NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fantasy Friday: Here’s one way to pick your wild-card qualifiers

As we enter the home stretch in the NASCAR Sprint Cup regular season, the question, as is the case with the end of the regular season in any sport, is who is going to make the playoffs?

That’s certainly the case in NASCAR as there are just five races left before its version of the playoffs, the Chase for the Championship, begins. While the top 10 in points seem to be pretty set, barring multiple disaster races by 10th-place Clint Bowyer, the focus is mostly on which drivers will win the two wild-card spots.

So, with a big assist from driveraverages.com, we’ll try to take an objective look at the six drivers who have a realistic shot on one of those two spots.

Kasey Kahne has the upper hand for the first wild-card spot heading into Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen. He is 11th in points and has two wins this season, the only one of the six with two victories. While he’s sitting in a good spot, there’s no guarantee for him though. At the five remaining tracks he has an average finish of 18.39 but has three wins, two at Atlanta and one at Richmond. Still, he’s a favorite to make it.

Jeff Gordon currently holds the 12th and final qualifying spot after Sunday’s win at Pocono. Gordon had his share of bad luck much of the season, and had bounced between 18th and 22nd in points before a recent string of good finishes and the win left him 13th in points, tied with Ryan Newman, who also has a win. Gordon is ahead of Newman because of better finishes this season. At the next five tracks, Gordon has an average finish of 12.99, and 18 career wins.

Newman is also on the cusp of making the Chase. He has not been spectacular this season, but the driver looking for a sponsor for next season desperately wants to be a part of the Chase. His average at the next five stops on the schedule is 16.03, with three wins.

Kyle Busch hasn’t had the kind of season he would like. With just one win, he sits outside of the Chase at the moment. But there is good news for Busch: he is the only driver of the these six who has an average finish of 10th or better in three of the five remaining tracks. That includes a dominating 4.73 average at Richmond, the final race in the regular season. He’s has 11 wins on the final five tracks, including four at Richmond.

Carl Edwards is the real wild card in this fight. He sits 12th in points, just three behind Kahne, but has yet to win this season. Two of his better tracks are Watkins Glen, where he has not won, but has an average finish of 8.7, and Michigan, where he has two wins and an 8.38 average finish. Overall, Edwards has an average finish of 11.88 on these final tracks and seven wins, including three at Atlanta. So, yes, he’s still got a shot.

Joey Logano is the long shot of this bunch. He sits 17th in points, but does have a win at the first Pocono race this season. He is 36 points behind Gordon and Newman, so with just five races to go, he needs another win. That means he will also need a breakthrough at one of these final tracks. He has no wins at the final five stops and an average finish of 21.06. Logano has the smallest sampling of any of the these six, given this is just his third full-time season in Sprint Cup. But the fact remains, the driver who is in a contract year at Gibbs Racing, needs a breakthrough to make the Chase.

So, just who will breakthrough? Kahne, of course, I’d pick for one of the spots, but after that, it gets a little dicey. The numbers say Kyle Busch will emerge as the other qualifier. We’ll see how it all plays out in the next few weeks.

THIS WEEK’S PICKS

The Sprint Cup Series heads to its second and final road race of the season at Watkins Glen at 1 p.m. Sunday on ESPN. So, yes, there are some who like this style and some who don’t. Here’s a look at who we like this week.

Tony Stewart – He’s got five wins at the Glen and could very well be the first driver to win four races this season.

Marcos Ambrose – He’s got a win here and also is one of the favorites to start on the pole, which is quite helpful on road courses.

Jeff Gordon – He’s got four wins here but hasn’t won since 2001. He’s got some good momentum and confidence now, too.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – OK, I understand his history is not great on road courses with just two top-5 finishes. However, the team has had three tests on road courses this season, so this could be a chance for the points leader to emerge.

Kurt Busch – The talent to drive on the road course is not the issue here. Patience and knowing when to pass will be. But look for Busch to be among the top 5 Sunday.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda – It used to be that Juan Pablo Montoya was an automatic pick when it came to road courses. But with his poor showing at Sonoma (34th), and just a disappointing season overall as he sits 21st in points, I couldn’t put him among the five best this week.

ACCOUNTABILITY GROUP
Here’s a look at how last week’s picks fared at Pocono.

Joey Logano – 13th. Maybe he would have been a factor if the race had gone the distance, but his Chase hopes depend on him getting another win now.

Jeff Gordon – 1st. He had a good car, and for once this season, a little bit of good luck.

Denny Hamlin – 29th. He was a contender, too, but got caught in the Jimmie Johnson flat tire melee.

Jimmie Johnson – 14th. If not for the flat, he very well could have won. He led the most laps with 44.

Carl Edwards – 7th. A decent day, but sitting 12th in points, he needs a win is a must now.

Season Stats
105 Predictions
12 Wins
37 Top 5
50 Top 10s

Grade for the week: B. Hey, that’s another winner, and it would have been interesting to see what happened with Johnson had the race gone the distance.

One last thing: Jeff Gordon’s victory Sunday at Pocono gave Hendrick Motorsports at least one victory for each of its Sprint Cup drivers this season. The last time Hendrick had each of his drivers win at least once in a season was 2007.

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