MARTINSVILLE, Va. — NASCAR's new championship format came with fan-friendly brackets that likely had fans advancing Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. deep into the playoffs.
Instead, both drivers were eliminated last week and the third round begins Sunday at Martinsville Speedway with a few surprises.
Among them? Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman, two drivers few predicted would still be eligible at this stage of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Both capitalized on poor performances by Earnhardt and Johnson in the last round of the Chase to advance, and Newman really raised his game. He's led at least one lap each of the last three races and scored three top-10 finishes.
"We've been really consistent — our strength has been our consistency," Newman said. "But in saying that, our last three races have been the strength of our consistency. Having a sixth, a seventh and a fifth when it really matters was important to us. We'll just keep digging. Don't really care what other people say if we should be here or if we shouldn't be here. The fact is we are, and we have the ability to make the best of it."
He and Edwards go into Martinsville on Sunday hoping to kick-start a strong final round that elevates them into the final four. NASCAR will crown the champion at the Nov. 16 finale at Homestead, where the Sprint Cup will go to the highest finishing driver of the four.
Edwards has two wins this season but has been mediocre in the Chase. He squeezed through in the first round, then benefited from Earnhardt and Johnson's struggles in the second round. That doesn't matter now as the points are reset and the remaining eight drivers begin Sunday on equal ground.
"We admittedly have not been a dominant team all year, so this Chase format gives us an opportunity to be tied for the points lead with four races left. That's great," he said. "We're looking forward to the next two and hopefully advancing to Homestead, where we feel like we would have a really good shot at winning the championship."
Edwards has advanced despite his impending departure from Roush Fenway Racing. He announced in August he's moving to Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the season, and his No. 99 team could have folded. Instead, they've been the strength of RFR.
"It's been great and it's surprised me at how much hasn't changed since I announced that I was leaving," Edwards said. "Someone asked me the other day, 'So, have they been keeping you out of meetings or withholding anything?' I don't know if they have been. Nothing has really changed. I hope it continues like that. These guys are my friends and they're like family to me."
For Newman, his first season with Richard Childress Racing has been nondescript but consistent. Although he's winless, he has 14 top-10 finishes and has been good in the Chase. He doesn't know if his No. 31 team has hit its stride at the right time, but believes he's been stronger.
"I don't know if we are peaking at the right time," he said. "I'm just sitting here enjoying this position we are sitting in. I will race no differently in these next three races than I did in the first 30-some because I don't think I can try any harder than I need to and not risk a DNF."
The fact that Edwards and Newman are still vying for a championship was not lost on Johnson, a three-race winner this season. He said he had a conversation with his wife about Edwards, and both noted that he's quietly advanced through the two rounds.
"It shows that collecting points is still important," Johnson said. "We've been so focused on winning that there is an argument that overlooked just having solid runs."
And solid runs could be what decides the championship, said Denny Hamlin. He also has kept an eye on Newman and Edwards, and believes he'll have to contend with both before the championship is decided.
"They've really been as solid as anyone on finishing," Hamlin said. "That's what's going to be the key this round is finishing — really similar to what those guys have been doing for the first two rounds."