Now that we have survived the final off weekend of the year, it’s time to turn our focus to the upcoming seven-race slugfest that will determine the field for the 2007 Chase for the Championship. Obviously, there are certain drivers that are all but locked into the field barring some sort of meteor hitting their race shops. But the expansion to a field of 12 this year has widened the door for more of these wheelmen to try to make a name for themselves and stake their claim to a piece of NASCAR history.
So, which drivers look to be heading for Chase glory after Richmond, and which ones might be hanging their head in shame? Check out this week’s special edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not to find out who’s in the best position to secure a spot in the upcoming battle for the Chase.
These drivers shouldn’t have anything to worry about when it comes to making the cut for the Chase unless the totally wild and unexpected happens.
Jeff Gordon has a monster 760-point lead over 12th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., meaning he could take off a few weeks and still be in the final 12 after Richmond. However, with a lifetime winning percentage of 15% at the seven tracks ahead, his points lead could very likely increase. The same goes for Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, currently second and third in the standings respectively. They would have to do a total about face not to be in the Chase come September. Hamlin owns the best average finish at the next seven tracks (8.6) and Kenseth isn’t far behind with a 12.7 mark.
Likely In, But Stranger Things Have Happened
With solid positions in the standings these drivers are likely locked into the field of 12; but they aren’t safe enough that they can let their guard down.
Tony Stewart heads into his home track this weekend fresh off his win at Chicagoland. Smoke is currently sixth in the points with a 278-point cushion; and while the stats clearly show that summer is the time when he turns it on – he has a total of 10 wins at the next seven tracks on the schedule – there are no absolutes in racing. When you think of how many missed opportunities Stewart had so far this year, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could limp into the Chase, but it’s doubtful. Add in the fact that he was left on the outside looking in last year and that’s extra fuel for Stewart to turn up the heat on the competition.
Defending champ Jimmie Johnson heads into this final stretch in unfamiliar territory. In the last three seasons, Johnson has been the point leader after 19 races, but thanks to a mini-slump where he finished outside the top 10 in five of seven races; the No. 48 is seventh in the standings. It’s likely that Johnson has gotten his “bad luck” out of the way early; but he certainly can’t afford too many more finishes like he suffered at Chicago.
With three finishes in the top five in the last five races, including his win at Michigan, things look good for Carl Edwards to reclaim a spot in the Chase this season. Like Stewart, Edwards missed the Chase field last year and is determined not to let that happen again. The gap of 322 points will serve as a solid barrier between himself and another season of failure. The big difference this year is that Edwards is feeding off the momentum of a win, something he didn’t get to enjoy last year.
While he’s higher in the standings than any of the drivers mentioned above, things could get interesting for Jeff Burton during this final dash to the Chase. At this time last year Burton was in a similar position – third in the standings and an apparent lock for one of the top-10 positions. But by the time Richmond rolled around, he was 10th in the standings and in the precarious position of possibly seeing his season go down the drain. He rallied with a top 10 in the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 to enter the Chase in eighth. With an average finish of 17.3 at the seven tracks left before the Chase, Burton needs to stay on top of his game.
Can’t Afford to Let Their Guard Down
These drivers are currently between 130 and 186 points above the cutoff line, but their positions aren’t a sure bet by any means.
Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick leads this group in eighth place in the standings. He has scored top 10s in nearly 50% of the races he’s run at these next seven tracks and has won a total of four times. After some mediocre runs this year, Harvick and the No. 29 team seem to be hitting on all cylinders right now, scoring top 10s in four of the last five races. He’ll do well to buddy up with teammate Burton to keep the pressure on each other not to falter down the stretch.
Speaking of teammates, that brings us to the driver who has a ‘me against the organization’ attitude, Kyle Busch. He has made it pretty clear that he doesn’t expect any help from his Hendrick teammates for the remainder of the year, and that he wants to go out on top. Busch has a decent 14th-place average finish in the last seven races before the Chase and is running strong right now. The only question mark for Busch is will job hunting for next year and his attitude become a distraction that hurts him when it really counts?
Perhaps the driver in the top 10 in the most precarious position is Clint Bowyer. He has an average finish of just 18.1 at the final seven tracks leading up to the Chase, but perhaps his inexperience is his greatest detriment. At this stage of the season in 2006, a Chase bid wasn’t even in the cards for the rookie from Kansas. Now he finds himself running with the big boys while still searching for his first Nextel Cup victory. Obviously he’s been running well this year and he’s been knocking on the door lately to get that first win; but does have the patience and focus to keep his eye on the bigger prize?
