Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Now or Never, Darlington Begins a Critical Stretch for Title Hopefuls

Officially, there is over a month until summer. Officially, there are 16 races before the Chase field is set. Officially, a lot of teams will tell you that they’re just worried about winning races right now; crunch time will come later.

And all that means nothing. Official or not, crunch time starts now. And by the time the summer solstice brings the longest day of the year in June, the Chase field will be all but set.

That means the next five points races – Darlington, Charlotte, Dover, Pocono and Michigan – are critical for those teams whose goal is to make the Chase and contend for the title. While it seems early for Chase talk, with the regular season not even at the crossed flags, history has shown that the Chase field will be nearly set by the time the sun sets over Michigan next month.

Only once since the Chase format was instituted in 2004 have more than two drivers who were not in the top 12 (or top 10 until 2006) as of Michigan in June made the Chase in September. In 2009, three drivers made it in after that cutoff, but in each of the last two years, just one driver in the top 12 after that MIS date failed to make the Chase when the dust cleared. If that holds true, then the next five weeks will be pivotal for several teams.

The good news is that at least one team has made the Chase after race 15, so odds are that someone will squeeze in at the 11th hour. But there will be a ton of competition for what will likely be just a spot or two.

It’s likely that the top 12 will change spots between now and when the checkers fly at Richmond, but if at least nine of the teams are likely to be set in just a month, there are some teams both on the inside trying to stay there and the outside looking in who will need to step up their game as the days heat up.

Within the top 12 as it stands now, there are a few teams needing to find a winning stride or risk a slow fade in the summer sun. With no finish worse than 15th, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Chase bid is solidifying weekly, though nothing can be set in stone.

Still, if Earnhardt is to be a title contender, the No. 88 team will need to up its collective game just a notch … though its this squad that is in the best position among the four Hendrick Motorsports teams to be able to use the summer months to prepare for a title run.

Jimmie Johnson is currently eighth in points and is the only driver to make every Chase since 2004. However, Johnson is having an uncharacteristically quiet season; he’s contended a couple of times but hasn’t been able to seal the deal on a win, and has a pair of finishes of 35th or worse.

For Johnson and Co., the time to win is now. They have a tendency to slump in the summer months and without maximum points in the bank before the dog days hit, a summer slump could mean Johnson sitting out the first title run of his career.

Barring a spectacular turnaround, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne will likely need to rely on the wildcard spots for a title bid and that means they will likely need at least two wins apiece as well as spots in the top 20 on the charts. Right now, both are winless, and sit 23rd and 19th in points, respectively.

As things stand, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman hold the wildcard spots. Also looking for wildcard berths are Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger, but like Gordon and Kahne, their teams will need a drastic turnaround and soon.

Meanwhile, inside the top 12 there are a few drivers who, in particular, will need to notch up their performance in the coming weeks to stay in, chiefly Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Johnson and Carl Edwards. If these next five races are going to decide at least half of their fates, that actually bodes better for the outsiders based on past performance.

Gordon has a combined 23 wins at this group of tracks and multiple wins at all of them (including a whopping seven at the Lady in Black), and if his team can find a little luck, could easily add a couple more to that total. Kahne, Busch and Burton have five, six and six wins at the same tracks, respectively, making them all a threat, even if it’s a minor one.

Truex does have his one career win at Dover and he’s been a constant threat to win this year, but he needs to get it done while stopping the slow slide he’s experienced in the last two weeks. Harvick has one win apiece at Charlotte and Michigan, but his team has not shown the strength that it showed one year ago.

Still, Harvick can be streaky and if he gets on a tear, could easily pad his points total. Edwards and Johnson should be feeling a bit more secure about the next month and a half than Truex and Harvick. Edwards has wins at Dover (one), Pocono (two) and MIS (two) and is a perpetual contender at all three venues. Johnson has 16 wins spread among four of the five tracks with an even half-dozen trophies from both Charlotte and Dover.

Another reason these next races will be a major test is that both Charlotte and Dover have Chase appearances. And with crunch time underway, all the contenders will need to make hay while the sun shines on both of them. The advantage of taking risks now is that teams can use the summer months for innovation, and that will only make them better for the final 10-race showdown.

History tells us that by the time Michigan rolls around in just six short weeks, the Chase field will be all but set. With an average of just two spots swapping hands after the season hits the 15-race marker, the time is now for teams outside the Chase cutoff to make a bid and for the ones inside still needing a win to prove their mettle and visit victory lane.

While many people are looking at August and September as the critical months, the truth is, for the majority of teams, those critical days are right now. Keep an eye on the points as the days heat up. It’s likely that most of the names you see at the top of the board as the haulers roll out of Michigan are the same ones you’ll see there in November.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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