Biggest Early Takeaways from the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup

Michael Guadalupe@The_GuadaFeatured ColumnistSeptember 25, 2013

Biggest Early Takeaways from the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup

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    We're only two races into the Chase, but this postseason has already had some big takeaways.

    From NASCAR fans being reminded how one bad race can seriously hinder a driver's Chase chances, to seeing the very first time that the Chase was altered, NASCAR's postseason is promising to be as exciting as ever.

    We've seen three drivers stand out and look like the real title contenders. At the same time, though, with the Chase just starting, there is plenty of room for other drivers to join the mix.

    Matt Kenseth has won both Chase races so far and has surprised the NASCAR world with the season he's had. It's part of the reason why the Chase can be impossible to predict.

    Then there was the pre-Chase controversy at Richmond, where drivers like Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon were given a second chance at the Championship.

    Have they made the most of the chance NASCAR has given them?

    The 2013 Chase is only just beginning, but there are several early takeaways already from the start of the postseason.

Three Strong Contenders

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    There were three strong contenders heading into the Chase.

    Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson dominated the regular season and had a nice cushion over the rest of the field heading into the Chase.

    After these first two races, not much has changed.

    Kenseth and Busch finished back-to-back in both Chase races, and Johnson hasn't been far behind.

    The three drivers are already standouts, and the Chase has just started.

    Expect the rest of the postseason to be focused around these three if no one else can step up and deliver as the postseason continues.

Plenty of Room for More

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    While Johnson, Kenseth and Kyle Busch have been standout's so far, the Chase is just getting started and there's always room for more.

    Greg Biffle seems to realize that the Chase is just getting started, and after the move he made at Loudon during the last caution of the race, Biffle proved that there's still plenty of room for other drivers to enter the contender mix.

    Carl Edwards is also racing strong this season, and one win would easily throw him into the contender season.

    There might be only eight races left of the regular season, but there's still plenty of time for other drivers to emerge as title contenders.

Dale Jr. Continues to Struggle

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. began to slip down the standings as the regular season was coming to an end.

    His luck hasn’t changed, as he has slipped down the Chase standings and is 62 points behind leader Matt Kenseth.

    He was knocked out of the Chicagoland race with car troubles, but he managed a solid sixth-place finish at Loudon.

    The issue with Dale, though, continues to be his struggles when it comes to winning races.

    At already 62 points out of first place, the only way for Jr. to come back and contend for the championship will be if he can win races.

    Unfortunately for Dale, though, his early struggle at Chicagoland might be too much for him to recover from.

Kurt Busch Continues to Surprise

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    The little team that could and the driver who is putting them on the map continue to impress as the Chase moves on.

    It's an extremely difficult task to get an underfunded team into the Chase, especially when competing against giants like Hendrick Motorsports, but Kurt Busch and the Furniture Row Racing crew are in the postseason and competing.

    Busch is ahead of drivers like Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer in the Chase standings, and for a one-car team, that's extremely impressive.

    Of course, like other drivers in the Chase, if he wants a real shot at the title, he needs to start finishing in the top five before some of the other Chase drivers pull away from the field.

    Still, Busch and the Furniture Row Team continue to make history in the Chase and continue to impress.

Perfect Striking Position

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    Jimmie Johnson and the 48 team looked like the ones to beat in the beginning of the regular season. By the time the regular season was over, though, the 48 team and Johnson had seemingly fallen apart.

    The dominate driver from earlier in the year struggled before the Chase started, and it opened the door for the 20 team and Matt Kenseth to emerge as the ones to watch for in the Chase.

    Two races into the Chase, though, while Johnson hasn't won, he's still in perfect striking position.

    While other drivers are 30 points behind Kenseth, Johnson has stayed close to the points leader, sitting only 18 points out of first.

    With Johnson's history in the Chase, Five-Time still has a chance to steal the spotlight away from Kenseth and the 20 team by the time the season is over.

