Commentary

Matt Kenseth is first driver eliminated

Updated: October 5, 2012, 12:22 PM ET
By Ricky Craven | ESPN

Editor's note: An explanation of Ricky's "Rule of 72" can be found here.

With three races completed in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, it's time to eliminate our first driver.

Even though Matt Kenseth has a mathematical chance of surviving the Rule of 72, it would require him to win out the rest of the way. Taking a reasonable, logical approach, I don't think anyone in this era is going to win seven consecutive races and I certainly don't think Matt Kenseth would, considering the circumstances. So he's our first casualty of the Rule of 72.

More than anything else, this is a product of being a lame-duck driver. It's something I touched on before the Chase began, when I put Matt in the least-likely category of being 2012 champion. There is no more difficult or uncomfortable situation than to have already made it public that you're leaving an organization.

The circumstances surrounding this are even more difficult. Matt is known only one home his entire career, with Jack Roush and Roush Fenway Racing, and he will be leaving that home and transitioning from Ford to Toyota. All the things that go into that are so uncomfortable for a driver as the season winds down and potentially distracting for the team.

Matt is one of my favorite people and an outstanding race car driver. But even he couldn't overcome this obstacle.

Having said that, I still have 11 drivers in the hunt. And I believe Kenseth's Roush Fenway teammate, Greg Biffle, has become the most vulnerable driver in the Chase under the Rule of 72.

Biffle led the standings the majority of the regular season, which obviously established expectations of his being a Chase contender. But things have not gone as they hoped with finishes of 13th, 18th and 16th. In each of those three races, the No. 16 car just has not been a contender.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kenseth
Tim Fuller/US PRESSWIREMatt Kenseth was facing the distractions of a looming team change in addition to the pressure of the Chase.

Biffle and his crew chief, Matt Puccia, had a heated discussion over the radio at Dover. There's a high level of frustration. And a lot of it has to do with those high expectations.

I sum it up like this, and I've seen this often: When a team comes out of the gate strong and has a really solid first half of the season, there can be a penalty to pay for that early success. If you're the fastest car at the racetrack, you don't have a great interest in changing what you're doing. But at the same time, the competition is trying to catch up and search for speed. Eventually, that pendulum swings the other way. And that's what has happened to Biffle.

Clearly, the No. 16 team had a fleet of cars lined up for the Chase. But now they're getting beaten by Brad Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe -- who have won two of three races -- bringing new cars to the Chase, and maybe some new technology or an improved product. And you're seeing Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus in their typical form, where they're saving their best for the end.

In a nutshell, the Roush Fenway program is at a deficit right now. We've already eliminated Kenseth, and Biffle might not be far behind if his team doesn't get things straightened out soon.

Keselowski and Johnson stand out right now at the top of the standings. They have both done a remarkable job. And within the Rule of 72, both of these drivers still have a negative balance going into the fourth race of the Chase. Enough said.

In third, I've got Denny Hamlin with 13 points. Denny has been fast, but he hasn't been efficient -- he ran out of fuel in the first race and had to pit late at Dover. Both of those circumstances cost him a top-five finish, so Keselowski and Johnson stand alone in taking care of business.

That brings us to Talladega and the fourth race of the Chase.

Talladega typically creates anxiety and reservation for a driver. I can't think of many times in my career, if ever, when I looked forward to racing there. Here's why: At Talladega, you don't completely control your own destiny. It's a restrictor-plate race and you need someone pushing you, or you need to be pushing someone, in order to get to the front and ultimately win.

Having said that, I think the advantage shifts from the guys leading the points to the guys in the middle of the pack -- guys such as Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. These drivers have a history of success on restrictor-plate tracks and at Talladega. They have the opportunity to team together and actually put pressure on Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski.

Here's something to consider: This is the fourth restrictor-plate race of 2012, and Jimmie Johnson has not finished a restrictor-plate race this year. For all the great things Jimmie is, and he's just exceptional, even the greatest athletes can't eliminate the mental hangover that comes with DNFs and not completely controlling your destiny.

There's a vulnerability that's associated with racing at Talladega and that has to be what Johnson and Keselowski have to be most concerned about going into the fourth race as the leaders.

Ricky Craven is a driver with wins in all of NASCAR's top three series, including rookie of the year titles in both the 1992 Nationwide Series and 1995 Sprint Cup series. He currently serves as a NASCAR analyst on ESPN studio programs.

Ricky Craven is a driver with wins in all of NASCAR's top three series, including rookie of the year titles in both the 1992 Nationwide Series and 1995 Sprint Cup series. He currently serves as a NASCAR analyst on ESPN studio programs.

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