-- A few weeks back, after Kevin Harvick's "must-win" Dover victory, I mentioned Harvick as being perhaps the only current Chase driver capable of such a feat.
Well, here we are at Race 2 of the second round, and both Joe Gibbs Racing drivers find themselves facing a fair amount of adversity. With two races left to decide who advances to the round of eight, both are on the outside looking in.
Is Kansas a must-win for Kenseth and Kyle Busch? Technically no, But if neither takes care of business this weekend in Kansas, the week ahead will be long and agonizing as the series preps for Talladega.
Joe Gibbs Racing is a mighty force, with all four teams still in play for this year's title. Yet not one of the four has demonstrated the ability to lead laps at will the way Kevin Harvick has.
However, Kenseth and Busch both have more wins in 2015 than Harvick, the defending champ.
Who wins at Kansas?
The driver who needs it most -- Matt Kenseth!
A 32-point (or position) deficit to Brad Keselowski, representing the second-round Chase cutoff, should inspire Matt to swing for the fences this weekend.
Kenseth, in the past 10 Sprint Cup races, has tallied four wins. The No. 20 car has the speed; Matt has the wisdom and experience; and the pit crew is certainly worthy.
With all that said, it's going to require a near-perfect weekend. It starts Friday in qualifying, and starting anywhere outside the top 10 will impede the team's chances dramatically.
Speaking of qualifying...
Joey Logano has never been better than he is today.
With wins at Daytona, Watkins Glen, Bristol, and last weekend in Charlotte, Logano has proved he can win at any discipline of stock car racing on any racetrack. It's remarkable for a team to win at a restrictor-plate track, a road course, a short track and an intermediate track all in one season.
Most impressive to me, and most valuable to Joey's championship chances, is his qualifying success. There are only four drivers with an average qualifying start better than 10th, and of the four, Logano, with an average start of 6.8, is the best by a considerable margin.
Qualifying sets the tone for the weekend, and qualifying well affords you a premier pit road stall, allows you to lead early and gives a driver the advantage of evaluating the race car in clean air early in the race.
Most drivers spend the entire race in dirty air caused by the traffic ahead of them, struggling to relay enough relevant information to improve their car.
Sprint Cup Series racing today is dominated by teams acquiring, and preserving, track position. Qualifying is critical, and it's why Joey Logano will be competing for a title in Miami.
Carl Edwards, along with Harvick and Kyle Busch, are the other three drivers with single-digit qualifying averages. The only other season Carl managed an average starting spot better than 10th was 2011, when he tied Tony Stewart for the most championship points but lost the tiebreaker with fewer wins.
This obviously bodes well for Edwards, who has all the skills, ability and support to win his first championship.
He might also have an intangible quality that is very difficult, if not impossible, to measure: the willingness to stand your ground against your competitors, those you must beat to win the title.
The bottom line
Every driver has a code he chooses to race by. It's what differentiates him from the others.
In the course of a three-hour race, sometimes you give a break to a competitor and sometimes you take from a competitor. This process has so much to do with a driver's personality on the track, as well as his memories of each previous on-track interaction with the individual he is racing against.
Edwards made contact with the back of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car on Lap 70 of last week's race. Edwards said he was blocked earlier by Earnhardt and chose to stand his ground on the next corner.
It's an example of "the code" and an example of the code Carl employed for the fourth race of the Chase -- one that works for one driver but might not work for another.
In the short term, the beneficiary of this is Edwards because your team members embrace their driver being assertive. It's a rallying-the-troops moment when you square off on the track with another driver, prevail and later finish top-5.
Long term, the effects are less clear, and depend heavily on the perspective of the competitor you oppose.
That old adage is "you race another driver the same way he races you," and I can tell you firsthand that drivers over the course of their career do keep score.
Whether or not Earnhardt feels he owes Edwards one is not as pressing as the circumstances for Earnhardt. He made that clear this week, acknowledging that he currently sits on the outside looking in as it relates to advancing to the next round.
He said there will be no retaliation.
There's another adage that you can typically take to the bank when evaluating a driver's frame of mind: If a driver talks about the incident, it typically means it's over. But if a driver goes silent on the matter, then you should be guarded the next time you're together on the track, or expect it when you least expect it.
I love this part of being a NASCAR analyst for ESPN because, as I'm watching a race, I'm often reaching into the archives of what I experienced, how I handled these situations and what I witnessed from other drivers.
Postrace, when I read Carl's comments, I was surprised he said he had to stand his ground, and I immediately began thinking that, if I were in that position, and that's the explanation I received after being bumped only 70 laps into the race, I would have a difficult time with it, considering my championship chances were so deeply affected.
I've also thought as the week has gone on how similar the situation is to a Week 1 incident between Harvick and Jimmie Johnson -- Harvick threw a block, contact was made, Harvick's day ended ugly and he left the impression (in his postrace confrontation with Johnson) that won't happen again!
Every driver lives with his or her own code of what's acceptable or unacceptable when competing in a race car. The code changes week to week, driver to driver, and the code is always affected by history.