As the NASCAR Sprint Cup tour heads to Michigan International Speedway this weekend, plenty of attention will be focused on the new tire that teams will race there, replacing the ones that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won convincingly on in June. Earnhardt, Jr. himself will be another focus of fans and media as he tries to grab another win to boost his Chase position. Earnhardt is also in position, should he get lucky, to clinch his Chase berth this week. In fact, he’s one of five who can seal the deal. Anyone who can nail down a spot early is dangerous simply because it gives those teams two or three weeks where they can go for broke every race in an attempt to gain the ever important bonus points that come with wins. But is simply getting assured of a spot early a guarantee of Chase success?
Well, to be honest, no. There are many variables, beginning with bonus points, and when the smoke clears at Richmond, some of them could be much further down the list. If past performance means anything, then some of them have reason to worry based on prior Chase history. And then there is the rest of the field, some of whom are due to move up in the standings when points are reset. But let’s take a look at the five men who have put themselves in position to be able to breathe a little easier if things go right on Sunday, how realistically they can lock up a spot…and what their championship chances look like early on.
*Current point leader; 124 points ahead of 11th; must gain 21 points on Kasey Kahne, provided Kahne remains in 11th place, or 18 points on Carl Edwards should Edwards move around Kahne*
Johnson is likely the early title favorite as well as the most likely to enjoy an early Chase gift, though it’s still a long shot given Johnson’s Michigan record. He has yet to win there. With three wins so far in 2012, Johnson would begin the Chase tied for the lead if nobody betters that total by September. Johnson holds the point lead by a single point over Greg Biffle, and holds that lead thanks to his remarkable consistency; despite failing to finish any of the three restrictor-plate race, Johnson has a 10th-place average finish, and has not finished worse than 14th at any non-plate track. While a fourth win may be unlikely at Michigan, he does have wins at Bristol, Atlanta, and Richmond. It would not be a huge surprise to see him alone on top of the heap when the dust clears with four or five wins.
And in the Chase, Johnson just gets better. He has 20 Chase race wins, all of them coming while he was a title contender (Johnson has not missed a Chase since the system was introduced, making him the only driver with that distinction). The next driver on the list, Tony Stewart, has 11 Chase victories. In short, Johnson and his team know how to win in the Chase. Their 2011 stumble was an anomaly based on recent performance, not the norm…and if Johnson’s Chase dominance returns this year, he could have a new nickname after Homestead: Six-Time.
*The Achilles’ heel:* If there is a weakness with the No. 48 team in recent years, it’s the pit crew. This year’s crew has been consistent, but they often don’t gain Johnson any spots in the pits, and if it comes down to a final pit stop for a win, the edge could go to someone else, leaving Johnson to make up the difference on the racetrack. Johnson can, but if he has to consistently, it will cost points.
*Currently second in points, one point behind Johnson; 123 points ahead of 11th; must gain 22 points on Kasey Kahne, provided Kahne remains in 11th place, or 19 points on Carl Edwards should Edwards move around Kahne*
If bad luck strikes Kahne, Edwards, and Ryan Newman at MIS, Biffle could sew up his chance for all the marbles, and come out with the points lead. Biffle has two wins and a Michigan average finish of 12.4, two spots and then some ahead of Johnson’s 14.7 MIS average. In fact, none of the five would-be clinchers have more MIS wins than Biffle, though both Earnhardt, Jr. and Matt Kenseth have a pair of wins as well.
The biggest obstacle for Biffle’s Chase run could be his win total. With a single victory this year, he currently stands to enter the Chase tied for fifth, and while that’s just six points in arrears to the top guy right now, it’s still a deficit. However, two of the drivers he could be tied with are Earnhardt, Jr. and Kenseth, so among the current top five, at least, he’s on fairly equal ground. He also leads all Cup drivers in average finish, with a stellar 9.4.
Once the Chase starts, Biffle could be strong. He has seven wins in the playoffs, fourth all time. He’s good at the Chase venues, particularly the 1.5-milers, and is probably in the best position of his career to win it. Ironically the reason he has such a great shot is primarily due to the status of his teammates: Roush Fenway golden boy Carl Edwards needs a win in the next four weeks to have a shot at making the Chase at all, and Matt Kenseth is in a lame duck position, leaving his RFR No. 17 at the end of the year. That would put the RFR spotlight on Biffle, and the driver could well rise to the occasion.
*The Achilles’ heel:* This could come in the form of Biffle’s own teammate. Should Carl Edwards make the Chase, Biffle would no longer enjoy sole possession of the top dog spot at RFR, a team which has often had multiple teams in the Chase but not consistently been able to have multiple serious title threats in a given year.
*Currently third in points, one point behind biffle; 122 points ahead of 11th; must gain 23 points on Kasey Kahne, provided Kahne remains in 11th place, or 20 points on Carl Edwards should Edwards move around Kahne*
Kenseth has a couple of advantages when the pressure is on. One, he’s pretty darn unflappable. He doesn’t have meltdowns nor does he overreact to much on the racetrack, whether it’s a poor-handling car or an on-track incident. He just drives along, not demanding attention until the end, when he’s suddenly and inexplicably in front of the field. While, like the others in this group, he needs colossal issues for the competition, he’s also capable of making his own luck. He has a pair of Michigan wins on his resume to go with an MIS average of 9.3, so he’s a major threat on Sunday.
