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Irwin Tools Night Race

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The final three races before the "Chase for the Cup" is very cool, but it should pale in comparison to the thrill we can expect when the Chase begins at Chicago on Sept. 14. There are so many equally good heavyweights at the top with four drivers sharing a season high three wins each.

Think of these next three races as wild card rounds, like a play in-game to start the NCAA basketball tournament. Only 16 drivers can move on. Twelve have been locked in and 18 more drivers (not logically) are eligible to take the four remaining spots by points or winning. Who will make the Chase and who will come away with the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup title?

There are so many quality contenders and with a format in the Chase that eliminates four drivers every three races until there is a final four at Homestead where the best finisher wins, there is no driver that can just run away with it.

Let’s take a look at the latest LVH SuperBook Sprint Cup Championship odds on a few of the favorites:

Jimmie Johnson (7/2): The six-time Cup champ merits being the favorite just because we have seen it so many times, but never under this format which adds so much intrigue to the whole situation. What makes it even better is that Johnson is struggling with no top-5 finishes since winning at Michigan on June 15 and that includes four finishes 28th or worse. By no means am I rooting against him to achieve greatness and tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most Cup titles, but things don’t look so easy this time around. And if Johnson is one of the final four drivers to make Homestead, it’s one of only four tracks he’s never won at.

Jeff Gordon (9/2):
His win Sunday at Michigan was his first there since 2001, the year he won the final of his of his four Cup titles. He also won at the Brickyard, like he did last month, in 2001 as well. He’s tied with three other drivers for the most wins this season (3) and he leads in points showing that he’s been the most consistent. The cool thing about rooting for Gordon right now is that he may finally get the cheers and adulation from the NASCAR Nation, maybe more so than even Junior. After having everything seemingly handed to him in his early years, which irritated many fans, he’s paid his dues in his elder years and fans now seem to want to see the great champion wind down his years with one more title.

Brad Keselowski (5/1): He’s the top non-Chevrolet candidate to win, which would be his second Cup title in three seasons and put him into another stratosphere in NASCAR history. He’s got the power to compete with all the Chevy drivers on the five 1.5-mile tracks we’ll see in the Chase and is also very adept at the other five tracks. When he won in 2012, he came right out of the gate swinging with a win at Chicago and two weeks later at Dover and finished 15th or better in all 10 races.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (6/1): He’s NASCAR royalty and yet has never won a title. Most of us thought he would have had two or three by now, but it was like he was in a sleep walk for his first six years at Hendrick Motorsports where he won only two races. Now he has three wins with a series leading 11 top-5 finishes. He’s been good everywhere this season, including road courses where he always had difficulties. Junior winning a title, or at least making the final four, would provide huge ratings at Homestead, even as it competes against an NFL Sunday.

After those four, the top two candidates to at least make the final four are Kevin Harvick (6/1) and Joey Logano (8/1). Then there is a huge drop-off in probability with Matt Kenseth (10/1) still searching for his first win and teammate Kyle Busch (10/1) looking for better engines to compete with Chevrolet. Kasey Kahne (15/1) is still outside looking in to the Chase, but if he gets in he has the team to get well quickly. Denny Hamlin (15/1) is in the same boat as Kenseth and Busch as they have no speed on horsepower tracks. The real wild cared of all is Kurt Busch because we’ve seen him be right up there with Harvick and the Hendrick drivers, but just not do it consistently enough.

Bristol: ‘Racin’ like it oughta be’

With all the surface and banking changes at Bristol Motor Speedway since 2007, there haven’t been any real patterns established on the half-mile track. For a while we had Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski winning multiple times in a row, but there have been five different winners in the past five races.

Carl Edwards won the March 16 race for his third Bristol win, but it was 2013 fall race winner Matt Kenseth who led the most laps (165). Kasey Kahne won the spring race last season and Denny Hamlin won the previous race before Keselowski and Busch each went back-to-back in the previous four races.

One thing we can start with for Bristol is getting out of the mindset we’ve been in most of the year by favoring, or at least siding with, the big horsepower teams. In the March race, the top-6 finishers behind Kenseth were Ricky Stenhouse, Aric Almirola, Tony Stewart, Marcos Ambrose and Hamlin. History won’t repeat itself exactly, but there is a great chance of seeing someone win this race that hasn’t already yet this season.

Kenseth is the one that fit’s the bill perfectly. He’s won at Bristol three times over his career and has been successful there in every type of layout. His solid performance at Bristol in March is a great indication that his balance and set-up is more important here than having huge horsepower which he’s been missing on the big tracks. Look for all the Joe Gibbs cars to perform well this weekend.

Kyle Busch is a five-time winner but has gone six races since his last win there. His best finish of late was second-place in the spring of 2012. Jeff Gordon is a five-time winner, but he hasn't won there since 2002. We're seeing a re-birth of sorts with Gordon where he is again the best driver from Hendrick Motorsports.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #20 Matt Kenseth (7/1)
2) #18 Kyle Busch (8/1)
3) #11 Denny Hamlin (12/1)
4) #5 Kasey Kahne (12/1)
5) #24 Jeff Gordon (7/1)

NASCAR Expert Picks
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