This is crunch time for the drivers trying to make the field for NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
While it’s true that all races pay the same points over the course of the season, it probably doesn’t seem that way as teams head into the final pair of races before that 12-driver field is set.
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After all, the battle to break into the Chase is tight right now. Positions 7 through 14 are separated by a mere 89 points. In a sport where a parts failure can cost a team 100 points in a single outing, that certainly is a slim margin to be living by.
Roush Fenway Racing’s Matt Kenseth has fallen into the bubble position and is looking to regain a better footing in the next pair of races. His team has placed consistently in the top 14 in terms of finishes for the past few races, but that kind of finish just might not be enough to boost Kenseth into the Chase — and he knows it.
Meanwhile, his teammate Greg Biffle steadily has gained ground overall. However, although he’s 8th in points, he’s just 75 points ahead of Kyle Busch, who’s in 13th. That’s certainly not a comfortable margin as the series prepares for its first scheduled night race at Atlanta, to be followed by the tough short-track showdown at Richmond International Raceway.
Kenseth heads into this weekend’s race riding a streak of five consecutive finishes of 14th or better — but that stretch includes only one finish inside the top 10. In that same stretch, challenger Busch has one win and one fourth-place finish, but three finishes outside of 16th. Brian Vickers — currently 14th and 39 points outside a Chase spot — has seven consecutive finishes of 12th or better, including five top-10s, highlighted by his win two races ago at Michigan International Speedway.
One of only two drivers to make every Chase field since the format was implemented in 2004, Kenseth takes a philosophical approach to his position.
“All we can do is run the best we can,” he said. “If we get it running better and finishing better, we won’t have to worry about it. (Bristol) was better, but we still have work to do. It’s 26 races from Daytona to Richmond, and every race is important, and you put forth your best effort every week.”
Matt Kenseth is staying busy fighting for a Chase spot and racing in next week’s Prelude to the Dream. But he’s stopping by Friday at noon ET for a LIVE chat, so get your questions ready.
Now, though, that effort seems to take on added meaning as the Chase looms. Some drivers might find themselves being a bit more conservative this weekend as they try to lock into the Chase field or more solidly secure their positions heading into the race at Richmond.
Statistically speaking, only three drivers are locked into the Chase at this point — Stewart-Haas Racing’s Tony Stewart, plus Hendrick Motorsports’ Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. But the top six seem fairly solidly in the Chase field at this point.
“You do all you can do each week,” Kenseth said. “You get down to crunch time, and it’s that close, but you had a chance to gain or lose points for the last 23 weeks. So you’ve just got to do the best you can every week. And where it ends up, it ends up.”
Biffle, meanwhile, is looking to improve on his spring performance at the Atlanta track and is trying to put some distance between himself and whomever is 13th in the standings heading into the final pre-Chase race. His crew chief, Greg Erwin, says the team needs a top-five finish this weekend to help in that endeavor.
“We did qualify well, so if we can do that again and build on a good starting position, I think we can come out of there with a solid finish,” Biffle said of the track where he finished 34th in the spring, but had two top-10s prior to that. “It would be great to go to Richmond with a good points distance on 13th.”
And that’s the most several drivers can hope for in this race — to put some distance between themselves and whomever leaves Atlanta as the driver in 13th. None of these men wants to head into Richmond in a close battle for the final spot.
Richard Petty Motorsports’ Kasey Kahne knows how that feels. He was one spot outside what was then a 10-driver Chase field heading into the race at Richmond and rallied into the field in 2006. Now, with two races to go, he’s 11th in the standings — 52 points ahead of 13th-place Busch.
Kahne says that he’s more relaxed this time, though, because of both his experience and his team chemistry.
“It’s a tight battle,” he says. “Any little mistake can definitely cost you a lot of points and hurt your chances. We had a lot bigger point cushion heading into Bristol, and just one race later, our points were cut in half. I just try and focus on my race car.
“We’re doing the same things that we’ve been doing, trying to get the balance where it needs to be so that we can race and be competitive on race day. Hopefully, it works out. You definitely think about it, but there’s nothing that you can do. All you can do is perform and try and run strong on race day. If we can do that, the rest will take care of itself.”
Rea White is a writer for NASCAR Scene, which is published weekly, 46 weeks per year. Visit www.scenedaily.com for more information.