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article imageNASCAR: Sixteen drivers. Ten races. One Sprint Cup champion

By John Duarte     Sep 9, 2014 in Sports
NASCAR nation is about to embark on a 10-week search for its 2014 king. Drivers have fought 26 battles for the right to be one of the 16 left who actually have a chance to hoist the coveted Sprint Cup trophy.
Among the final 16 are five past Sprint Cup champions who have held the title 13 times between them. Current champion Jimmie Johnson has won the trophy six times, while teammate Jeff Gordon is a four-time winner. The 2012 champ, Brad Keselowski, enters the Chase for the Sprint Cup on a high note, after a dominant win at Richmond International Raceway in the final race of the regular portion of the Sprint Cup Series schedule. Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth have each won the championship once.
It will be a gruelling 10 weeks of racing. For each of the 16 Chase drivers battling to keep their title hopes alive there are at least two others trying to salvage their season with a win on the circuit.
The Chase for the Sprint Cup takes on a new look for the 2014 season. The new format, which more resembles a playoff system used in other North American sports, eliminates drivers as the Chase progresses. The four lowest ranked drivers, of the original 16, will be eliminated from further contention after the first three races — the Challenger Round. Points are set to 3,000 and the Contender Round runs in Races 4 to 6, after which another four drivers are eliminated from the Chase. The Eliminator Round sees points set at 4,000 and the field, now reduced in half from the start of the Chase, competes in the next three races before another four drivers are cut and the points reset to 5,000. The final four drivers will then compete in the final race of the season, at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion will be crowned. There will be no points awarded in the season finale. Finishing position will determine the champion.
Keselowski enters the 2014 Chase as the top seed, after winning four races during the season, but he says that will mean very little over the course of the next 10 races.
“It seems like everybody seems to find another level when it comes time for the Chase. There could be somebody out there sleeping,” he says. “I do know we have different strengths and weaknesses. As to which ones are the strengths you need to have and which ones are the weakness you can get away with time will tell.”
Gordon is looking for his fifth Sprint Cup title — his last one coming in 2001. He says while it would be great to win races in the early rounds, the important thing is “you got to be solid.” Gordon says his focus will certainly be “going out there to win,” but he will be mindful that even the slightest problem can end any championship hopes.
“It's going to be intense. Oh, yeah! It's going to be really, really intense,” Gordon says. “If you make it to Homestead. You've really had to be on top of your game.”
Third seed Dale Earnhardt Jr. admits that, after winning the Daytona 500, his season has not exactly set the NASCAR world on fire despite winning two more races, both at Pocono Raceway. Heading into this year's Chase, he says “hopefully we can put our best foot forward” and still be in the hunt for the final race of the season.
“Just kind of anxious,” says Earnhardt. “We've been sort of on a vacation for 20 weeks. It's time to get to it.”
Kevin Harvick agrees. He says the best approach is to go out and “do the things that you have to do” to be competitive each week, qualify well, lead laps and run up front.
“You can't for it,” Harvick says. “When you have a chance to win, you need to capitalize on it.”
As for Johnson, defending his Sprint Cup title is the ultimate goal. The start of the Chase comes just one week after he collapsed after exiting his car after the Richmond race and had to be treated for dehydration. He certainly knows what it takes to win. Johnson was champion five straight years — 2006 to 2010 — and again in 2013. A seventh title would tie Johnson with two NASCAR legends — Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. He says there is no extra pressure.
“Right now, it's an opportunity to win this year's championship,” he says. “I don't think I'll feel the pressure to try to tie the two greats in our sport until it's right there in front of me. Right now, it's just the championship.”
The 16 drivers vying for the 2014 Sprint Cup are, in seeded order, Keselowski, Gordon, Earnhardt Jr., Johnson, Joey Logano, Harvick, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, Aric Almirola, AJ Allmendinger, Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman.
The Chase for the Sprint Cup schedule starts Sept. 14, at Chicagoland Speedway, and ends Nov. 16, at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
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