The Bubble Drivers – Where Things Get Real Interesting
Week to week these drivers could be in or they could be out. Each lap in these last seven races will be critical in determining whether or not they will be Chasing the Cup come Loudon.
The battle among the DEI drivers has heated up with Martin Truex Jr. currently holding a slight 57-point edge over his soon departing teammate. We are certainly seeing a new and improved Truex this season, with a win at Dover in his back pocket to go along with four top fives in the last seven races. But will that be enough to keep him in the Chase? Looking at his record at the next seven tracks on the schedule, the forecast doesn’t look to promising. In a combined 18 starts, he has just three top-10 finishes and an average finish of 25.1 – the worst among the drivers looking for a spot in the top 12. He’ll have a lot of work ahead of him to put his past behind him and continue his march to his first Chase appearance.
Holding the coveted 12th-place position is fan favorite Earnhardt Jr. Can he make one last title push driving for his late father’s team or has he already enjoyed his last hoorah? On the plus side, the team has been running better and has done well to overcome the 100-point penalty that was dished out after Darlington. Gone are the DNFs that plagued the team early in the year and they are more frequently in the top 10. On the down side, the team is still winless after 19 races and heads into a seven-race stretch where he has won just four times in 87 starts with three of those coming at Richmond.
While the duo from DEI currently hold the final two spots in the Chase, the pair from Penske Racing look to grab the spotlight away. Ryan Newman sits just 30 points behind in 13th place heading into Indianapolis. At times this year, Newman has looked like the Rocketman of old, scoring three poles in a row and scoring top 10s in four of the last seven races. He clearly has the experience and better track record over Truex, but is fairly even with Earnhardt when you look at them head to head at the seven tracks ahead on the schedule.
The second half of the Penske team is Kurt Busch in 14th in the standings, just 77 points behind Dale Jr. Busch has run stronger this year than his results show and after going seven races without a top 10, has rebounded to post back-to-back top 10s before the break. Bristol could prove to be a big catalyst in Busch’s quest to return to the Chase; he has a total of nine wins at the seven tracks left before the Chase and five of them have come at Bristol. If he can gain ground there while the others have trouble, that could be just enough to propel him into the top 12.
The Long Shots
Don’t stick a fork in them just yet, but you can hear the fat lady warming up her pipes in the garage area around these would-be Chasers.
While Jamie McMurray is just 111 points back, he still has a long road ahead of him if he wants to experience the Chase. Obviously, his win at Daytona was a huge momentum boost for the team that has struggled to get back into the limelight at Roush Fenway Racing. But is that enough to overcome his deficit and leapfrog passed some very strong drivers ahead of him? In his career, McMurray has run 52 races at the seven tracks ahead before the Chase and has scored only 18 top 10s, and his average finish of 18th is among the lowest of the drivers battling for the final spot. It’s too early right now to count him out, but like many NFL teams that fight for the final wild card spots in the playoffs, he’s mostly likely going to need some help from teams ahead of him to get in.
After finishing second in the standings in 2005, Greg Biffle entered last season as one of the favorites to win it all. The team had awful luck and underperformed; Biffle wasn’t even in the picture to make the Chase. This year is shaping up to be more of the same. Currently 16th in the points, Biffle has a 185-point hill to climb to make it into the top 12. He’s running well as of late, but he hasn’t been able to keep any sort of positive momentum going for long this season. Like McMurray, he’ll need help to get in and his performances at Michigan and Fontana, his two strongest tracks of the seven remaining, will set the tone.
Casey Mears joined the ranks of Nextel Cup winners this year at Charlotte, but is he ready to join the ranks of Nextel Cup chasers? Sitting 230 points back in 17th place, he clearly has the biggest hill to climb. His win gave him a brief boost, but he has scored just one top 10 in the last four races. It’s obvious that the move to Hendrick Motorsports has elevated his game, but he’s not quite yet in the ranks of his teammates. Other than Truex, Mears has the lowest average finish (22.9) at the tracks in the last leg before the Chase begins which makes him the biggest long shot to propel his way into the final 12.
So, how will the final weeks in the Sprint to the Cup play out? Will we have a Cinderella story with a driver coming from deep in the field to score a Chase spot? Can Richard Childress Racing hang on to put all three teams in the Chase? Will DEI be able to hold off the challenge from Penske Racing, or will one of the top drivers shock us all and pull a bellyflop in the final seven races? We’ll just have to wait as the weeks unfold to find out Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Race to the Chase.
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