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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.
Holly Cain rides along with Jimmie Johnson
Watch as NASCAR.com writer Holly Cain rides along with Jimmie Johnson through Las Vegas on the NASCAR Victory Lap.
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.
Monday on NASCAR.com: Denver's race team
NASCAR senior writer Holly Cain and NASCAR Productions traveled to Denver, Colorado, and spoke with the community that has embraced Furniture Row Racing. Stay tuned to NASCAR.com for the in-depth article and video on Monday, September 12th.
Furniture Row Racing: The story behind Denver's team
NASCAR senior writer Holly Cain , and NASCAR Productions, traveled to Denver, Colorado to present an in depth look at NASCAR's only team west of the Mississippi River, Furniture Row Racing, and their rise to racing success.
Staff picks for Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway
RELATED: See all the cars lined up for Sunday's race Jimmie Johnson : "The focus is rightly on Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart this weekend. Away from the spotlight, though, Johnson and his No. 48 team finally get back on track with a dominant showing -- and "Six-Time" ties Gordon with his fifth career win at the Brickyard." -- Brad Norman Tony Stewart : 'Smoke' has been on a roll and no place means as much to him as the Brickyard. -- Kenny Bruce Kyle Larson : " Fueled by a landmark victory at Eldora Speedway and increased team performance, expect Kyle Larson to ride a wave of momentum into the Brickyard, backing up his two Indy top-10s by landing in Victory Lane for the first time in his Sprint Cup Series career." -- Pat DeCola Martin Truex Jr. : Furniture Row Racing puts all the pieces together, shedding any bad luck for another crown jewel win to pair with its Coca-Cola 600 triumph. -- Zack Albert Jimmie Johnson : " He's won here four times before and it's time for his frustrating summer to end." -- Holly Cain Tony Stewart : "Equipped with a third-place starting position for his final Brickyard 400 run, look for Indiana native Tony Stewart to continue his hot streak up front -- and eventually in Victory Lane." -- Jessica Ruffin Ryan Newman : "The Rocket Man has been close the past two weeks (seventh at Loudon, third at Kentucky) and qualified sixth at the Brickyard, so let's go with Indiana's forgotten son to pull off the upset on Sunday. After all, his last Sprint Cup Series win came at Indy (2013)." -- George Winkler Kyle Busch: " The Sprint Cup Series champ is starting on the pole and I think he's going to stay there to bring home his second consecutive Brickyard win. Also, with Saturday's XFINITY Series win under his belt, Busch is eyeing a sweep again, a feat that's only been done by him." -- Taylor Nunnally Carl Edwards : " The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has the speed this weekend and his quiet summer is about to come to an end with his first Brickyard win." -- RJ Kraft Jimmie Johnson : Four-time Indy winner is due for a Brickyard win and this weekend could be the year "Six-Time" ties Jeff Gordon for the most wins at the 2.5-mile track. -- Maggie MacKenzie Make your picks in Streak to the Finish !
Holly Cain rides shotgun for Johnson's burnout
Six-time champ says it never gets old during "Victory Lap" burnout
Thunder in the hills: North Wilkesboro, 20 years later
NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. -- Paint peels and memories fade but the echoes of the past still ring off the hillsides here. Twenty years ago today, the checkered flag fell on the final NASCAR premier series race at North Wilkesboro Speedway. Bob Flock won the first race, in 1949 and on dirt. Jeff Gordon won the last, in 1996 and on asphalt. The two races serve as bookends for a track that even after 20 years of silence serves as a reminder of the sport's colorful past. For 48 years and 93 races, NASCAR teams made the trek to the secluded .625-mile track in the Brushy Mountains of northwestern North Carolina. "It's one of the sport's most historic tracks, one that really helped put NASCAR on the map," car owner Richard Childress said. "A lot of people overlook that. But a lot of great things happened there. (Former series sponsor) R.J. Reynolds really supported it; Holly Farms back in the day … all those things were important to building our sport to what it is today." Built by Wilkes County resident Enoch Staley and partners Lawson Curry and Jack and Charlie Combs, North Wilkesboro Speedway was a venue unlike any other -- in part because the front straightaway ran slightly downhill and the backstretch uphill. It opened in 1947, two years before the debut of NASCAR's Strictly Stock Series, and hosted its first NASCAR premier series event in October of '49. The Wilkes 200 featured a 22-car field and was the final race of the inaugural season for NASCAR's new featured series. Flock won the race but it was Red Byron, finishing 16th, who captured the series' first championship. RELATED: Veterans share fond memories of track
H2H: Tackling three key questions on Gordon, Junior
