In this tepid, monotonous, dreary, follow-the-leader, long green-flag, passing-free zone of a season, we’ve now reached the midway point on the way to everyone’s favorite playoff system: The Chase for the Sprint Cup. 13 races are in the books, meaning there are only another 13 races to run until we reach the cutoff point after the second Richmond race. So with that in mind, here’s a look at the runners and riders – that’s a little horse racing reference for you there, ahead of the Belmont Stakes this weekend and I’ll Have Another’s quest for the first Triple Crown in 34 years. But I digress… back to a slightly faster mode of transport and those “three-and-a-half ton” stock cars and the question as to who makes this year’s version of the playoffs. For the purposes of this analysis, I’m going to consider the chances of making the Chase for all 31 drivers (except Kurt Busch, but I’ll mention him) who have completed all 13 races so far in 2012. (In total, just for the record, 63 drivers have taken the green flag at the Cup level this year.) Also, just because I like to be contrarian, I’m going to go in reverse order:
Such is the nature of the sport these days that for some, the massive finances needed to run even one car across the full schedule, combined with the effort and technical expertise required make the postseason a virtual impossibility. Indeed, there are a number of full-time drivers for whom the Chase is about as rare a prospect as winning a multi-million dollar lottery jackpot or, to put it more simply, even finishing a full race with a top-5 run (outside of the plate tracks, where it’s anyone’s game). So say goodbye to Chase spots (not that they haven’t already) to Dave Blaney (34th, -313 points), Landon Cassill (31st, -299), David Gilliland (30th, -280), David Ragan (29th, -264), Casey Mears (28th, -252) and Bobby Labonte (27th, -220).
*All But Out:*
This group of drivers is all but out of the Chase but still have a glimmer of hope, albeit a mere one, based on the rules for qualifying this year. We’ll start with Regan Smith, who won a first Cup victory at Darlington in 2011 but sits 25th, 204 markers back, winless and without a top 10. He could finagle a couple of unexpected victories but it seems pretty unlikely, to say the least.
Another in this category is AJ Allmendinger (23rd, -194), who has had a really disappointing start to his first year with a truly big team. Despite sitting 15th overall, I’d also put Paul Menard in this camp. With just three top 10s and 12 laps led, he’s not finishing well enough or challenging for wins. You can add Joey Logano (16th, -136, four top 10s), Aric Almirola (17th, -157, two top 10s) and Jeff Burton (18th, -164, three top 10s) for much the same reasons.
*The Brad Keselowski Summer Route to the Chase:*
This time last year, Brad Keselowski announced himself as a top-tier driver with a string of fine runs, three wins and an unlikely Chase berth. Is there anyone capable of doing the same this year? I’d say there are five candidates. Jamie McMurray (22nd, -175, two top 10s) knows how to win. Teammate Juan Pablo Montoya has the Brickyard and both road courses where he’ll be a legitimate threat to take the checkered. Likewise, Marcos Ambrose who could easily sweep both Sonoma and Watkins Glen to nail down a Chase berth. The driver you wouldn’t have expected to be in this category prior to the green flag at Daytona is Jeff Gordon (21st, -175, three top 10s) whose bad luck but excellent speed has already been well documented. I said up front that I’d mention Kurt Busch (26th, -211) and it’s right here. If the former champ gets his head straight and keeps his ride, he has the talent to rip some wins off. Whether he has the temperament is another question entirely.
*On The Bubble:*
Up next are the wheelmen who are, at this stage, very much on the bubble. We’ll start with Ryan Newman (13th, -120, one win). Yes, there was the morale-boosting victory at Martinsville but he has just three top 10s and that’s not going to get it done. Another would be last year’s first loser Carl Edwards (12th, -96). His teammates are 1-2 in the standings so it’s not the equipment. It seems almost glib to dub it the runner’s up curse but for some reason, things aren’t clicking. Maybe they will over the summer months but for now, he’s on the bubble. Then there’s Clint Bowyer (10th, -81). He’s finishing in the top 10 every other race but he’ll need wins and more to make it. Finally, it’s Bowyer’s teammate Martin Truex, Jr. (sixth, -45). Without question, the New Jersey native has started out strongly but it doesn’t take much to slip down the standings. His cushion between 10th place is just 36 which leaves little room for error; a win would take the pressure off and put his Michael Waltrip Racing team in prime position for Chase bid number one.
*Just About In:*
I’ve got just three drivers in this category: Kevin Harvick (seventh, -46), Kyle Busch (ninth, -80, 1 win) and Kasey Kahne (14th, -121, 1 win). Busch and Kahne have the advantage of one victory, with another needed for some safety, and both have shown significant signs of life in the past month or so. Harvick doesn’t have that all-important win but even in a season when RCR cars are not running up front, the wily veteran knows how to finish races. That alone will, I believe, see Harvick make the Chase whether or not he takes a checkered flag first.
*In It To Win It:*
The final category is those drivers who, barring freak happenstance, will make the Chase. I’ll start with points leader Greg Biffle, teammate Matt Kenseth (second, -1, one win, seven top 5s). Then there’s Mr. Consistency, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (third, -10, a series-best 10 top 10s and 100% laps completed); Denny Hamlin (fourth, -22, two wins) and old Five-Time, Jimmie Johnson (fifth, -33, two wins). I’d also put Tony Stewart (eighth, -79, two wins) and Brad Keselowski (11th, -86, two wins) in based on their victories alone. For all those I’ve mentioned above that “could”, these two _have._ I’d be shocked if either missed out, leaving five spots available for 12 drivers on the “Keselowski” level or higher.
Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments section below. Finally, there’s one driver in the top 30 in points I’ve not mentioned. That’s because it’s Mark Martin (24th, -203, 10 races, three poles, four top 10s) who is not running the full Cup schedule this year. I’ve been lucky enough to meet a number of famous sports types throughout my career, but Martin always stands out as one of the very best. They don’t make them like that any more. I just hope he gets back to Victory Lane at the Cup level one more time before he finally hangs up his gloves.