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Points by Ben Simmons during Game 3 victory over Nets

Pocono presents opportunity

Posted by Eric Fisher On July 28

Many drivers want to follow the example of seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson. But, for now, they will settle for following the example set by Kasey Kahne. Or Chris Buescher.

Who is Chris Buescher? One year ago, he won a weather-shortened race (heavy fog) at Pocono, notching his first career win and qualifying for the season-ending Chase, which is now referred to simply as the NASCAR playoffs. Without his victory, Buescher would not have qualified for the playoffs.

Kahne pulled off a similar feat last Sunday, qualifying for the playoffs by winning the Brickyard 400, his first victory since 2014, a span of 102 races.

There are only six races left before the playoffs begin, so this Sunday’s Overton’s 400 at Pocono Raceway is one of the remaining opportunities to automatically qualify by winning a race.

There are 16 playoff berths available. With Kahne’s victory, 12 of those spots are filled. The drivers who have qualified with victories are: points leader Martin Truex Jr. (3 wins); Johnson (3 wins); Kyle Larson (2 wins); Brad Keselowski (2 wins); Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2 wins); Kevin Harvick; Denny Hamlin; Ryan Blaney; Kurt Busch; Ryan Newman; Kahne; and Austin Dillon.

Drivers can qualify for the playoffs without a victory if they are at the top of the points race among winless drivers. But each time there is a new winner, it knocks a winless driver out of the playoff field. When Kahne (383 points), who won at Pocono in 2013, won last Sunday, he knocked Clint Bowyer (533 points) out of the playoff field.

The points leader among winless drives is Kyle Busch (673 points), who is only behind Truex (780) and Larson (732). Unless the next six races include wins by four previously winless drivers, Busch is going to make the playoffs. Of course, he would like to remove any doubt by winning one of those races.

Less secure are Jamie McMurray (599), Chase Elliott (588) and Matt Kenseth (566). All are in danger of being pushed out of the playoffs by drivers picking up their first wins of the season. If McMurray, Elliott and Kenseth can’t reach Victory Lane, their hope is that these races are won by drivers already in the playoff field.

Among the drivers on the outside looking in are Clint Bowyer (533); Joey Logano (515); Erik Jones (440); Daniel Suarez (434); Trevor Bayne (386); Dale Earnhardt Jr. (353); Paul Menard (345); Ty Dillon (340); and Buescher (311).

Only Bowyer, who trails Kenseth for the final playoff berth by 33 points, and Logano, who is struggling this year, have a shot at qualifying for the playoffs on points, although one first-time winner in the next six races would make their mountain a much steeper climb. Barring a complete collapse by either McMurray or Elliott, it would be extremely difficult to overtake them during the next six races.

The fan favorite will be Earnhardt, who is retiring after this season. Earnhardt won twice at Pocono in 2014. He would love to celebrate his final appearance at Pocono with another victory.

Buescher, of course, wants to duplicate last year’s performance at Pocono. Jones, in his first full season in NASCAR’s top circuit, would like to improve upon his third-place finish at Pocono earlier this year. The irony of Jones pushing Kenseth out of playoff position is that Jones will be taking Kenseth’s spot with Joe Gibbs Racing next year.

Not winning at Pocono on Sunday doesn’t mean a driver will miss the playoffs. But time is running out as the opportunities to qualify for the playoffs diminish.

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