For such a long season, with a massive propensity for drama at each and every weekend, sometimes it’s easy to miss the macro picture. You get so caught up in the minutiae of what is happening at each particular track; who’s qualified well; who looks good in practice and who Kurt Busch is arguing with this time that the overall state of play can be easy to overlook. I’m as guilty of this as anyone so this week I’m rectifying that and I’m going to take a look at the Chase picture and see who’s in, who’s nearly in, who’s on the bubble and who’s out of the picture altogether with just three races to go.
Kicking us off this week is that man again: Kyle Busch. Sunday’s victory at Michigan was his 23rd Cup victory, tying him with brother Kurt and the iron man Ricky Rudd for 26th place in the all-time winners list, and giving Busch his 101st career NASCAR victory – impressive stats given Kyle is still just 26 (or 6, depending on his mood some weekends). Sunday’s victory guarantees Busch a spot in the Chase via the worst case scenario of the Wild Card and headed to Thunder Valley for Saturday night’s tilt under the lights, he’s the only driver 100% locked in.
Regardless of the guaranteed shenanigans on the high banks at Bristol this weekend — Jimmie Johnson (-10 pts), Kevin Harvick (-39 pts), Carl Edwards (-39 pts), Matt Kenseth (-40 pts) and Jeff Gordon (-60 pts) should all lock down Chase places. Ryan Newman (-74 pts) and Kurt Busch (-77 pts) are two others that should also square away playoff berths – especially with solid top-10 runs. But it’s from ninth place down that things starts to get more complicated than an episode of _Lost_. How it’s all going to play out these next three weekends is almost impossible to predict, such are the variables. No doubt someone a lot more numerically inclined than me could generate some kind of algorithm to work this all out but luckily for you, dear readers, I’m going to leave the mathematical approach to those far better qualified.
What I can tell you is that the new wild card rules (with 11th and 12th place being decided first by wins, then by points) have thrown an extremely large wrench in the works creating uncertainty, fear and opportunity depending on where a particular driver stands based on results to date. As of this week, the two wild card entrants are the red-hot Brad Keselowski (1st, 2nd, 3rd in the last three races) who sits in 12th place with Denny Hamlin (14th place). This means that Clint Bowyer in 11th place misses out by dint of his not winning yet this year, but for whom one win really could change everything. For the winless pair of Dale Earnhardt Jr. in ninth place (30 points ahead of 11th) and Tony Stewart in tenth place (+24 points from 11th) this is even more the case. Chances are if June Bug and Smoke keep their fenders wrinkle free and their noses generally clean, both should make it. Should, of course, is the operative word here as three subpar (30th or worse) finishes could see both slip agonizingly away from the Valhalla that is the promised land of the Chase.
It’s not just those looking nervously down, either. For Paul Menard (18th) and David Ragan (20th) in the standings, another win could catapult either driver into the Chase. Now it’s easy to scoff here, not least given Menard has one win in 170 races and Ragan one victory in 169 starts, but in this crazy season replete with more twists and turns than the Nürburgring (the legendary racing circuit in Germany) each driver could yet spring a surprise. And don’t rule out either Mark Martin (16th) Kasey Kahne (17th) – both of whom are capable of pulling off two wins in the next three races. Heck, with the way the points stack up now, and Denny Hamlin in something of a precipitous freefall of late, one win might just do it.
Perhaps one of the most exciting parts to this whole “who’ll make it, who won’t” element to the final Chase spots is the schedule with three night races before the Chase field is locked in. This weekend we head back to the venerable Bristol Motor Speedway for the classic Bristol Night Race before heading to the fastest cookie-cutter of them all – Atlanta Motor Speedway. Then to finish things up it’s back for a second race at picturesque Richmond. While you can’t guarantee a great night of racing, it’s a fairly safe bet to say we’ll see some good, hard-nosed racing. And with plenty on the line plus multiple different agendas we should see some July 4th style fireworks before race number one of the Chase begins.
Finally, it’s instructive to mention four drivers for whom much was hoped – in terms of Chase spots – but results proved otherwise. Mired in 24th place in the standings, some 61 points of 20th place, is Senator elect Jeff Burton who has just one paltry top-10 run all year. 87 points back from 20th in 26th place is David Reutimann closely followed by Jamie McMurray (93 markers out of 20th) and Brian Vickers a whopping 101 points off 20th. All four drivers entered the 2011 season with high hopes for securing a playoff position and all four have, not to put too fine a point on it, have disappointed. Still, it speaks to the level of competition at the Sprint Cup level that four such fine wheelmen are reduced to little more than afterthoughts.
*One last point* this week before I finish up: I saw the absolutely superb documentary _Senna_ this weekend which follows the life, times and untimely demise of the three-time Formula One Brazilian World Champion Ayrton Senna. Arguably one of the greatest drivers (if not the greatest driver) in the history of motorsport, this is a movie that any true racing aficionado should watch with some “phenomenal footage from Senna’s ten tumultuous years in Formula One”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HrbJPsPtTyU. Let’s not forget, either, that the safety enhancements on today’s cars were a long way off when Senna was driving. Go see it; it’s a great movie about a great man – one who was taken from us too soon.
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