All Eyes on Truex

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    Martin Truex Jr.'s future is up in the air.

    After the Richmond controversy, NAPA has decided to leave Michael Waltrip Racing and NASCAR heading into the 2014 season.

    This move by the sponsor is huge and dramatically impacts MWR. Truex will be the one mostly affected by the sponsor dropping out, as NAPA was the main backer of the 56 car.

    And as a result of NAPA leaving, Michael Waltrip has given Truex the choice to leave MWR if it can't find a sponsor (or sponsors) to fill the gap that NAPA left.

    After the solid performance Truex had at Loudon, all eyes will be on the young driver.

    He's already drawn interest from other Cup teams, and if MWR can't find the sponsorship the 56 car needs, Truex might leave the organization next season.

    How well he does during the Chase will have a major impact on his situation next year, and not only will other Cup teams be watching him, but potential sponsors for the 56 could be keeping an eye on him as well.

Time to Prove Something

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    This Chase season has been unique.

    Two drivers specifically were given a second chance and now have an opportunity to prove that they belonged in the Chase all along.

    Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon are still trying to prove something, and they haven't made much noise so far in these two early Chase races.

    Ryan Newman did manage to win the pole at Loudon, but he now sits ninth in the standings, and Jeff Gordon is only one place above him in eighth.

    In comparison, Kurt Busch, who is arguably on an underfunded team, has run better than both Newman and Gordon and is in seventh.

    Newman and Gordon were given a second chance to prove themselves and so far and have done very little in the Chase.

    As the postseason moves forward, it's time for these two veterans to step up.

Expect Anything

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    Right before the Chase started, but directly after the Richmond race finished (Chase limbo?), we saw something that has never been done in NASCAR.

    Not only did Truex get taken out of the Chase because of the Richmond controversy, but Gordon was added as a 13th seed.

    Then Chicagoland came around and was delayed for over five hours.

    A race that was supposed to be run in the day was run under the lights.

    Drivers like Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne ran into major issues already and now sit at the bottom of the Chase standings.

    Drivers and fans saw how the Chase can change in an instant, and we've only finished two races.

    As the Chase continues, remember that anything can happen. Even a driver like Kahne, who is 71 points behind first place, still has a slight chance to compete for the championship.

Wins Might Not Matter

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    You read the title right.

    Wins might not matter as we head further into the Chase.

    Let me explain before you throw the bus at me:

    Right now, with two races already over, Kenseth had won the most races heading into the Chase and has managed to win both of the Chase races so far.

    Yet he is only 14 points ahead of Kyle Busch and only 18 ahead of Johnson.

    If these three continue to run well together, they won't separate enough in the standings to give one driver an advantage over the other two.

    If, for example, Kenseth were to have car troubles at Dover while Johnson and Busch finished in the top 10, his point advantage could disappear in one race.

    Wins of course will help with points, but the true key to winning the Chase will be consistency.

Matt Kenseth Is the Real Deal

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    Of everything on this list, the most important takeaway from this early on in the Chase is that Kenseth is the real deal.

    It's hard to imagine Kenseth could make the major jump from driving at Roush-Fenway Racing his whole Sprint Cup career to Joe Gibbs Racing and dominate like he has been.

    Forget about his five wins during the regular season.

    The real accomplishment has been winning back-to-back Chase races in the beginning of the postseason.

    The win at Chicagoland should come as no real surprise, as Kenseth ran extremely strong on the typical 1.5-mile tracks throughout the regular season.

    Winning at New Hampshire, though, shows how strong Kenseth and the 20 team are.

    He had never won at Loudon before, and his last top-10 finish at the track came back in 2005.

    The Sylvania 300 was arguably supposed to be their weakest race, and what did Kenseth and the 20 team do?

    They went on to dominate it.

    Kenseth is the real deal, and don't be surprised to see him win the 2013 Sprint Cup Championship.