_After the winding road course at Sonoma, NASCAR’s “Race To The Chase” begins with only ten races left until September’s playoff push. What are some trends to watch for as the battle heats up? Find out in this abbreviated edition of Fact or Fiction._
*FACT: The Chase’s Two Wild Card Spots Are Still Wide Open… And Now, One Win Might Get You In*
The post-race buzz from Sunday has been all about Kurt Busch’s recent resurgence, the Penske Racing juggernaut coming back from the brink of mental insanity in May to score his first 2011 victory in June. With a dominating performance at Infineon, the No. 22 Dodge scored a well-deserved trip to the Winner’s Circle.
But in hindsight, the real story may develop from who that first-place finish shut out. Road course specialists Juan Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose, even Tony Stewart – all of whom are near that crucial 11th – 20th range in the standings where wins, not points get you in the playoffs – are now prevented from pulling a two-victory road course “sweep” during the Infineon/Watkins Glen swing. That would all but steal a bid away under this system, where the only driver with a victory from 11th through 20th in points right now is Denny Hamlin (one). Jeff Gordon, who just tacked on a second trophy to his win total with a victory at Pocono has moved into the top 10 in the standings, no longer in danger of needing to snag one of those “wild card” spots.
That presents an intriguing scenario heading into the final ten “regular season” events. Right now, anyone from Tony Stewart in 12th on down to David Ragan in 20th would magically earn that second “wild card” bid with a win. So will more of them take chances to sneak in that way, especially with few if any drivers near the top of the standings looking shaky? Surely, it’s far easier to take a risk/reward type of approach then to try and chip away a few points every week… right? And consider the names of those on the list of the winless (all of whom are 12th-21st in points): Stewart, Greg Biffle (13th), Mark Martin (14th), Montoya (16th), Kasey Kahne (19th). Last we checked, those names weren’t chump change.
*FICTION: A Winless Driver Will Contend For The Title*
In past years, this argument’s been one of the biggest complaints in keeping around NASCAR’s oft-debated Chase system. But check out the top six in the current Sprint Cup standings: Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, the Busch brothers (Kurt and Kyle), plus Matt Kenseth have all won at least once sometime this season. Add in those “wild card spots,” stashed away for winners and it’s clear the winless drivers entering the playoffs are going to be vastly outnumbered… if there’s even going to be any of them at all.
Who heads the list on that goose egg with Victory Lane? Dale Earnhardt, Jr., one of the few points contenders whose team has been in freefall these past few weeks. Tack on Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman, both distracted by Silly Season and their potential employment come 2012 and I think we’re safe in saying the “Victory Lane” crowd has a clear leg up.
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