Chase drivers have different outlook now

I have said for many weeks that this is the first time in the seven-year history of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup format that I don’t see a clear-cut favorite as we enter the title run after the next two races.

I think it’s a clear signal of how tough the competition is in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing right now.

In the group are teams that struggled in 2009 but are running well this year. Obviously, at the head of that list are the three Richard Childress Racing teams. Then, here of late, the Roush Fenway Racing teams are coming to life. Again, I just think it’s a sign of how many competitive race teams we have week in and week out at all the different types of tracks we go to.

It’s really not a fact of anyone struggling. It’s more a product of how strong and close the competition is this year.

I still maintain the 12 guys that are in the Chase right now will be the 12 when we come out of Richmond International Raceway in a couple of weeks and start the Chase. However, you also have to realize that you can’t predict a blown engine Sunday in Atlanta. You can’t predict getting caught up in someone else’s wreck the next weekend at Richmond. Sure, we can look at numbers and statistics till our eyeballs spin, but you can’t predict a flat tire with 15 laps to go.

I am not big into the history or statistics of a given driver at a track. To me, it is who is running well right now. For example, how many top fives and top 10s Mark Martin has at Atlanta really doesn’t mean a whole lot today. It’s a different year. I just maintain you have to look at how these teams are performing today.

Now to me, the little bit of a wild-card guy could be Jamie McMurray. I still believe that the 100 points that separate him from a top-12 spot will be hard to overcome. Unfortunately, there was a span of six to eight races following his winning the Daytona 500 where he and his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team weren’t consistent enough. I bet the No. 1 team would love to just have half those races back.

Is the No. 1 team probably better than some of the teams currently in the top 12? Absolutely. Let’s face it, they have won two races this year. We still have half the field in the top 12 that hasn’t even won a race. Still, 100 points out with only two races to go is a pretty steep incline. McMurray is going to need some help with someone having a blown motor or getting caught up in a wreck in order to break into the field.

In my book, the first 11 guys in the points are safe. One of their main goals Sunday at Atlanta is to gather data that could possibly benefit them at two other 1.5-mile tracks in the Chase – Charlotte Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway. Now, from next week at Richmond, that data can be used somewhat to help them at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and at Phoenix International Raceway. My point is, these next two races can help the teams in roughly half the Chase races.

The bigger goal is the 20 bonus points that are up for grabs these next two weeks. How valuable are they? Well, let’s use Jeff Gordon as an example. He is already locked in the Chase and right now he is second in points. Unfortunately, he hasn’t won this year, so he has no bonus points yet. If he goes into the Chase without a win at Atlanta or Richmond, then when the top 12 in points are reset, he goes from second place to seventh.

Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson have 50 bonus points in the bank, so far, from their five wins each this year. So if Jeff could just win one of the next two races, it would move him back up closer to the top when the Chase starts. So my point is, there is still a lot on the line these next two weekends.

Now for the guys outside the top 12, they simply want to run well and win a race. Kasey Kahne, for instance, should run well at these next two races. In fact, he won this Atlanta race a year ago. You know he wants to win a race. You know he doesn’t give a flip about bonus points for the Chase, he simply wants to eliminate that goose egg in his 2010 win column.