Drivers have just 1,875 laps remaining to make their moves — or to avoid getting caught up in someone else’s mess — if they’re going to lock into the 12-driver field for NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
The race to earn those spots and be in contention for the championship over the course of the season’s final 10 races is tight. A mere 79 points separate the 10th to 14th positions. Eighth through 14th are just 117 points apart. The driver in the 12th and final position to make the field, Matt Kenseth, is just 10 points ahead of his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle. Michael Waltrip Racing’s David Reutimann is another 66 points back, followed by Richard Childress Racing’s Clint Bowyer another 50 back.
Those margins may sound like more comforting numbers, but in events when a driver can pick up 161 points on a competitor — the difference between leading the most laps while winning and finishing last — they are far from that. There are four drivers outside the top 12 right now who are within that one-race margin of 12th place. Seven are within 200 points of the 12th-place team. Another is 217 back.
Drivers are very aware of the potential for things to go quickly awry — especially in a season where several have endured not just bad races, but bad stretches of races.
Roush Fenway Racing’s Kenseth, for instance, won the first two races of the season, but the 2003 Cup champion has only five other top-10 finishes this season.
Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch, meanwhile, won three of the first 10 races but has only three other top-10 finishes this season.
And Hendrick Motorsports’ Mark Martin has a series-leading four wins — but also six finishes of 31st or worse.
Conversely, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Ryan Newman finished 22nd or worse in the opening four races but has rallied to seventh in the standings. Richard Petty Motorsports’ Kasey Kahne has battled issues with consistency, but has four consecutive finishes of 15th or better, including a win and two other top-10s in that stretch, to move into the Chase field.
Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin, Roush Fenway’s Carl Edwards, Newman and Earnhardt Ganassi Racing’s Juan Pablo Montoya are currently in Chase position but are winless this season.
So there are clearly a lot of scenarios in play as drivers approach this final seven-race drive into the Chase.
Edwards, for his part, says he remembers just what it is like to be fighting for a berth in the Chase in the past. At sixth in the standings, he has a 153-point cushion on 13th right now, certainly not enough for comfort.
“In 2005, that last race at Richmond took a year off of my life,” Edwards said of the final race to make the field. “That was stressful. And then in 2007, I think, we were close to making it.
“We gathered enough points, and then we blew the engine at Richmond, and if we hadn’t gathered all those points leading up to that, we’d have been in trouble. But, it worked out still. It is part of it. You’ve got to go out there and get all the points you can. It’s a little bit different way to race.”
Even Kurt Busch, who has his Penske Racing team fourth in the standings, is keeping a close watch on the men behind him.
“If you have a catastrophic engine failure, you get caught in a wreck or a (potential) tire issue at Indianapolis, you’re right back in the mix between eight and 12th,” the 2004 Cup champ says.
He says he’ll feel more comfortable with his position, if he holds it, once a few races go by.
Drivers say they aren’t necessarily points racing right now, but they may be gauging the nature of each risk a little more cautiously.
They know that more than just a race victory is at stake each week.
“Right now, more than wins is good results,” says Montoya, who is currently ninth in the standings. “I am sure we are a little more aggressive sometimes in changes and strategies; we could be winning races. The name of the game today is making the Chase, and that is what we are trying to achieve.”
Biffle is taking the same approach.
Right now, he’s the odd man out, after dropping from ninth to 13th in the standings with his 31st-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway.
“We’re racing as hard as we can,” he said prior to that race. “We’re not taking big risks, but at the same time, we’re racing for the win.”
While some seem amazed to be outside that group at this point, others are searching to find exactly what is wrong with their team.
Kenseth and Kyle Busch are among that group. At the last race at Chicagoland, Busch questioned his ability to race with the top teams that will be contending for the championship.
“I don’t even know how we’re ninth in points with what our finishes have been lately,” he said prior to the race, in which he finished 33rd and dropped another spot to 10th in the standings. “It’s just pathetic.”
Kenseth takes the same approach. After a stellar start to the season, his team has struggled to keep pace with the competition.
He says the team is working to find solutions, but that the group needs to gain ground to maintain its tenuous hold on a Chase berth.
“I’m surprised we’re even in the top 12,” Kenseth said. “We ran not the greatest and finished even worse. For the last few months, we just really haven’t had any good finishes. … We’re very, very fortunate to be where we are in the points right now, and we all know that we need to start finishing better and need to start finishing at least as good as we’re running or better.
“We still haven’t been able to do that, so once we start doing that, I’ll think about it more. But, to be honest, I’m just happy and surprised that we’re in it right now.”
So who will be the teams that rally into the Chase? For several drivers, particularly those currently in the top 17 in the standings, the group within 182 points of a berth in the championship-determining field, there is still hope that this final run will put them in that elite group.
If the next seven races go well, they believe in their ability to make that field.
“We’ve had a good couple of months with cars and engines,” Kahne says. “Everything has been getting better on that side of things. Richard Petty Motorsports has done a nice job giving their teams and drivers better equipment, so I think (we) keep building on that. The communication with myself and (crew chief) Kenny Francis and (engineer) Keith Rodden, you know, keep working on that. Hopefully, we can have good cars every weekend. Our pit crew has been great. …
“We need to keep that kind of stuff up, and I think that we’ll have a really good shot at making the Chase.”
Rea White is a writer for NASCAR Scene, which is published weekly, 46 weeks per year. Visit www.scenedaily.com for more information.