Smoke has risen, this much we all know.
Tony Stewart‘s electrifying drive to Victory Lane at Sonoma Raceway will likely clinch the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion into this year’s Chase. No, it isn’t certain – Stewart still sits 31st in points, nine points out of the top 30 – but assuming the 49-time winner with three-straight top 10s can average a top-25 finish moving forward, he should be among the 16 competitors in this year’s playoff.
While Stewart celebrates in wine country, becoming the second-straight NSCS driver to overcome an injury and win at Sonoma (hi, Kyle Busch), some of his closest competitors are now left worrying, as one less Chase spot becomes available on points.
With Stewart’s win, there are 11 different winners on the year, and for the first time, one of them is someone who wasn’t likely to make it in anyway on points.
The result? A 15th-place standing in points is the absolute minimum for a winless driver to have any hope come Richmond.
That serves as bad news for fans of Kasey Kahne. Driving a special Shark Week scheme this weekend, Kahne rode a consistent day to a top-10 finish at Sonoma. The result boosted Kahne past rookie Ryan Blaney and into the 16th position in points.
Had Denny Hamlin been able to hold off Stewart in the race’s final turn, Kahne would be sitting in the final Chase transfer spot, albeit by only three points. Instead, the Washington native again sits in the first position out, 13 points back from 15th-place Jamie McMurray (assuming Stewart finishes that top 30 climb).
The rest of the bubble drivers don’t sit much further ahead or behind — save for Chase Elliott, who’s risen a full 88 points ahead of the cutoff, no winless driver sits a full race’s point ahead of the bubble.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s inconsistency issues flared up again Sunday, when late contact with Carl Edwards sent Earnhardt outside of the top 10 late in the race. As a result of that move, NASCAR’s most popular driver sits just 28 points ahead of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Kahne heading to a Daytona plate track where the Big One could cause Earnhardt big problems.
Richard Childress Racing teammates Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon continue to ride the occasional top 10 – and top 5, in Dillon’s case – to success, but sit just 17 and 15 points ahead of the bubble, respectively, with McMurray sitting just two points behind Dillon in the final transfer spot.
On the wrong end of the bubble, Blaney sits just two points behind Kahne and 16 points out of the Chase grid as things stand. A.J. Allmendinger’s hopes of a win were dashed by a late pit road penalty, but his passing of over 20 cars to salvage a 14th-place finish kept him within 33 points of the grid.
In all, 10 drivers currently sit close enough to be within contention for five Chase openings on points. However, the number of openings may continue to drop over the rest of the summer.
10 races separate the NSCS field from the third edition of NASCAR’s latest playoff format. Among them are a multitude of what many would consider wild card races – Daytona, Indianapolis and Watkins Glen. It’s likely that somewhere in these 10 events, two or more new victors could emerge.
Elliott has shown the speed and talent to win multiple times this season. Earnhardt and Allmendinger still have races remaining at tracks they’ve historically run well at. Dillon and Larson have shown potential that they could win given the right circumstances, and nearly everyone in the top 30 could realistically shock the field on any given week.
If things continue to progress as they have in recent weeks, there could be as few as one or two positions open for a winless driver to get in on points come Chicagoland.
That narrow margin for error will force many teams to play the balancing act of maximizing results for points or risking everything for a win. Whichever answer of the two is correct will likely be impossible to predict until the Chase field is set.
The only thing that’s certain now is that drivers hoping to make the Chase on points best not suffer any errors for the next 10 weeks.
Why? Because much like we see in the Chase itself, a win from a driver like Stewart that’s buried in the points ultimately cuts one winless driver from the dance, and there aren’t going to be many winless drivers dancing at Chicagoland in 12 weeks.