The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase Grid will be set come the checkered flag at Richmond International Raceway in exactly one month. With 11 drivers already winning races and 10 of them seemingly locked into the Chase, barring any unforeseen circumstances, it’s safe to say the playoffs are set for the most part.
However, with five drivers, as of now, with likely four once one particular driver breaks into the top 30 in points, having to race their way into the Chase based on points, the clock is ticking. The battle to be one of 16 drivers in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs has intensified greatly over the past few weeks.
Rookie Chris Buescher, who won at Pocono Raceway, is playing the role of spoiler. With his victory, all he needs is to crack the top 30 in the standings in order to make it into the playoffs. Entering Watkins Glen, he was six points behind David Ragan. However, after the race, he is now three points behind the top 30.
With the chaos erupting as the Chase nears, teams are starting to shake things up.
For Paul Menard and the No. 27 team, a major change occurred entering Pocono, when Danny Stockman replaced Jason Alexander atop the pit box. The move came at a time when Menard sits 23rd in the standings, with Richard Childress Racing looking to send multiple teams to the Chase for the second straight year.
Q: Is it possible that we see 16 different winners in the Chase? – Drew, New Jersey
A: I really don’t think so. We might be close, but to have 16 at this point is just seemingly impossible.
Think about this: we have six guys with multiple wins already this season through 22 races. If they keep winning, it keeps fresh faces out of Victory Lane.
With four races left before the Chase cutoff, yes, we can see as many as 16 winners after Richmond. However, the best chance for a fresh face to enter Victory Lane ended when AJ Allmendinger failed to earn a triumph at Watkins Glen, coming home with just a top 5 instead, ultimately ending his Chase chances. Since the next four races are at oval tracks, including many unknowns at Michigan International Speedway with the lower-downforce package returning to competition, it is likely that one of the drivers who have been victorious already this year will return to Victory Lane.
While there are several drivers such as Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott, who are closing in on winning their first Sprint Cup race, it will take the perfect set of circumstances to make it happen. If one of those guys can win, it will certainly shake things up.
Here’s a look at the Chase Grid after Watkins Glen:
- Brad Keselowski (four wins)
- Kyle Busch (four wins)
- Carl Edwards (two wins)
- Jimmie Johnson (two wins)
- Denny Hamlin (two wins)
- Matt Kenseth (two wins)
- Tony Stewart (one win)
- Martin Truex, Jr. (one win)
- Joey Logano (one win)
- Kurt Busch (one win)
- Kevin Harvick (one win)
- Chris Buescher (one win, but outside of top 30 in points)
With anything possible in the next four races – as we saw at Pocono – things could shape up in a heartbeat. However, will we see 16 winners after Richmond? Probably not. But hey, stranger things have happened.
Q: Do you think the reason we saw the speed out of the No. 27 car at Pocono was because of Danny Stockman being the crew chief, or was it just a company-wide improvement for that specific race? – Korey L., Canada.
A: One could certainly argue both sides of this question. On one hand, all of Richard Childress Racing was strong at Pocono. However, let’s face it, Danny Stockman is known for being aggressive and he certainly brings a sigh of relief to the No. 27 team.
RCR is certainly not where it expected to be entering the year. After Menard made the Chase last year with Ryan Newman, things were looking up for the organization. With Stewart-Haas Racing leaving Chevrolet, it couldn’t be a better time to be an RCR driver, theoretically speaking at least.
However, the organization as a whole is behind compared to last year. Newman’s average finish is 15.2, down from 13.5 last year, with Menard down to 21.6 compared to 17.1 in 2015. Dillon is the lone driver in the RCR camp to improve, with his average finish increasing from 21st to 15.3 in 2016, essentially swapping places with Newman.
The move to swap crew chiefs for Menard was a desperate attempt to get something going for not just the No. 27 team, but all of RCR.
Clearly, it was the right move.
Right off the bat, Stockman improved the No. 27 team. Obviously, Pocono is one of the organization’s stronger tracks as a whole. However, Menard has not seen success at the Tricky Triangle like the rest of his peers, earning only two top 10s in 20 races. But this time, he led practice right off the bat and qualified a season-best third.
The results were remarkable, and it seemed as if it would carry over to the race, which it did. But Menard experienced issues early in the going, plaguing possibly his best chance of the year to win at the unlikeliest of tracks.
As for the rest of the team, Dillon should have been a contender for the win at Pocono had it not been for the fog. Battling with Larson, it was arguably the first time in his career that he was able to show the speed needed to compete for a victory. While clean air will always have an impact on the handling of a racecar, he was able to pass Larson, a true sign of improvement for a man with very high expectations.
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