PHOTOS: Big-name drivers in No. 88 " Junior through the years For at least the next two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, starting this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Jeff Gordon will be behind the wheel of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet as Dale Earnhardt Jr. continues to recover from concussion-like symptoms. The high-profile changing of seats prompts several questions -- for the recovering Earnhardt Jr., the returning Jeff Gordon and the No. 88 team itself. NASCAR.com reporters Holly Cain and Zack Albert tackle a handful of these questions in a quick reporter roundtable. 1. Will Dale Jr. still make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs? HC: Of course, this depends on the length of time doctors would like Earnhardt to heal. But should he return in two weeks' time, I still think it's absolutely a good bet he makes the Chase, perhaps even wins a race. He's won seven races in the last two seasons. And he has five wins at tracks that would still be on the schedule to set the Chase field -- a pair at Michigan and three victories at the regular-season finale venue, Richmond. ZA: Getting healthy -- not even necessarily for a return to NASCAR, but in general -- remains the overall priority for Earnhardt Jr., but the team must press on regardless of who is in the driver's seat. A two-week absence will drop Earnhardt from the 16-driver provisional Chase grid, placing urgency on winning when he potentially returns. The almost certain granting of a Chase eligibility waiver from NASCAR competition officials should guarantee that the opportunity exists. But should his absence last longer, the thought of shelving this season in favor of a full-fledged 2017 return may make the most sense. 2. What do we expect from Jeff Gordon ? HC: Frankly, how could our expectations be too high here? Especially at Indy, where Gordon is the all-time winningest driver with five trophies. He is the dream substitute -- a pillar of the Hendrick Motorsports organization, fresh off a Chase final-four season and trackside all year in his role as a FOX Sports race analyst. Earnhardt's Chevrolet will be in good hands. The biggest issue may only be making sure Gordon doesn't pull into Chase Elliott 's No. 24 pit stall. ZA: This isn't exactly Michael Jordan puttering around in a Washington Wizards jersey. Half a season off doesn't exactly allow for the accumulation of rust, especially when considering that Gordon, one of the sport's all-time greats, retired from full-time competition at the height of his game. The expectation is for Gordon to be sharp as ever. The results are anyone's guess. 3. What does this do for both drivers' legacies? HC: Even should Gordon pull off an amazing victory in Earnhardt's car this week at Indy or next at Pocono, the four-time Cup champ's legacy is already NASCAR Hall of Fame bound. For Earnhardt, getting out of the car and setting a standard in the sport's concussion treatment will be as important a legacy as his two Daytona 500 victories and 24 other Cup wins. He is the sport's reigning superstar and his responsible and inspiring actions only increase his stature. And that's saying something! ZA: Jeff Gordon 's legacy in the sport is already secure in quick-drying cement. His comeback's only possible augmentations (and they'd be nominal boosts to his already transcendent portfolio) would be another victory or reaching the 800-starts plateau, a mere three appearances away. Earnhardt Jr.'s legacy -- and popularity -- may only grow as he continues to lead the charge in the research of sport-related brain trauma. That contribution to stock-car racing is far greater than any possible unchecked boxes on his career list of on-track accomplishments. </p>
Staff picks for GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway
RELATED: See all the cars lined up for Sunday's race Denny Hamlin : If Joe Gibbs Racing can get organized in the same way it did at Daytona in February, the No. 11 could be the winning ticket at Talladega. -- Zack Albert Dale Earnhardt Jr .: Series' best plate racer has had three runner-up finishes this season. He's due. -- Kenny Bruce Jimmie Johnson : This will mark the 10th Talladega race since Johnson last won here and, quite simply, it's time. While his teammates will grab the lion's share of the attention, "Six-Time" will ultimately hold the winner's trophy -- his third. -- Holly Cain Joey Logano : Entering the weekend, I'd already pegged Joey Logano as the favorite -- then he went out and topped final practice. Seemingly due for a win and with a pair of restrictor-plate victories in his back pocket from last year, what more are you looking for? -- Pat DeCola Ryan Blaney : His best Cup finish came in this race last year and Penske, with whom Wood Brothers is affiliated, has taken two of the last three 'Dega races. -- RJ Kraft Dale Earnhardt Jr .: I'm jumping on the Junior bandwagon. He's always the one to beat at the 2.66-mile track and he'll make it difficult for the rest of the field en route to his seventh Cup win here. -- Maggie MacKenzie Brad Keselowski : The 2012 premier series champion spoils the recent Hendrick-JGR show of power, thanks to his own racing ingenuity and plenty of fast Fords with which to partner. -- Brad Norman Brad Keselowski : The Team Penske driver earned his first Cup win in 2009 at Talladega and has won twice more since. Couple that with he and teammate Joey Logano 's history of working closely together on-track -- a crucial element to plate racing -- and 'Dega Victory Lane could be calling Keselowski's name. -- Jessica Ruffin Matt Kenseth : All the bad luck that the No. 20 team has had this year has masked impressive speed. Talladega is about both luck and speed. With the former in hand as shown by his fourth-place qualifying effort, Kenseth is due for a more auspicious turn of his fortune. -- Kathy Sheldon Denny Hamlin : Hamlin saw Victory Lane two years ago at Talladega and with his 2016 Daytona 500 win under his belt, the JGR driver seems ready to dominate another superspeedway this season. -- Taylor Starer Chase Elliott : His dad won here twice and the man who drove the No. 24 before him won here six times. Talladega has been known to produce dramatic moments, so let's root for another one to happen Sunday. -- George Winkler Make your picks in Streak to the Finish !