NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: 18 Into 12 Just Doesn’t Go – Handicapping the 2008 Chase Down to the Wire

I never was much good at what us Brits call maths.

As soon as the numbers started becoming letters or strange mathematical characters and shapes, I pretty much checked out. But with only seven races left before we reach the Chase cutoff, it’s time to dust off my trusty old calculator and take a look at some important NASCAR-related numbers – and in particular, the current points standings. With 19 races fully accounted for, the end of the regular season is fast approaching, and it’s fair to say we have a good sample size so far to consider Who’s In and Who’s Out of the field of 12 for the 2008 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Let’s start with the racing certainties. Barring a catastrophic reversal of form (or a refusal to run any of the next seven races) Kyle Busch is all but mathematically locked into the top 12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (+363 points ahead of 13th-place Clint Bowyer) and Jeff Burton (+334 points) also look to be safely ensconced. 253 points ahead of 13th position is Carl Edwards, and were it not for the 100 markers he lost as a result of his infraction at Vegas, he’d be battling Junior for second place. Jimmie Johnson is 15 back from Edwards but a good 238 points clear from getting knocked off. For my money, despite what crew chief Chad Knaus said to the contrary on “Inside Sprint Cup” last week, I’d say the No. 48 is both in and primed to go for his third consecutive championship. Speaking of which, Jimmie J’s attempt to equal Cale Yarborough’s long-standing three-peat has received almost no coverage to date – something that might change once the California native is 100% locked into the Chase field.

So, with the certainties accounted for, let’s take a look at drivers who started the season with Chase pretensions, but are already mathematically out or as close as dammit to being done. Three names immediately spring to mind: the deeply disappointing Jamie McMurray, the soon-to-be unemployed Casey Mears, and the lovable off the track (but not so much on it) Elliott Sadler. All three would have hoped to be making the field of 12, but for this trio, it’s been a season to forget. Also ruled out is the very definitely bust “Chase or Bust” Juan Pablo Montoya (-420 out of 12th), whose performance has arguably defied the massive internal turmoil at Chip Ganassi. That’ll continue a dubious streak for the operation he drives for: since the Chase began in 2004, no CGR team has qualified for the 10-race playoff. Bobby Labonte is yet another who will miss out on these festivities once again, as the Texas native and 2000 Cup champion sits 19th in the standings – 378 behind with just seven races left to close the gap. But not making the Chase is not a particularly huge surprise for the veteran, given the ownership turmoil surrounding Petty Enterprises. Look for the No. 43 to bounce back next year.

I’d like to quickly eliminate a couple more potential Chasers from the picture. Kurt Busch, who sits 18th in the standings, is 245 markers from that all-important 12th place, and at this stage of the season, it’s as much about your competitors’ form as it is your own. Yes, the driver of the blue deuce could go on a tear; but the reality is even if he does, the guys above him won’t slip up enough to allow Busch back into the Chase. Just 12 points ahead in 17th is DEI’s Martin Truex Jr., an interesting case – for as I type that particular phrase, I wonder whether I’ll type the words Truex and DEI in the same sentence many more times. The 150-point penalty at Daytona has all but killed the No. 1 team’s season; whether it kills his career at DEI remains to be seen. But if I was a betting man, I’d say the Mayetta, N.J. native is plying his considerable talent elsewhere in 2009.

BOWLES: TWO BUSCH BROTHERS’ CAREERS HEADING OPPOSITE DIRECTIONS

Now, back in 1992 the late great Alan Kulwicki rallied from 278 points back with six races to go to win the championship; but I just don’t see that sort of rally from either the No. 1 or the No. 2. Daytona 500 champion Ryan Newman is 189 points out of 12th place, and, like Busch, I don’t think he can catch up – making it three years without a Chase berth for the soon-to-be-departed Penske Racing driver. Is the Indiana boy going to join another Indiana boy at Stewart-Haas racing? That’s all still to play out; but for 2008, I think you can stick a pin in Newman’s season – unless, of course, he wins next weekend in his home state.

By my rudimentary standards of “math,” I now make that 10 drivers fighting for five spots. That means everyone’s got a 50% chance, and the points are very close, with just 199 separating Jeff Gordon in sixth from David Ragan in 15th. In many ways, it’s an interesting comparison between the two. Ragan was just six when four-time champion and 81-race winner Gordon took his first Cup Series green flag; but here he is, 16 years later looking to replace the legend in this year’s playoffs. You’d like to say Gordon is safe, but a week ago Denny Hamlin was seventh and after an ignition box issue at Chicagoland, he’s now propping up the field in 12th place. No one needs to tell the No. 24 that things change fast in NASCAR (he missed on the 2006 Chase, don’t forget), and the handling issues that have plagued the program all season have yet to go away. A couple of poor finishes down the stretch, and we could see Gordon freefall down the standings to 13th – or worse.

