With winners vaulting themselves into the Chase and the points system conducive to drivers falling into and out of favor within a handful of races, a few good — or bad — races can make all the difference in the Sprint Cup Series.
Just tell that to Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne.
Each are on opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to the last few races. Departing Pocono, Kahne was down in the dumps, having finished 42nd and sitting outside the top 20 in points. Meanwhile, Hamlin, the pole winner of the race, finished fourth and had an eighth-place spot in the points to show for it, plus a victory.
But three races later, the tables have somewhat turned. Kahne has gone from way outside the Chase to just outside it, while Hamlin still clings to a spot in the postseason — but only barely.
What happened? Luck on either side of the pitch. Suddenly, Kahne, who’s been called washed-up this season and perhaps past his prime, has gained all the way to 15th in points entering Daytona. That, with the 10 winners thus far this season, puts him behind six drivers without wins, meaning that a victory — or just a spot up on one of those six — slots him into the postseason.
He’s done so handily, though without much pizzazz. Kahne hasn’t finished worse than eighth since Pocono, but also hasn’t bested a fifth-place run at Michigan. Basically, he’s running incredibly well, but isn’t setting the world on fire with his results. There but not there, unseen but part of the picture.
On the other hand, there’s Hamlin. Though it’s perhaps all moot with his current spot in the Chase solidified due to his Talladega win, he hasn’t even cracked the top 25, let alone the top 10, since Pocono. We’re talking finishes of 26th, 29th and, most recently, 42nd after an early crash at Kentucky.
So here’s where they stand: Kahne has jumped six spots since Pocono, affirming himself as part of the conversation rather than outside it, wallowing in pity and the words of bloggers. Then there’s Hamlin, who’s dropped a whopping 10 spots over three races, suddenly in Kurt Busch territory when it comes to race winners who just can’t seem to catch a break outside their moments of triumph.
It’s always intriguing to look at a statistic like this one because it showcases both upward and downward mobility and exemplifies the point that no matter how hot a streak might be, it could change in a matter of a moment.
That is, of course, a heartening concept for a driver like Hamlin, and perhaps a demon on the back of Kahne. Hamlin already won a restrictor plate race this season — what’s going to stop him from contending for a second this week? Generally wins at given tracks aren’t flukes; the drivers one sees up front at one will likely be the same at another when it comes to track types.
Say, for instance, Hamlin comes out to Daytona and leads the field across the stripe for the checkered flag once again. Now he’s solidly in the Chase, a shoo-in barring an issue that might necessitate missing a race and not getting NASCAR’s approval, for instance. All of a sudden, someone on the backswing is a no-brainer.
Then there’s Kahne. He’s been on fire the rest of June, but Daytona marks the start of July. While the renewed focus he and the No. 5 team seem to share could be his buoy, Kahne could also easily get swept up in the Big One at Daytona and start another downward spiral that sees him unable to win and — all told — outside of the Chase when it begins.
For Kahne, the risk is greater. Without a win, he’s reliant on the amount of spots available for the winless, which is six entering Daytona. Give that win to someone without a victory and suddenly it’s five — a not-so-good happening if the driver ends up being behind Kahne in points coming in. He could pass the next closest driver in points after Daytona, but it could matter not at all. What feels like a gain ends up a stalemate or, perhaps, a loss — especially if something of that sort occurs at Richmond.
That’s what both Kahne and Hamlin are up against entering Daytona and over the final nine races before the Chase takes hold. Anything could happen, and as noted by each driver’s last three races, a lot can change in the current iteration of the Sprint Cup Series in a very small amount of time.
Tell that to the fanatics who think Jimmie Johnson’s already run away with the title. Perhaps it’ll put them at ease.