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Top teams in regular season still in Chase hunt

The more things change in NASCAR, the more some things remain the same.

The format by which the champion is determined in the Sprint Cup Series underwent easily the biggest change in its history during the offseason.

With four races remaining before the 2014 champion is crowned, including Sunday’s Goody’s 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, one thing hasn’t changed: Most of teams that were among the best during the “regular season” are still in the hunt for the title.

Of the eight drivers with a shot at winning the championship — Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman — only Hamlin wasn’t in the top nine in the series points standings following the regular-season finale at Richmond, Va.

Hamlin, who made the original 16-driver Chase field by virtue of his win in the spring at Talladega, Ala., was 19th in points in large part to missing the race at Fontana, Calif., with an eye injury.

“Harvick and the Penske cars (Logano and Keselowski) have been the best cars all year long,” said Gordon, who led the points standings before the Chase field was reset. “And I feel like they are going to be the guys to beat at Homestead.

“I think we all expected (Jimmie Johnson) to step up like they always do in the Chase and be a real threat. There are some surprises like Newman, like Edwards.

“At the same time, I think the real players are there as well.”

Of the seven drivers who finished the regular season with more than one win, only two — Earnhardt and Johnson — have been eliminated from title contention and both happened Sunday at Talladega.

Keselowski, however, staved off elimination by winning Sunday’s race. Under last year’s Chase format it would have been near impossible for Keselowski to make up the points lost from poor finishes at Kansas and Charlotte.

So, while the landscape around the final eight championship contenders seems familiar, the new Chase format has altered the path several drivers took to get there.

“The new format has just added so much more chaos and unknowns to it,” Harvick said. “Last week, you saw the benefit of the format for (Keselowski) in being able to win the race to still advance.

“On the other side you had (Kyle Busch) have trouble early (at Talladega) and get knocked out and he was coming into the race second (in points). So you’re really never safe.”

Harvick said race strategy has been taken to a whole new level under the new system, whether it’s a crew chief making a pit call or a driver deciding to make a particular move on the track.

“I think the format has really changed the face of the sport just from the fact of adding so much intensity to what we do as drivers and the chances you have to take, especially at this time of the year,” he said.

“When you want to go, not make enemies, not do the things you normally do. Right now, you have to just survive.”