Win and you’re in – that was the simple message NASCAR wanted to get across with the new Chase format introduced before this season. With an expanded entry list of sixteen drivers instead of twelve, the way to get in was clear: win races. There are provisions for adding drivers to the field if there are more or fewer than sixteen different winners by the time the 26th race of the year rolls around, and with six winners already in the first half-dozen races, there’s already talk about points coming into play if more than 16 drivers break into the “W” column by Richmond.
Yeah…not going to happen.
Sure, it’s possible that we could see 17 or more winners in those 26 events, but history suggests that it won’t happen, and there’s a reason for that. The unpredictability of the sport, coupled with the division between the top teams and the rest of the field, makes that many winners unlikely. In 2013, there were 16 different winners all year, with 14 of those logging their victories before the Chase started. Even in years when there have been multiple different winners to open the season, the spreading of the wealth ended eventually; since 2000, there have never been more than 16 winners in 26 races, and there have been 16 just once, in 2003. There’s nothing special about this year that suggests it will be any different.
The six drivers who have won this year (Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, and Kurt Busch) are six drivers in top-flight equipment who should be winning races. It’s not as though there are two or three surprise winners in this group coming out of teams not expected to perform at this level. Two of them are previous champions, and Edwards lost the 2011 title on a tiebreaker.
Yes, there are several drivers who are most likely going to win at least once this year: reigning champion Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, and Jeff Gordon for starters. They all have teammates on the winners’ list and they all had at least one win last season. If they all take a trophy, that would make the list 13 drivers long.
But some of the drivers who won last year aren’t nearly as poised to get back to Victory Lane this year. Kasey Kahne is having a terrible start and needs a dramatic turnaround. Ryan Newman is with a new team. Brian Vickers was a surprise when he won, and David Ragan was an even bigger shock to find in the winner’s circle. Jamie McMurray is hit or miss.
Assuming (and that’s tough in this sport) that the 13 drivers listed and one from the list of winners on shakier ground (most likely Kahne or Newman) all take a race and make 14, maybe 15 winners, all by Richmond. Who else can punt aside the elite drivers and make it victory lane? There’s road-course ace Marcos Ambrose from Richard Petty Motorsports. He can certainly grab a win on the perfect day, but RPM is a step behind in funding, and there are other drivers capable on a road course. He’s probably the best shot, though.
There’s journeyman Paul Menard, who does have a single Cup win, but he’s stuck behind at least Austin Dillon on his team’s totem pole. AJ Allmendinger is off to a great start, but he drives for a small team, and even with its affiliation with Richard Childress Racing, winning could be a stretch—Kurt Busch couldn’t do it in almost identical circumstances, and Allmendinger isn’t at Busch’s level. The same goes for Casey Mears, whose only win came with Hendrick Motorsports. Mears is an excellent restrictor-plate racer but a win would take a 180 on the luck front. Kyle Larson has a shot, but like McMurray, is driving equipment that hasn’t been in the top group for several years. Michael Waltrip Racing is still reeling from last year’s cheating scandal and hasn’t looked like they can consistently contend. Roush Fenway Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing each have another entry, but neither Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. nor Danica Patrick have proven to be serious threats yet.
The Cup Series is ridiculously competitive—there are probably 15 cars capable of winning each week, but circumstances dictate that not all of them will contend when it counts. The stars of money, talent, and luck all have to align perfectly. Cars good enough to win have mechanical problems or get caught up in crashes. Even the best drivers make mistakes. Even if they don’t make one, someone else might. Fuel mileage races help some teams and hurt others.
While nothing is guaranteed in racing, there’s no reason for this year’s winners to worry too much about there being a logjam for Chase positions come Richmond. For every unexpected win, there’s been a driver expected to be in Victory Lane who hasn’t. In the big picture, the likelihood of a major change to the way things have played out over the last several years is small. Sure it could happen, and it’s intriguing to think about, but it’s also silly to think any driver suddenly wants to win more than he did a year ago or that they’re trying harder under the new rules. Drivers want to win, all the time. The Chase format doesn’t change that, and in the end, it won’t change that many of them simply won’t get there.