Thomas Bowles · Tuesday April 26, 2011
Starting Saturday night at Richmond, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series runs 12 straight weeks, through the All-Star Weekend at Charlotte, as far west as the Napa Valley in California and winding up with a July 17th race at New Hampshire. By then, we’ll be 19 races deep into the regular season, left with only a seven-race run to the Chase and the championship picture will become the main attraction. That means the next three-month stretch will set the stage, preparing us for the postseason onslaught while even offering clues about how the 2012 season will shake out … so what’s in store for this sport?
Time for the Fact or Fiction genie to come into play…
FACT: 7 of the 10 Chase spots (and one of the other two) are already locked up
Some people say eight races isn’t a long enough time for a sample size. Wrong. Already, we’re over 30 percent of the way through the regular season, racing on a variety of different tracks – from half-milers, to intermediates, to restrictor plates – meaning most teams have already shown us what they’ve got for 2011. With a championship system that emphasizes consistency, especially with the recent points adjustment it puts early stragglers in a hole from which they rarely recover to make the playoffs.
Still don’t believe me? Break with loyalty towards your favorite driver on the outside looking in and experience this history lesson. After eight races, here’s how many drivers in Chase position went on to make the postseason:
2004: 7 out of 10
2005: 7 out of 10
2006: 8 out of 10
2007: 10 out of 12
2008: 10 out of 12
2009: 7 out of 12
2010: 9 out of 12
For you non-mathematicians out there, we’ve got a 75 percent average of all Chase spots that’ll hold serve over the final 18 races of the regular season. It’s good news for fans of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who at third in the points has those numbers plus history on his side: no man third or better in the standings eight races deep has gone on to miss the Chase. (Jeff Gordon, who was fourth after eight races in 2005 holds the current fall-out-of-the-playoffs futility record).
So assuming we stay close to the average, what does that mean for your current crop of Chasers? I think point leader Carl Edwards is a sure bet, as is Jimmie Johnson (duh), Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (yes, I said it; he’s already got a 34-point cushion on 11th), Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Clint Bowyer. In the “wild card victories” sector, considering the way Jeff Gordon is feast or famine I think he’s a “lock” regardless of what happens with the points.
For those looking to break into the Chase, that means there’s just three people they can knock out (if they don’t snag the final wild card slot through Victory Lane): Kurt Busch (looking moody and vulnerable), Ryan Newman, and Juan Pablo Montoya. Not exactly an easy trio to blow by, is it…
FACT: No one outside the top 20 in points right now will make the Chase… unless they can rack up some wins
Now that we’ve presented some history here, let’s hit you with another strike against those mired in a 2011 slump: just one driver (Matt Kenseth, 2005) has rallied from outside the top 20 at this point in the season to make the Chase. Considering the strength of the current playoff field, I think it’s a safe bet we won’t see a 2011 miracle unfold.
That means doomsday for a solid group of drivers: Jeff Burton, Jamie McMurray, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, David Reutimann, and Brian Vickers all sit outside that top-20 cutoff. For someone like McMurray, there’s hope: a few victories at plate tracks could put him in contention for a “wild card” spot. Everybody else? Best of luck fighting for 13th in the standings…
In the cases of Logano, Keselowski, and even Vickers that failure could put their futures in turmoil once this stretch is over. Sponsor Home Depot will have a decision to make on Logano, while Miller Lite doesn’t handle getting its butt whooped by the Budweiser car too well (when has that No. 2 car finished outside the top 20 in points? Answer: never.) Finally, Vickers is beloved at Red Bull but his recent health plus free agency could make him expendable; plus, with Cole Whitt tearing it up in the Truck Series a replacement is just a stepping stone or two away.
FICTION: Toyotas Will Rally Over The Spring and Early Summer
Right now, the biggest surprise on the Chase list is Toyota’s virtual exclusion, sans the exceptional start by the No. 18 team and Kyle Busch. Expect Busch to keep racking up the victories – perhaps as soon as Richmond this weekend – but the rest of the Camry fleet is looking at an ugly stretch of races ahead. Red Bull Racing has led all of three laps this year, has one driver sitting in a lame duck situation and the other staring free agency dead in the face. Michael Waltrip Racing? They don’t have the luck, the motors, or the chemistry within their three-car program right now to contend.
And then, of course, there’s the small matter of Joe Gibbs Racing, with Denny Hamlin’s team still searching for a breakout race while Logano simply looks lost. With motor problems, mood problems, and worries about expansion and/or sponsorship extensions the three-ring Silly Season circus may do enough to derail any type of comeback. Look for Hamlin to be strong at Pocono … but right now? That’s about all I see in my crystal ball for them. It took Ford a good year-plus to break out of their funk, and I wonder if we’re looking at a similar type of spell for the Japanese automaker…
FICTION: The sport will have another first-time winner during this stretch
With the recent performances by Paul Menard, A.J. Allmendinger, and David Ragan excitement has centered towards another Trevor Bayne upset in the making. But I don’t think it’s going to happen soon; Richmond is Kyle Busch’s playground, while Darlington and Charlotte tend to lean towards veterans with plenty of experience. Menard’s your best chance to prove me wrong, with a couple of intermediate tracks on the June portion of the schedule (Kansas, Michigan). Chances are, though, we’ll head into the July break with the same old drivers having won these races; and unless Menard keeps overachieving, we won’t have any first-time Chase contenders, either.
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