With only eight races left before this year’s expanded 16-driver Chase field is locked in, pressure is mounting on drivers who have yet to break into Victory Lane.
Winning a race is by far the safest — and, in some cases, only — way for a driver to qualify for NASCAR’s playoff under this year’s new win-and-you’re-almost-in Chase format.
With 18 races in the books, 11 different drivers have scored victories and, barring a highly unlikely turn of events, will be among the 16 who will be championship-eligible entering the final 10 races.
This leaves essentially five Chase spots still up for grabs as the series heads to New Hamphire Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301.
Will this weekend’s race at the 1.058-mile oval produce the season’s 12th different winner?
Perhaps not. But here’s a little nugget that suggests it’s entirely possible, if not likely: Six of the past seven NHMS winners are still seeking their first triumph of 2014.
Another former New Hampshire winner, Greg Biffle, is also bereft of a victory this year, and would be the first driver out if the Chase field were set today.
If Biffle or any one of the six — Matt Kenseth, Brian Vickers, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer — makes a return visit to New Hampshire’s Victory Lane on Sunday, that will mean one more driver locking up a spot in the Chase and one less spot available for a non-winner to possibly sneak in based on his points position at the end of the regular season.
"I can’t wait for Loudon this weekend," said Biffle, who won here in September 2008 in his familiar No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. "It’s a great track for us and we almost won in the fall. It would be great to get our first win of the season with NESN (New England Sports Network) on the car this weekend."
As it currently stands, the highest five points drivers without a win — Kenseth, Newman, Paul Menard, Bowyer and Austin Dillon — would join the 11 race winners in filling out the 16-driver championship field.
Any way you slice it, though, the best way to ensure Chase entry is to join the ranks of this season’s winners. And that’s what several past New Hampshire winners hope to do this weekend.
"Every week you go out with the idea of trying to win," said Kenseth, who last September scored at NHMS for the first time. "You try to do everything you can to win the race. People always ask about changing your strategies or trying harder or doing this or doing that, but if it was that easy, you’d win every week. You know, I’ve never not wanted to win. If there was a way to force wins, I’d force it every week. Really nothing you can do different."
Kenseth’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, feels confident about his driver’s chances of a New Hampshire repeat.
"Last time we raced at Loudon, we brought home that giant lobster (awarded to New Hampshire winners), so we’re going to head there this weekend looking to once again bring that lobster back home," Ratcliff said. "I think that our short-track program has been a little better this season than our intermediate stuff so far, even though last year that program seemed to be our bread and butter. … I anticipate a good weekend at Loudon."
In a considerably more precarious position than Kenseth is Vickers, the defending winner of Sunday’s race in the Granite State.
Vickers, who finished second in last Sunday’s rain-delayed, rain-shortened race at Daytona International Speedway, would be the second man out of the Chase if the playoff field were locked in based on the current standings.
"Obviously, the fewer (Chase) spots there are, the intensity picks up for the guys in that position," said Vickers. "I think every week you go to every race trying to win and knowing what’s at stake if you do and what’s at stake if you don’t. The closer to the Chase you get, that intensity is going to pick up."
Right behind Vickers in points is rookie Kyle Larson, who up until just a few weeks ago was in position to possibly make the Chase without a win. But with three consecutive finishes of 28th or worse, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver has slipped 10 positions in the standings, making it increasingly likely that a race win will be his only ticket into the Chase.
As of last week, however, Larson still harbored thoughts of getting into the Chase based on points.
"We’re pretty confident," he said. "We’ve just got to stay consistent and put ourselves in position, like we have all year, if we don’t win a race, to get into the Chase. If we do win a race, that would be awesome."
Right behind Larson in the standings is Kahne, a 2012 New Hampshire winner who recently tested at the track along with his Hendrick Motorsports teammates.
"Anytime you can go and test for a couple of days at a track — and we went from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at New Hampshire for two days in early June — that is a ton of laps and a lot of things that each team is trying," Kahne said. "I felt like we got pretty good at the end, and Jeff (Gordon) was probably the best car the first day, so we all learned a lot. From that information, I think we can put together a really good package for Hendrick Motorsports this weekend when we return. … I felt good about it, and so did the other guys."