Gordon, Kenseth and Keselowski finish 2-4 at Phoenix but don't advance

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Nick Bromberg
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Through the first nine races of NASCAR's new elimination Chase format, we've learned that if you can't win, you need to avoid bad finishes.

On Sunday at Phoenix, Jeff Gordon finished second. Brad Keselowski finished third. Matt Kenseth finished fourth. Yet they all missed out on the cut-off for the Sprint Cup Series title that will be decided next week at Homestead as race-winner Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman will be racing for the championship.

The best finisher of the four on Nov. 16 will win the title.

But best finishes weren't a good barometer of success in the third round of the Chase. Here are the top finishes of the eight drivers alive for the championship entering Phoenix:

Harvick: 1st (Phoenix)
Newman: 3rd (Martinsville)
Logano: 5th (Martinsville)
Hamlin: 5th (Phoenix)
Gordon: 2nd (Martinsville, Phoenix)
Keselowski: 3rd (Texas)
Kenseth: 3rd (Phoenix)
Carl Edwards: 9th (Texas)

Yes, three of the drivers who missed the cut had finishes in the three-race round as good or better than three of the drivers who made the cut. Winning hasn't been everything through the first three rounds of the Chase. Avoiding bad finishes was, though it did help if you won.

And the standings above aren't a typo either. Gordon had two second-place finishes in the three races. It's just that the replayed-at-every-opportunity incident with Keselowski at Texas dropped him to 29th place that race and created a deficit that ended up being insurmountable. With the way that the other seven Chase drivers finished at Phoenix, Gordon had to win the race to advance.

Keselowski's punishment came at Martinsville, when he had a rear-gear issue and finished 31st. Like Harvick, he was essentially in a win-and-in scenario at Phoenix. Fourth place did him no good.

For Kenseth, Texas was the tipping point. A poor pit stop relegated him to the back of the pack and created a track position deficit that was impossible to make up. Despite finishing sixth at Martinsville and third on Sunday, the 25th-place run was too tall to overcome.

And we'll go ahead and mention Edwards in this column, though he didn't show the speed that his three peers who missed the final cut did. Even at Texas, where he recorded his best finish, he went a lap down twice.

Logano won races in the first two rounds and had the same speed throughout the third round but didn't have a win to show for it. His worst finish of the third round was 12th at Texas, which came after a pit stop gone bad with faulty lugnut glue and a spin for a flat tire.

Harvick was the epitome of a win helping erase a bad finish in a round. He finished 33rd at Martinsville and would not have made the final four on points given how the race played out. However, since winners in a round advance to the next round, Harvick's win moved him on.

Hamlin and Newman, well, they made it on the avoidance of bad finishes. Neither driver had the speed that Logano or Harvick did through the last three races, but Hamlin complemented the fifth place on Sunday with eighth and 10th-place finishes.

In addition to his third at Martinsville, Newman finished 15th at Texas and 11th at Phoenix. And if Harvick is the epitome of a win erasing a bad finish to guarantee a title berth, Newman's entire season has been a beautiful example of racing consistency to counter a lack of outright speed.

Newman has just four top-five finishes through the season's 35 races and third is his highest finish. He's led 41 laps all season; the most he's led in a single race is 10. That was at Talladega three weeks ago. His top-10 statistics aren't staggering either. Newman has 15 top 10s, good for 11th in the series. But he has just two finishes lower than 24th throughout the entire season.

How has that paid off? In NASCAR's new points format, which has been in effect since 2011, last place pays a single point, or 1/47th the points that winning a race (and leading a lap) does. Under the old system, last was worth 34 points, or roughly 1/6th of the 190 or 195 points a winner received for winning a race.

In NASCAR's current format, the points ratios in the top 20 are roughly the same. Tenth-place finishers receive roughly 72 percent of the points that winners do. In the old system, it was 70 percent. But you see where the ratios start to change as you go down the standings. A driver finishing 20th today receives approximately 51 percent of the points (24) a winner does. In the old system, it was about 54 percent (103).

The ratios only get worse from there.

In the old 10-race, straight-up Chase, drivers had a greater opportunity to bounce back or build a cushion. In a three-race sample, there simply isn't much time to do that. Just ask Gordon, Kenseth and Keselowski.

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Nick Bromberg is the editor of From The Marbles on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at nickbromberg@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!