Thomas Bowles · Wednesday July 10, 2013
Did You Notice?… At the halfway point of the season, NASCAR’s Chase race is the most wide open it’s been since the postseason format was adopted back in 2004. The distance between ninth-place Kurt Busch and 21st-place Jeff Burton in the standings is just 44 points; those two drivers, including another 11 in between, could all be postseason eligible after Loudon on Sunday. With just eight regular season races left, at a wide variety of tracks, the path is there for each of these drivers to reach their goal of competing for a championship.
For six others far ahead of them, that goal has already been achieved. Based on past history, or the sheer number of wins to their credit, Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, and Kyle Busch should be “locked in.” Barring injury, or some freak circumstance (i.e. eight DNFs in eight races), they’re just not going to lose enough points; even in a “worst case” scenario, they’d be a shoo-in with the wild card. That leaves six spots up for grabs, among a total of 15 drivers (add in Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Greg Biffle, Marcos Ambrose, and Juan Pablo Montoya). Who’s got the edge now? Let’s find out…
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Points Position: 6th, +55 on 11th
Last 4 Races: 37th, 12th, 12th, 8th
Why He’s Here: Junior seemed ready to close the deal weeks ago on the Chase until a series of engine failures brought him back to the pack. Only 92 laps led, in four races this season, is another cause for concern; the No. 88 car hasn’t been running up front when their shopmate is driving through the field like they’re all running on seven cylinders.
He’s In The Chase If… They just stay conservative, a Steve Letarte hallmark while crew chiefing this team, and take care of business. Last season, Earnhardt closed with six top-15 finishes in eight races; Pocono and Watkins Glen were the only blips on the radar screen. At this point, that’s enough of a cushion to get it done, while a win at Michigan in August, certainly possible considering how strong their car was in June, would lock this down.
He’s Out Of The Chase If… The team blows one more motor, slumps to 30th at Watkins Glen, gets caught up in a wreck at Richmond or Bristol and runs too conservatively elsewhere. That’s a lot to happen, I know, but Earnhardt’s confidence also has to be considered. This stat may surprise you: he’s got just two top-5 finishes in the last 13 races of competition. It’s one of the worst stretches, along those lines, during the Letarte era… and did I mention he’s still sponsorless for 12-13 races? We’ve been waiting for that announcement awhile now.
Points Position: 8th, +23 on 11th
Last 4 Races: 1st, 8th, 34th, 17th
Why He’s Here: Bad luck, bad luck, bad luck. There’s no DNFs this season but getting involved in four wrecks (plus slowing for a fifth in Daytona) has put a damper on an otherwise typical year for the Biff.
He’s In The Chase If… The speed keeps up on intermediates. Biffle won Michigan, a track we’ll revisit in August, is capable of doing the same at Atlanta, and was third at Indianapolis last year. Three top 5s there give him an edge in a year where the Gen-6 has made consistency elusive for most.
He’s Out Of The Chase If… The fenders don’t stay in one piece. Biffle, a bad short track racer, must especially avoid wrecking at Bristol or Richmond. The Biff hasn’t run top 5 at Richmond, in particular, in seven years; he needs to be secure heading into the regular season finale. The lack of speed in the Ford camp, along with some bad breaks leave me too insecure about this future.
Points Position: 9th, +8 on 11th
Last 4 Races: 35th, 4th, 6th, 6th
Why He’s Here: Good ol’ perseverance. Busch has had many obstacles to overcome, working with a single-car team heavily supported by RCR but largely in uncharted territory. Some of those setbacks have burned him; but for the most part? They’ve recovered from mistakes.
He’s In The Chase If… Busch keeps up maturity and momentum. This team already has more top-5 finishes (four) than the previous eight years it existed on the Cup circuit. They’re racing like there’s nothing to lose, aggression that could pay off with wins at Watkins Glen, Atlanta or even Bristol down the stretch.
