Chase time: Who ranks where going into this weekend’s postseason opener for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Chicagoland Speedway?
Those of you keeping track of where each driver ranks after NASCAR reset the points entering the Chase for the 16 drivers who made it in under the wire are probably already aware of the leaders. Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch gain top seeds after winning five races apiece in the regular 26-race season.
From there, it’s Denny Hamlin who holds down third, followed by a five-way tie for fourth. Then there’s another five tied for ninth — the five drivers who have one win to their credit in 2016 — while 14th is shared between the three drivers who didn’t score a win at all and made it in on points.
It begs the question: are Keselowski and Busch the favorites? And how far can we really expect Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon and Jamie McMurray, the three who come in lowest seeded, to go? Will they remain somewhere around 14th or could they rise to the top 5 by season’s end, perhaps even further?
Well, it certainly isn’t unheard of.
In fact, in the 12-season history of the Chase before 2016, five different drivers have risen seven or more spots from the beginning of the postseason to the end of it, stretching from 2007 to even just last season. Their leaps are certainly fodder for hope for drivers like Elliott, Dillon and McMurray, whose 12-point deficits might not seem so mighty after all.
Matt Kenseth, 2014, +7
Matt Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, wasn’t much of a factor in the 2014 Chase despite his inclusion here. Quite simply, he was much better in the Chase than he tended to be the first two thirds of the season, with three top 5s and six top 10s, including a runner-up finish at Talladega Superspeedway. It was all enough for a seventh-place overall finish, a seven-spot jump from his 14th-place seed.
Tony Stewart, 2011, +8
Ah, the championship no one saw coming — including Tony Stewart. Lambasting himself as someone who felt he didn’t even deserve a spot in the Chase that season, the driver of the No. 14 nevertheless went on a historic tear, becoming the only driver on this list to actually leap from a lower seed (ninth) all the way to first place once the checkered flag flew at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Along the way, all five of his season wins came during the final 10 races while finishing outside the top 15 just once. How’s that for consistency when it counts?
Clint Bowyer, 2007, +9
Back when the Chase had just 12 drivers rather than its current 16, Clint Bowyer made a monumental effort to climb all the way from a 12th seed to third in the final rundown in 2007, which remained his best finish in the points until his runner-up spot in 2012. Along the way, he won his first Cup race, doing so in dominating fashion at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, leading 222 laps from the pole.
Jeff Gordon, 2015, +9
When Jeff Gordon exited NASCAR (well, at the time), he went out on top, going from an also-ran in his final championship battle to a near-winner come Homestead. It was truly insane stuff — eight of his 21 top 10s that season came in the Chase, he never finished worse than 14th and even scored what currently stands as his final Cup victory, emerging the winner at Martinsville Speedway. The final damages: a lowly 12th-place seed to third overall, narrowly missing out in Florida.
Ryan Newman, 2014, +12
Did anyone see Ryan Newman coming in 2014? One has to imagine not even his team expected it; the No. 31 had just two top 5s and 10 top 10s entering the Chase, a fairly dismal number for a driver looking to battle for the title. Early exit? All but assured. Except Newman didn’t go away, beginning to rattle off a string of top 10s that eventually became top 5s, eventually coming home not only second in the Homestead race itself but also runner-up in the points as a whole. And he did it without winning all season; so much for the Chase rewarding drivers who visited Victory Lane.
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