As it stands now, we have a very interesting, even stimulating, situation when it comes to just which drivers are going to make NASCAR’s 2012 version of the Chase.
After Sonoma, there was a logjam of drivers scrapping for one of the 12 open positions. To be more exact, there are eight drivers in competition for one of four available spots.
The top 10 in points after the year’s 26th race, at Richmond, are automatically entered in the Chase. The remaining two, called the “wildcard” entries, are the drivers with the most wins who are ranked among the top 20 in points.
My opinion is that, currently, the drivers ranked one through nine in points seem to be secure – barring meltdowns, of course, which are always possible.
Most secure among this group are five-time champ Jimmie Johnson, fourth in points with two victories, fifth-place Tony Stewart, who also has two wins, and Denny Hamlin, ranked eighth with a couple of victories.
That each has two wins means they have solid insurance policies for the Chase, even if they slip in points.
Brad Keselowski also has two wins and he ranks 10th in points. That should be enough, but then, if he falls out of the top 10 he could be in a scramble with other drivers. After all, he’s only 11 points ahead of Carl Edwards, who presently ranks No. 11.
It’s well known that Edwards figured to be a championship contender this year after he lost the 2011 title to Stewart on the first tiebreaker in NASCAR history – Stewart have five wins, Edwards one.
Edwards could solve his dilemma by doing one of two things, or both. He certainly needs to advance in points. But wins would be very beneficial.
Edwards agrees and says his strategy is to win.
If he can’t advance in points and can’t win, Kyle Busch is ready to pounce. The Joe Gibbs driver is 12th in points, just 20 behind Edwards and, most important, he has a victory.
Lately, his racing luck has been horrendous. He suffered three consecutive blown engines before he finished 17th at Sonoma.
Still, right now, Busch has the edge. If the Chase began today he would be in and Edwards out.
But even Busch cannot be comfortable. Ryan Newman is 13th in points and has a victory at Martinsville. Joey Logano is 15th with a win at Pocono and Kasey Kahne, whose season started horribly, was triumphant at Charlotte and is 17th in points.
Another win for any of them puts Busch on the hot seat.
And this scenario intensifies the delicacy of Edwards’ position. He would be fifth in line if the Chase began today.
But the Chase hasn’t begun. Ten races remain before it does.
Anything can happen.
A driver who seems certain to make the Chase may find himself struggling to remain among the top 10 and thus have to rely on an earned win, or wins.
For example, after the race at Kansas in early June last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. stood third in points. He had not won a race but the assumption was he was high enough in the standings to overcome that.
He almost didn’t. He had a horrible summer. By the race at Pocono in the first week of August, he had tumbled to 10th in points and the Chase was five weeks from its beginning.
He stayed in 10th for another week, then climbed to No. 9, where he remained for four races and was his position at Richmond, the season’s 26th race.
At Richmond Earnhardt Jr. finished 16th and fell to 10th in points – he held on to survive a near meltdown.
This year he’s already gained that insurance victory and his summer has begun very well.
He had already earned more top-10 finishes than any other driver by Dover in early June. He finished fourth there, eighth at Pocono and won at Michigan, after which he was second in points, four behind Matt Kenseth.
Earnhardt fell to third in points after a 23rd-place finish at Sonoma but to be honest that was not a major surprise. He has not done particularly well at the road course.
He has never earned a top-10 finish. He’s been 11th three times.
But, consider that over the same number of summer races last year, Earnhardt Jr. fell from third to seventh in points.
Which means he’s on a much better path this year – and, certainly, his victory offers him major assurance.
On the other end of the spectrum is Jeff Gordon, a four-time champion. Not only is he distant from the top 10 in points – 18th – he doesn’t have a victory to put him in title contention.
He has 10 races to earn one. Fact is, he’s likely going to have to win twice to be a Chase player.
He thinks it’s possible and there’s no reason do doubt him.
He did win three times last year to comfortably move into the Chase – and one of them came over the summer’s10-race span that ended at Richmond. Gordon won at Atlanta.
But, this year, one win isn’t going to cut it.With so many scenarios and possibilities, it seems highly likely the competition for a spot in the Chase is going to be very keen.
That should spark a great deal of interest among fans – and the media – which should, in turn, be very beneficial for NASCAR.