He’s Out Of The Chase If… One mistake proves fatal. Busch, while maturing, is still a few steps away from a meltdown with the right combination. While crew chief Todd Berrier is highly trusted, he’s also going to have to do everything right against the resources of larger organizations. I believe it can happen… but don’t be fooled. The margin of error, for everyone involved with this team, is miniscule.
Prediction: IN – WILD CARD
Points Position: 10th, +6 on 11th
Last 4 Races: 5th, 28th, 20th, 22nd
Why He’s Here: The team ran like junk for oh, about the first three months. Then, summertime hit and Smoke lit right up per usual. A win at Dover proved the catalyst to four top-5 finishes in just the last six races.
He’s In The Chase If… Tony does what Tony does. 30 of Stewart’s 48 wins have come in the season’s second half; most of the others have been in May or early June. A champion knows how to peak when the time is right, and one of the sport’s best drivers has that one down to a science.
He’s Out Of The Chase If… He’s weighed down by distractions. Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman are still wildly inconsistent. The rookie is in need of attention; Silly Season may claim Newman’s focus. Rumors of changes within his team, once a focal point during the early season struggle, also had the owner/driver angry with the media. All that, plus a certain Truck Series race at Eldora, needs to stay shelved out of his mind.
Prediction: IN – WILD CARD
Martin Truex, Jr.
Points Position: 11th, -6 on 10th
Last 4 Races: 3rd, 1st, 7th, 41st
Why He’s Here: An ugly start. Three finishes of 24th or worse, in just the first six races left him 25th in points after Martinsville. Since then, this team’s been one of the hottest on the circuit, digging out of their hole while securing a popular victory at Sonoma.
He’s In The Chase If… Crew chief Chad Johnston reminds this team how to close. Last season, a winless Truex was one of the most vulnerable drivers; he responded with seven straight top-11 finishes, from Loudon all the way through Atlanta on Labor Day Weekend. That type of consistency will get the job done.
He’s Out Of The Chase If… The No. 56 remains a team of feast or famine. DNFs or lengthy trips to the garage are striking this team about once every 4-5 races. Toyota’s engine program, while better as of late has been shaky enough it’s hard to imagine eight straight without another problem. Of note: Truex also sits without a top-10 finish at a short track this season, meaning two big misses could lie ahead at Bristol and Richmond.
Points Position: 12th, -9 on 10th
Last 4 Races: 38th, 6th, 11th, 32nd
Why He’s Here: Plate race problems. Kahne has given up about 90 points at both Daytona races and Talladega. None of those wrecks were his fault; two of them, plus another at Darlington, came courtesy the No. 18 car of Kyle Busch. Getting all four boo-boos back would launch him up to third in points.
He’s In The Chase If… He remains the second-best car on intermediates. Only Matt Kenseth has flashed more speed; Kahne led 161 laps at Charlotte, 114 at Las Vegas and could have easily won both events. There’s plenty of opportunities ahead; he’ll grab either Michigan or Atlanta to be safe.
He’s Out Of The Chase If… People keep knocking the crap out of his car. But you have to think he’s been roughed up enough for one season… right?
Prediction: IN – POINTS
Points Position: 13th, -11 on 10th
Last 4 Races: 12th, 21st, 33rd, 21st
Why He’s Here: Because this season has been like a Mario Kart race; every time Kes turns around, he’s dodging another obstacle. From the USA Today media interview this February that started controversy to a long line of penalties, sending Paul Wolfe to the sidelines (maybe twice), there’s only so much you can take. This team tends to rally together, with an “us against the world” mentality early on, but they look like a group out of energy right now.
He’s In The Chase If… Kes returns to the championship form everyone knows he’s capable of. One of the few drivers who you have to believe can win any week, at any given track; he could easily win Indy, the end of the month and then be charging after Johnson come November.
He’s Out Of The Chase If… Those wins don’t come. Too many points penalties are adding up; and of note, he didn’t win in any of the eight races left on the schedule last season. Switching from Dodge to Ford, plus the Gen-6 mean old notes are thrown out the window; the snowball may be too far down the hill at this point.
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