Behind Gordon’s reasonable 66-point cushion between sixth and seventh is a group of seven drivers with multiple Chase appearances between them, separated by a scant 62 points. It’s close, very close – no doubt about it. The seven drivers all have made the playoffs at least once before in their careers, but at least one of them is likely to miss out when the 2008 Chase field is set. Those drivers in question are Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and the inimitable Greg Biffle. For those counting, that’s two drivers apiece for Roush Fenway, Richard Childress and Joe Gibbs — plus one more for Gillett Evernham, the sole Dodge in contention to make the playoffs.

Trying to pick who makes the Chase out of the August list of seven names above is a fool’s game, so I’m going to move swiftly on to perhaps the two most interesting names still in contention: Brian Vickers and Ragan, who are 95 and 98 markers back from Hamlin in the final Chase position. Vickers has been a revelation this year, having failed to qualify for 13 races in 2007. With three top fives, two additional top 10s, and no finish lower than 16th in the last seven races, Team Red Bull’s number one driver looks like he’s finding his feet at the perfect time of the season. Could the upstart number 83 make the Chase? You bet they could.

As for the wheelman formerly known as a “dart without feathers,” 2008 has been a season where Ragan has demonstrated he belongs. After starting out the season with a disappointing 42nd place finish at Daytona, Ragan has come on in leaps and bounds, with three top fives and another three top 10s to his credit. The youngster took his lumps as a rookie, but the experience of last year proved to be ultimately a positive one – he looks more and more assured each week under the guidance of veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig. With an average finishing position of 16.2, the kid from Kannapolis – one of the few remaining drivers from North Carolina in NASCAR today – has a more than fighting chance of making the Chase.

The seven tracks remaining on the pre-Chase schedule provide an interesting mix of options: Indianapolis, Pocono, Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol, Fontana, Richmond. It’s quite the cross-section, when you break it all down. You’ve got the high-banked half-mile bullring under the lights, a 3/4-mile night race at Richmond to decide it all, the 2-milers at Fontana and Michigan and the triangular 2.5-miler at Pocono. Then, there’s the unique test of the Watkins Glen road course plus – after the off week – there’s one of the marquee races of the season at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. So, with seven races to go before the field is set, we could be looking at one of the most dramatic run-ins to the Chase ever. Whether we see a repeat of 2005, when four drivers battled for one spot at Richmond, remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure – it’s going to be fun watching those Chase-eligible drivers go at it the next few weeks.

And for what it’s worth, it’s time I put my neck on the line and gave my quote unquote expert opinion (aka best guess) as to who gets the 12 spots at this season’s Big Dance. As you’ve read already, I’m figuring Busch, Dale Jr., Senator Jeff, Cousin Carl and Jimmie J are in, leaving me seven names to pick. So, in order, from sixth through 12th, I’m plumping for Gordon, Kenseth, Harvick, Hamlin, Stewart, Biffle… and first-time Chaser Vickers over Kahne (by a matter of a few points). Bowyer (narrowly) and Ragan (not so narrowly) will be the ones missing out following the race at Richmond.

A couple of quick points before I take off…

  • “A good command always means a good race” – said Bill Weber in a tremulous voice following Brendan Fraser’s electric effort. Cue the same excitable announcer with 27 laps of the 267 laps to go announcing the Sprint Mobile Monster Moment. “We’ll give it to this debris caution… blah blah blah.” Not exactly the definition of a good race when the debris caution is the best moment now, is it? Overall, though, a great summer six-pack from TNT, and a welcome change of pace from the over-excitable and super-hyped FOX presentation. For those who complain about the Daytona “limited interruption” race – well, quite frankly, you’ll never be satisfied. That is the way forward for NASCAR racing on TV, no doubt about it.
  • Maybe it’s because I grew up with The Karate Kid, but the new Edwards Vitamin Water commercial with Ralph Macchio is a brilliant NASCAR piece of advertising – and spot on for the brand. The line “It’s a Koi change and he’s upgrading with a Zen Garden” is an instant classic.

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