Although some analysts claim that any driver who starts the Chase for the Sprint Cup with at least two decidedly poor performances has no chance to win a championship, I’ve maintained that, yep, the odds are against him – but nothing is impossible.
I simply think that the completion of a couple of races is too early to determine who is going to win a title or who is already eliminated from contention.
However, there is this truth: It does give us a much better idea of who is going to remain in the running and who’s got to beat some heavy odds to get back into it.
That’s pretty much the situation after the opening Chase races at Chicago and New Hampshire. We have a good sense of which drivers are comfortably in contention, which might feel a sense of urgency and which are hanging by a thread that could snap very quickly.
Not to belabor the obvious here, but how the competitors are sorted in points after two races reflects on their on-track performance. Those who are off to good starts are higher in points than those who have stumbled – hey, that makes sense, right?
Tony Stewart came out of nowhere and won twice in the opening two weeks of the Chase. He vaulted from ninth to first in points. He did the absolute best any driver could do and his reward, for the time being, is to be in the ideal position to win his third career championship.
Kevin Harvick was second in points when the Chase began and held it after his runnerup finish at Chicago. He might still be the leader if he hadn’t stumbled a bit at New Hampshire, where he finished 12th and opened the door for Stewart. Still, Harvick remains No. 2 in the standings, only seven points behind Stewart. Right now Harvick is comfortable.
So are these drivers:
** Brad Keselowski, third place in points, just 11 behind Stewart. Keselowski is the biggest surprise of the Chase, if not the season. He has won three times this year, which earned him entry into the Chase as a “wildcard” and in 11th in points.
He’s been propelled forward by two excellent finishes in the Chase – fifth at Chicago and second at New Hampshire.
** Carl Edwards, fourth in points, 14 behind Stewart. Edwards, to date the top dog in the Chase for Roush Fenway Racing, is another example of what consistency can do. He has finishes of fourth and eighth to date and thus has gained one spot in the standings.
** Jeff Gordon, fifth in points, 23 behind Stewart. Gordon has dropped two positions since the start of the Chase but that would not have happened if he hadn’t stumbled at Chicago with a 24th-place finish. He rebounded at New Hampshire, where he finished fourth. If he hadn’t done that it’s very likely he would be in a more difficult situation.
** Kyle Busch, sixth in points, 26 behind Stewart. The younger Busch came into the Chase seeded No. 1 based upon his four victories this season. But he was 22nd at Chicago and 11th at New Hampshire. His failure to crack the top 10 is the reason for his tumble. However, it could be worse.
** Matt Kenseth, seventh in points but, like Busch, 26 behind Stewart. Kenseth is another example of the benefit of a rebound performance. He was 21st at Chicago (and fell from fourth to 10th in points) before a beneficial sixth-place run at New Hampshire. It’s the same for him as it is for Busch – it could be worse.
Things are considerably more problematic for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin, eighth through 12 in points, respectively.
Interestingly, only four of the group – Earnhardt Jr., the older Busch, Newman and Johnson – have a top-10 finish in the Chase, and all were achieved in the first race at Chicago.
At New Hampshire, they were 17th (Earnhardt Jr.) or worse, which, as you can easily determine, has put them on shaky ground.
Nearly everyone has suggested that Hamlin, who finished 31st at Chicago and 29th at New Hampshire, is already cooked. He is 12th in points, 66 points in back of Stewart, and it will take a near miracle for him to recoup.
Some have said that Johnson, the five-time defending champion, is also out of the competition. But I don’t think being 29 points out of first place entirely displaces him. Johnson has been known to make up plenty of lost ground in the past – he was 136 points behind in 2006 when it paid 175 points to win. Thus, percentage-wise, he’s not as far in arrears this year.
But he faces a tough task. He’s not alone.
It’s not an impossible one, however. Johnson and Hamlin are certainly capable of winning – even two races in a row. For that matter, so are all the drivers in the Chase.
Given that, starting at Dover this weekend, things could get topsy-turvy.
But it won’t make any difference for those drivers who continue to do what all racers who strive for a championship should – win races if possible; otherwise, be consistent.
Sounds logical, obvious and ridiculously simple, doesn’t it? But it’s an absolute fact. We’ve seen evidence of it in the Chase already and there will be more in the weeks to come.