In 2003, Matt Kenseth rode a wave of outstanding consistency to take NASCAR’s final Winston Cup with a single victory. Meanwhile, Ryan Newman led the series in wins with eight, but ended up sixth in the final point standings thanks to seven DNFs. That same year, Kurt Busch was second in wins in the series yet came home 11th in points thanks to eight DNFs.
Those numbers, causing a ho-hum title race in the process were enough for NASCAR to make a change. The season-long process to pick a champion, in place since 1975 was scrapped the following year with the advent of the Chase for the Cup. The title was now to be settled among the top 10 drivers in points after 26 races of the season. But in just three years, after a couple high profile drivers and a defending champion failed to make the Chase the rules were expanded to include the top 12. But the ADD nature of NASCAR fans apparently was still not enraptured by that set of changes; at least, so it seemed because after the 2010 season, the “playoffs” endured a third major change. The point system that had been used for decades was scrapped for the one point per position system, while the Wild Card entries for the Chase were added. The race for the last two spots would certainly now come down to the last race and the uncertain nature of who would make the final 12 would obviously keep every single fan on the edge of their seat.
Did it happen? Well, while that very well may have been achieved in the closing laps at Richmond Saturday night, in the end it doesn’t really matter because neither Wild Card driver is going to win the Championship.
Coming into the race Saturday night, there were some 10 drivers who mathematically had a chance to make the Chase as a Wild Card entrant. In reality, it was the drivers with one win and Kasey Kahne. It was going to take a bizarre set of circumstances for Kahne to be knocked out of the Wild Card slot and once it became apparent that Tony Stewart was not going to have a horrendous night, it came down to where would Kyle Busch finish and would Jeff Gordon be able to beat him by enough positions to steal the second Wild Card slot from the Joe Gibbs driver.
As the laps wound down, Busch and Gordon made pit stops and their fortunes went in opposite directions. Gordon charged through the field like he thought it was 2002 rather than 2012 while Busch all but threw in the towel before he came into the pits for that final stop. Busch’s car simply didn’t seem to be able to do what he needed it to in order to advance enough to fend off Gordon’s onslaught. Charging forward, with fresh rubber as an advantage Gordon aggressively muscled his way past Mark Martin in the closing laps and ended the night in second place as Clint Bowyer’s fuel made it all the way to the finish.
During postrace interviews, Jeff Gordon was simply giddy about his fortune to a point where it seemed as though he’d won the season championship rather than acquired a chance to battle for a table at the awards banquet in Las Vegas. Gordon pounded his car’s roof as he got out similar to when he won the Daytona 500 some years back. In the media center after the race he said last week was the worst he had ever felt finishing second while this week is the most excited he’s been to finish second. While there is certainly some room for optimism and enthusiasm on Gordon’s part, the bottom line is that he’s only won one race this season and he’s not been talked about as a title contender all year long.
But Gordon isn’t the only one fooled. Looking back over the past month, the Wild Card accomplished one thing that it was set out to do: have a lot of discussion centered around the drivers who are down in the standings and don’t have much of a chance at winning a title. Busch’s season has been a long and painful struggle with a myriad of different misfortunes befalling him. Even though they had a chance to make the Chase right up to the last lap at Richmond, in reality they haven’t been a championship-caliber team all season. The problems that haunted them were not only just bad racing luck but also were self-inflicted. The No. 18 pit crew cost him spots several times this season and when the final chapter unfolded at Richmond, a missing lug nut put Busch at a disadvantage as he tried to hang onto the final Chase spot. Between broken parts and broken spirits, this year may go down as the worst since Busch moved over to Gibbs in 2008.
While Busch’s night ended in disappointment, Gordon’s night wound up as a pleasant consolation after he though he’d given away his Chase chances last week at Atlanta. The night started off with Gordon’s car wrecking loose and ended with him sticking his nose under Mark Martin and taking the final Wild Card rather than letting the points fall where they may. In Atlanta, Gordon bemoaned his decision on the last lap when he did not try and move Hamlin to take the victory. In Richmond, there was no second guessing his move to side slam Martin and take the second spot. With all of that said and done, Gordon is still starting the final 12 races in 12th position. He’s already 12 points out of the top spot in the Chase, which is almost 1/3 of a race. Gordon can obviously win the title because he’s in the Chase, but from a realistic standpoint, he’d more likely going to be a fifth-place finisher when the checkered flag flies at Homestead.
Looking at the standings after Saturday night’s race should give every fan a very good idea of who is going to win the title and how is just going to be able to wear the Chase patch on their uniform. Denny Hamlin was the dominant car on Saturday night and very well could have won three races in a row heading into the Chase. He’s at the top of the standings and on the biggest roll of any of the 12 Chase drivers heading into the final 10 races. Jimmie Johnson is three points out of the lead and is the most recent winner of the three drivers who are tied for second place. Johnson’s night Saturday was not great and Atlanta didn’t end well, but since Indianapolis, Johnson has been looking very strong and the confidence of the No. 48 team has been as high as they have been since winning the title in 2007 according to Johnson and Knaus. Greg Biffle ended the regular season as the point leader and is now six points out of the lead, but looks like he is poised to challenge the top two if he can avoid the missteps that have plagued him for years in his title runs. Biffle could easily win two or three races in the Chase, but is also capable of having that stretch of one or two races where he’s well off the pace. Those down events can kill Biffle’s hopes but if he can avoid them, he’ll be right there in Homestead. The final contender that looks poised to pull off the run to the championship is Matt Kenseth. Most fans and pundits have written Kenseth off from this title due to his imminent departure from Roush Fenway, but that is playing right into his hands as he prepares to make one more run at a title with the only organization he has run for in Cup. Kenseth has been consistently strong all year and Jimmy Fennig, his crew chief, is as unflappable as they come. Writing off Kenseth heading into these last 10 races could be the worst thing any fan can do.
The other drivers in that Chase can definitely win the title, as Tony Stewart proved last season, but most of them are not running well enough right now to top the four drivers and teams listed above. Brad Keselowski and Stewart have three wins heading into the Chase and very well could get on a roll and take the title away from the other 11. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has had a couple of runs of late that could have turned out awful; however, his ability to salvage bad days has been impressive over these rollercoaster summer months. That kind of mentality, with fast race cars could lead to the No. 88 at the head table in Vegas, but they’re going to have to get back to qualifying like they were in the first half of the year if they want to have a legitimate shot. The No. 29 and Kevin Harvick have had a mediocre season at best, but have run better the last few weeks with Gil Martin at the helm. Unfortunately for them, no team has changed crew chiefs during the season since the Chase and gone on to win the title. Truex and Bowyer are driving for first-time Chase teams which means they will probably not contend because it is a different set of circumstances than they’re used to dealing with. Kahne and Gordon are happy to be here, but they are just not running well enough to win it.
Can any of the 12 drivers in the Chase win the title? Most assuredly. Will someone outside of the top 5 take home the big silver trophy in Homestead? Probably not. The No. 48 team and the No. 11 team are the class of the field right now and it will take quite an effort from one of the other contenders to take the title away from them. That includes the “wild card” participants, most of all no matter how special they’ve been made to be over the past few weeks.