in Earnhardt Jr.'s eyes as he watched the fireworks go off and the 18-year-old do interviews and the hat-swap victory photos. Afterward, Earnhardt Jr.'s advice to Elliott was to take it all in, and to make sure he enjoyed the moment. This is something Earnhardt Jr. knows about. "Definitely accomplished more than I thought I would when I was younger,'' he said last weekend when asked about his upcoming birthday. "I just wanted to make it and being the son of a guy that was so successful, the more success he had it seemed like the harder it would be for me to make it. I would just be sort of a chapter in that whole thing, but I'm real happy with what I've been able to accomplish and who I have been able to work with and the friends I've been able to make." He continued, "The accomplishments as far as just the statistics, it's definitely exceeded my expectations. We are still winning races and running good so maybe we can get a few more wins and have some more fun before it's over. "Definitely having this birthday come up makes you reflect quite a bit back on not so much the decisions or any regrets you have, just the fun stuff you have done and is the next 40 years going to be just as good, because the first 40 were pretty great." 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
Clint Bowyer talks about honoring NASCAR writer Holly Cain while Holly calls into the Media Center to talk about Breast Cancer Awarness.
NASCAR.com's Holly Cain hosts live chat with Danica Patrick
Alan Cavanna and Holly Cain discuss the role tires will play in the Duck Commander 500 and predict who will join the list of 2014 race winners.