Twelve drivers persevered through a Challenger Round that tested the versatility of the world’s best drivers. Four failed to navigate through the early gauntlet.
And now, starting in just a few days, the surviving dozen will kick off the second segment of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, known as the Contender Round, this Sunday in the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway (2 p.m. ET on ESPN).
The Contender Round spans three events (Kansas, Charlotte, Talladega), and just like the Challenger Round, the four winless drivers with the lowest points totals will be eliminated at its conclusion. Any championship-qualifying driver that wins one of the three races automatically moves on to the eight-driver Eliminator Round. The 12 Contenders are all on a level playing field – each had their points reset to 3,000 for Kansas. (They are officially ordered in the same way they finished the Challenger Round in points.)
Jeff Gordon will attempt to become the first driver to sweep Kansas after winning the May race there for his first victory of the season. The No. 24 Chevrolet SS driver might have a tough time pulling off the feat, however. Six championship-qualifying drivers have also won before at the 1.5-mile tri-oval: Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman. Also, don’t count out hot-shot Sunoco Rookie Kyle Larson, who is chomping at the bit for his first victory after posting finishes of third, second and sixth his last three races.
One Chase driver who Kansas has not treated well – Kyle Busch. The track has been kryptonite for the No. 18 Toyota Camry driver, who has just two top-10 finishes in 14 starts there (and finishes outside the top 30 in three of the last four). If Busch can make it past Kansas in good shape, he will have good chances of advancing to the Eliminator Round. Rowdy traditionally makes strong runs at Charlotte and has won at Talladega.