ONE: The Chase
And now we get down to the serious business of the season and the 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup – to give it the full and official name. 26 races are in the books and just ten remain before we crown this year’s champion. Now I realize that many of the folks who read this fine site are still very much against the whole concept of the playoffs but at this point, after more than a decade of this format, it is what it is and it certainly isn’t changing. This is, put another way, the new normal – warts and all. So, what will we see these next ten weeks? Obviously we only have a small sample size of two years as a comparison but if there is one thing I would say it’s that someone we don’t expect will make it all the way to the final four at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In 2015, it was Ryan Newman, while last year it was Jeff Gordon in what was supposed to be the swan song to his epic career (before Dale Junior’s concussion issues arose). Who might be the surprise name this time around? If I had to lay down some hard earned greenbacks – how about Kyle Larson, who is coming into the playoffs with the best momentum in his 101-race, 4-year top echelon career? Let’s not forget he nearly made it two wins in three races on Saturday night. Either way, whether you like it or not, the playoffs are here and no doubt all the associated drama. Pull those belts down tight, drivers, this one could be a wild ride.
TWO: 500 up for McMurray
Saturday night’s Richmond International Raceway was a milestone race for Jamie McMurray in two huge ways. First off, and more importantly, his seventh-place finish was enough to secure a berth in the 2016 Playoffs. Secondly, it was also his 500th start at the Sprint Cup level, a testament to his longevity and driving abilities over the past 15 years. All told, McMurray has 7 wins, 57 top-5’s, 140 top-10’s and an average finish of 15. Given he’s coming into the Chase as a 16th (and final) seed that seems curiously appropriate. “This is huge for the organization,” said McMurray post-race on Saturday night. “We truly are peaking at the right time. Kyle winning at Michigan and both of our cars have honestly been top-five cars the last three or four weeks. That’s huge. I think the Gibbs cars are still strongest but we’re not far away from them…This should be a lot of fun.” Now how long the fun will actually last becomes the key question for both McMurray and his teammate Kyle Larson. It’s a thought echoed by team principal Chip Ganassi: “We’ve worked hard to get in this position, but let’s face it, the real work starts now…And we seem to have some momentum at the right time.” The next ten weeks will show how much validity that statement has. Either way, it should be fun to watch.
THREE: 500 up also for The Biff
It wasn’t just Jamie McMurray who notched the 500-race milestone on Saturday, with Greg Biffle also hitting the auspicious mark as well. The Biff won a Camping World Truck Series title in 2000 and then followed it up with an XFINITY Series title two year later. All told, Biffle has 19 Cup Series wins, 92 top-5’s and 175 top-10’s all of which have come running for Jack Roush. “I’m really excited about making my 500th start,” said Biffle prior to the race in a statement issued to the media. “It’s been a great ride and it’s amazing how fast the time goes by. I’ve got a lot of memories, wins, close races and fun times. I’ve won a lot of great races and look forward to running for that third championship.” At 46 years of age, that window for a Cup championship and a full set of top-level NASCAR titles is closing. It’s not impossible, certainly, but there won’t be many more opportunities for the veteran and of course it won’t be the case this year. Still, 500 races are an impressive effort however you slice it. Here’s to one more run at a Cup crown for the amiable veteran.
FOUR: Next Up, Chicagoland
We open the Chase this Sunday afternoon at the tri-oval mile-and-a-half Chicagoland Speedway track with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 (and no, sadly, I’m not making that up – nothing like a bit of decorum and gravitas, huh?) This will be the first of three races before the initial cull from 16 to 12 drivers and it’s likely one Chase participant will secure a berth straight through to the second round with a win. This will be Cup race number 16 at the cookie-cutter circuit and it was a race won last year by Denny Hamlin. It’s interesting to note, too, that in 2011 (Tony Stewart) and 2012 (Brad Keselowski) the race was won by the driver who would go on to lift the big wavy silver trophy in Homestead-Miami Raceway. Another slightly odd side note is that we had precisely six cautions for 28 laps under yellow flag in each of the past two races at the venue. Tony Stewart has the most wins (3). What price another win for the three time champion this weekend? I’d say it’s unlikely but we would have said that in 2011 and we all know what happened that year.
FIVE: My Final Four
There will be a fair bit of prognostication this week as to which drivers will make it to the final four so I figured I’d tip my hat in that direction for my final point of the week. I’m going with Kyle Busch, Martin Truex, Jr., Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin to be the drivers who’ll start the final race of the season in contention with Martin Truex, Jr. being my pick to win it all. Who have you all got? Let me know in the comments section below.