Six races. Six drivers. One Chase berth up for grabs.
Those are the high stakes as NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series comes to Pocono Raceway on Sunday for the Pennsylvania 400.
There are only six races remaining before the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins on Sept. 16 in Chicago. Drivers such as Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards desperately need a victory – at least one – during these next six races in order to qualify for the Chase, which is a season-ending 10-race battle for the overall championship.
The top 10 drivers in the overall standings qualify for the Chase. The final two berths in the 12-car Chase go to the drivers ranked 11th through 20th with the most victories.
The top 10 entering Pocono consists of, in order, Dale Earnhardt Jr.; Matt Kenseth; Greg Biffle; Jimmie Johnson; Denny Hamlin; Kevin Harvick; Martin Truex Jr.; Tony Stewart; Brad Keselowski; and Clint Bowyer.
There is a 55-point gap between Bowyer and Kyle Busch, who sits in 11th place. Although not impossible, that’s a lot of ground to make up in six races. The best chance a driver ranked 11th through 20th has to make the Chase is to win races.
Kasey Kahne is in the driver’s seat. He is ranked 13th overall, but he’s the only driver outside the top 10 with two victories. His win at the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 on July 15 gave him a leg up on the other drivers competing for the final two berths.
Kyle Busch (11th), Ryan Newman (14th) and Joey Logano (17th) are the other drivers outside the top 10 with a victory. If the Chase started today, Busch would join Kahne in the Chase because Busch has more points than the other one-win drivers.
Time is running short for Edwards (12th) and Gordon (15th), as well as Paul Menard (16th), Marcos Ambrose (18th), Jamie McMurray (19th) and Jeff Burton (20th). Ambrose, McMurray and Burton are so far behind Busch (69 points and more) that they would almost certainly have to win twice in the next six races to qualify for the Chase, so let’s concentrate on the six drivers with the best chance of joining Kahne as one of the two wild card berths.
A second win for Busch, Newman or Logano, who won at Pocono earlier this year, would make it very difficult for Edwards, Gordon or Menard to win qualify. That would put them in a position of having to win twice in the next six weeks to earn a Chase berth.
If Busch, Newman or Logano don’t win one of the next six races, Edwards is in the best position to take advantage of the situation. He is just six points behind Busch, so a victory would tie him in wins with Busch and could elevate him past Busch in the standings, making Edwards the highest-ranked driver outside the top 10 with one victory.
Gordon (above), however, seems like the driver with the best chance to make a move. Plagued by all sorts of bad luck and mishaps for most of the year, Gordon has finished fifth or sixth in five of the past six races. It has been 10 races since Gordon finished outside the top 20, which he has done seven times this year.
His recent solid stretch has moved Gordon within 24 points of Busch in the standings. If Gordon continues his string of top six finishes, he may catch Busch and Edwards in points, but that won’t matter unless he wins one of the six remaining races before the Chase begins.
The steady Menard is tied with Gordon in points, but hasn’t finished in the top five all year. When you factor in that Menard has just one career victory while Gordon has five at Pocono, including last year’s Pocono 500, one must conclude that Gordon has the better chance of catching Busch and Edwards in the standings and making the Chase.
Another factor pointing to Gordon as the driver with the best chance to make the Chase with a late run is that Hendrick Motorsports has experienced tremendous success the past few months, with one victory celebration after another. Of the last 12 races, including two that don’t count in the Sprint Cup standings, Hendrick Motorsports has won eight of them. Johnson has won four times and Kahne and Earnhardt each have won twice.
But Gordon has been the fifth wheel, if you’ll pardon the expression, at these celebrations. He’s supportive of his Hendrick teammates, but he would feel a lot better if one of the celebrations was for him.
After Pocono, the Sprint Cup Series moves to Watkins Glen (a road course), Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond. There’s not a lot of time remaining.
Gordon needs to reach Victory Lane soon or else he will be on the outside looking in as his three Hendrick teammates begin the Chase. And, from Gordon’s perspective, the sooner he wins, the better.
So keep a close eye on No. 24 Sunday at Pocono.