While Kenseth has often been (wrongly) blamed for the inception of the Chase in the first place, his Chase performance is not as rock solid as you might expect. While he’s missed the cut just once, Kenseth has an average Chase race finish of 14.8. That’s very good, but not what it takes to win titles under the Chase system. Still, given that Kenseth is a threat at almost any track, he’s definitely a threat to become the second driver to win titles under both the old system and the Chase format, something not even Johnson would be able to lay claim to. (In fact, there are just four drivers with a shot at dual-format titles; Tony Stewart already has them, Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, and Bobby Labonte are the only other full-time drivers with titles under the old system.)
*The Achilles’ heel:* Kenseth has already announced that he’s leaving his Roush Fenway team, the only team he’s ever driven in the Cup Series for, for a new opportunity in 2013. Though he’s run well even as a lame duck, you have to wonder how long that can last. Will Kenseth be excluded from RFR team meetings as his departure becomes imminent? Will he get truly equal equipment, or will Biffle get an edge in order to keep the driver’s title in the RFR camp next year? You’d like to think that he’d get a fair shake, but the question has to be asked just the same.
*Dale Earnhardt, Jr.*
*Currently 4th, 15 points behind Kenseth; 105 points ahead of 11th; must gain 40 points on Kasey Kahne, provided Kahne remains in 11th place, or 37 points on Carl Edwards should Edwards move around Kahne*
While it’s all but a given that Earnhardt will need to wait one more week to officially claim his Chase spot, he heads to MIS with confidence, having won the June race. What Earnhardt needs to do is concentrate on winning the race and gaining a position on the soon-to-be leaders when the Chase does start. Earnhardt’s red-hot early season run has cooled somewhat, but he has been ultra-consistent in 2012, with a 10th place average…and for a driver who was all over the place a year ago, his newfound focus on finishing as close to the front as possible every week has paid big dividends.
An MIS win would vault Earnhardt into a tie for fourth place in the Chase with Denny Hamlin. And while Earnhardt doesn’t have the Chase experience of Johnson or Kenseth, he has the greatest drive he’s had in years to win it all…and that in itself is dangerous. With Johnson having nothing to prove and Kenseth already thinking ahead to his new ride, Earnhardt could be more of a factor than many people think.
*The Achilles’ heel:* Earnhardt hasn’t shown that he can thrive under pressure, and he lacks the unflappable personality that makes Johnson and Kenseth so dangerous. Earnhardt has had moments in the past where he loses himself when there’s adversity, and this can destroy his confidence in himself and his team and worse, cause communication between Earnhardt and his crew chief to become all but non-existent. Earnhardt will have to be able to handle pressure like he’s rarely seen in the Chase, much of which will come directly from his friend and teammate Johnson.
*Currently 5th, 27 behind Earnhardt; 124 points ahead of 11th; can clinch at least a Wild Card berth this week*
Like I said on Monday, Keselowski is most likely a year away from serious title contention, but he’s also scary even in inconsistency; he can go on a tear where he suddenly reels off top finishes at tracks where he hasn’t performed that way before, so if he puts it all together, he’s still dangerous. A win at Michigan, where Keselowski has yet to visit Victory Lane, would give him a guaranteed Chase spot as a wild card, as no driver would be able to pass his win total. But it’s likely that he’ll stay in the top 10 anyway, meaning that a fourth win could be even more valuable, because it would put Keselowski, the least experienced Chase driver among these five, on top of the points come reset time. That would be a huge confidence boost for Keselowski.
Keselowski is a bit of an unknown in the Chase simply because he’s in just his third full Cup season and made his playoff debut just last year. In 28 Chase races (stats count all Chase races, not only the ones for which drivers were contenders), Kesleowski has an average finish of 18.8, and just four top-5 finishes. Still, his Chase average is better than Earnhardt, Jr.’s 19.2, and Keselowski is such a streaky driver that a hot stretch at the right time could make him a very real title threat right now.
*The Achilles heel:* Like Kenseth, Keselowski is in a bit of a lame duck situation as Dodge will be leaving NASCAR at season’s end, and has possibly already turned focus elsewhere. But unlike Kenseth, Keselowski still has an advantage in that Dodge is not going to another team, and therefore has more incentive to throw everything but the kitchen sink at Keselowski in hopes of going out with a bang. Which way this goes could bear watching. Keselowski’s Chase inexperience is also a concern when compared with that of his rivals.
Is the 2012 Sprint Cup champion a lock to come from this group? Nope, not with the points being reset in a month. However, the earlier a team can nail down a spot, the more time that team has to spend concentrating on nothing but winning races in order to improve their starting position. No, that’s not everything either, as Tony Stewart proved in 2011, when he started in 10th place. But if you consider the performances that got these five drivers into this position, you have to like their chances enough to give them an edge. Nothing is guaranteed in racing, but it never hurts to go out and take what you want. That’s what these five drivers have done in 2012, and now, they find themselves on the brink of the next step. It’s still anyone’s game, but right now, these five are holding the most cards.
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