Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway begins what NASCAR likes to call “the race for the Chase” — the final 10 races in NASCAR’s regular season.
In most years, the race for the Chase is as good or better than the Chase for the Sprint Cup itself, because at any given time there are a handful of drivers jockeying for position to get one of the two Wild-Card Chase slots. And those positions change almost every week over the final races during the regular season.
Last year heading into Kentucky, Brad Keselowski was 10th in points and Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon were 17th and 18th, respectively. Keselowski won this race last year and, of course, went on to capture his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, while Kahne and Gordon made strong runs to put themselves into the Chase.
With that said, here’s who has the most pressure on them heading into the Bluegrass State this weekend:
BRAD KESELOWSKI — After opening the season with four consecutive top-four finishes and top 10s in seven of the first eight races, Keselowski has been unable to finish off races as of late. In the last eight races, the defending champ has finished better than 15th just once, a fifth-place run at Dover. And with no race victories so far this season and just a nine-point lead over 11th-place Kahne, Keselowski needs to get his mojo back in a hurry. Given that he won at Kentucky last year, this weekend will be a big test for him.
JEFF GORDON — It’s been a strange season for the four-time champion, who has finished third or better four times, and 34th or worse four times. Gordon certainly has the equipment and team to rally back, as he showed last year. A victory would be nice, but at the very least, Gordon needs to start stringing together consecutive top-five and top-10 finishes if he wants to be relevant in the championship discussion again this year. Gordon sits 13th in points right now.
KURT BUSCH — It seems like every week, Busch’s Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet is one of the fastest cars on the track, yet every week something happens to keep him out of victory lane. Last weekend at Sonoma Raceway, Busch rallied back from consecutive pit-road speeding penalties to finish a strong fourth. Busch conceivably could earn enough points to race his way from his current 17th place into the top 10, but it will be an uphill battle. What he really needs is to win one or two of the next 10 races.
JOEY LOGANO — So far, JoLo is on track to have the best season of his still-young Sprint Cup career. He is ranked 14th in points, has scored four top-five finishes and with even one race victory would position himself strongly in the Wild-Card picture. Logano won the first three NASCAR Nationwide Series races at Kentucky and this just might be his weekend to step up.
RYAN NEWMAN — In the final year of his contract at Stewart-Haas Racing, where he likely will be replaced next year by Kevin Harvick, Newman is auditioning for a ride for next season, perhaps with Richard Childress Racing or maybe even Michael Waltrip Racing. In any event, a victory or two would help Newman tremendously this year and next. He is 18th in points now.
Finally, why is Denny Hamlin not on this list?
In a sense, there’s much less pressure on Hamlin than there was even a few races ago. To qualify for the Chase, Hamlin will need to win a minimum of two races, and move up to the top 20 in points. Right now, Hamlin is 83 points out of 20th place with 10 races to go in NASCAR’s regular season. Given that the most points any driver can make up in one race is 47, Hamlin is nearly two full races back in points. Realistically, that’s too much ground to make up in too short a time.