Going by the Numbers · Kevin Rutherford · Tuesday June 25, 2013
It’s hard to believe, but we’re only 10 races away from the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Whatever your opinion on the format, to win the game one must play by the current rules, which currently state that to be eligible for the Chase you must either be in the top 10 in points after Richmond in September or fill two final spots by having the most wins among positions 11-20.
With 10 races to go, the battle for those spots is hotter than ever.
A mere 86 points separate the series’ current fifth-place driver, Matt Kenseth, from 21st, which belongs to Jamie McMurray. 17 drivers, 86 points.
The stakes are that high. With the standings that close, the smallest of slips could cost a fortune.
Try Tony Stewart, for instance. After his 28th-place finish at Sonoma last weekend, the former champion dropped five spots in the standings, from 10th to 15th. That’s not wholly troubling for Stewart, who would at this moment take the final wild card spot because of his win at Dover earlier this month, but for a racer without a victory to fall back on, it’s certainly harrowing.
It’s pretty much a fair conclusion that the current top four in points — Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick — will be in the Chase through points placing; though there’s 10 races left, it would probably take a substantial meltdown to see them drop out of the running. From Kenseth on down, it could be quite the race. One which Jeff Gordon could easily emerge victorious.
Gordon, a four-time champion of the series, has had a lot to celebrate at the 10 remaining tracks before the Chase begins. He has a combined 37 wins at those speedways, including wins at every track but the new-ish-to-the-schedule Kentucky. Combining all his average finishes at each track into one, he has an average finish of 11.9, the highest of the 17 drivers within 100 points of each other from fifth to 21st.
Granted, much of his success came when he was simply performing better. Now in his 40’s, the Hendrick Motorsports driver has shown his age in recent years, and hasn’t been as on point as before.
That said, it’s hard to argue with those results. Gordon may be a mere 13th in points with no wins to move him into a wild card berth, but with past results like those and his proximity to the top 10, it’s tough to count him out.
The same can be said for Stewart. Despite his Sonoma woes, the driver of the No. 14 has been on the rise in recent weeks, finally cracking the top 10 in points after a dismal start to the year that had many wondering if his time as a driver was drawing to a close. Now, Stewart is outside the top 10 again in 15th, but he has a win to his credit and could very well see more added to that total before the Chase; after all, he’s notorious for going on hot streaks later in the year, and has 24 wins at the next 10 tracks on the schedule (like Gordon, everywhere but Kentucky).
Combining his average finishes at each track, Stewart has a 12.9 average at all 10. That’s a number bested only by Gordon and tied by Kyle Busch. Unlike Gordon and Stewart, Busch is currently in the Chase, holding down eighth place. As long as he can avoid tough weekends like Sonoma (35th), he’s probably going to be just fine, especially with Bristol and Richmond, two tracks at which he’s had mounds of success, on the horizon.
In terms of the average of each driver’s average finishes at the remaining 10 tracks, Matt Kenseth (13.3) and Brad Keselowski (14.2) round out the top five.
The drivers with much to prove are the five at the bottom of that list. They’re the true wild cards, the drivers that don’t necessarily have a track record of competing for a lot of wins, let alone the Chase, but could sneak in if the stars align.
It’s going to be tough, though. One of those drivers, Paul Menard, recently fell out of the top 10 after hanging there for much of the season. Menard has been historically solid during the first part of the year, but he’s prone to fading leading up to and during the Chase. Unless he can shake his past stats, it doesn’t look like that’s going to change in 2013, especially since the spiral downward seems to have already begun. He has an average finish of 21.2 at the remaining tracks, with a highest average of 18th, at Kentucky. He does have his lone series win at Indianapolis, but that’s about it.
Who else? Aric Almirola has held strong in his second year with Richard Petty Motorsports, but given his results both past and present (average of 23.4 in the past, and only a few top 10s here and there in 2013), he’ll need the wild card — which is to say a win — to remain in contention.
Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are the other three at the bottom of the barrel in terms of average. The latter at least doesn’t have much to show for his limited foray into NASCAR’s top series so far, and envisioning him in the Chase at season’s end seems a bit far-fetched. That said, Stenhouse has been able to hang around in or near the top 20 in his rookie season, which seems to promise good things in his future.
All told, it’s likely going to come down to whoever can snake their way into the top 10 on a string of good finishes (see: Gordon, Stewart, Busch) or can rattle off some wins to stay in contention. Of them, Gordon, Stewart and the Busch brothers have the market cornered there, but don’t count out wins from Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski, either.
Chances are Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and the rest will continue to pull away at the front, but it’s the race to get into the Chase that’s really going to excite over the next few weeks.
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