This weekend, as many as five drivers – Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski – could mathematically clinch their spots inside the top 10, assuming they leave Michigan with at least a 145-point gap over 11th place. But perhaps the more appealing race to keep an eye on is one for the the wildcard. Whether you agree that a driver outside the top 10 in points should even have a shot at the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, the fact is that they do.
With Kasey Kahne a virtual lock for the first wildcard slot thanks to a pair of victories at Charlotte and Loudon, there are still five other drivers – Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano – that have one win apiece. The problem is that those five drivers all look to snag the one final spot left to make the Chase. Ideally, any of the hopefuls would love nothing more than a second visit to victory lane to help solidify their spot. But who has the best shot given the four tracks remaining?
While both Ambrose and Logano mathematically still have shot of propelling themselves up through the field, you can pretty much count them out considering the 44 and 57-point deficits they would need to make up, respectively, to make it into the Chase on a single win. That’s not to say they can’t make the Chase; however both would have to go on a hot streak such as they have yet to see in their young careers.
With that said, Newman is the driver with the biggest target on his back after scoring his lone victory this year at Martinsville. Following a last-lap spin by Jeff Gordon at Watkins Glen, the driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet holds the second wildcard slot; however, he’s not all that secure in his position.
With a slim 10-marker lead over Gordon, Newman needs consistency and likely a little luck on his side to join team owner Tony Stewart in the Chase. While he does have three wins combined at the four remaining tracks, his most recent came at Michigan back in 2004. Combine that with an average finish outside the top 10 for each facility and you’ve got a recipe that leads to Newman racing for 13th rather than the championship.
And that brings us to Gordon. Despite a tough start to the season and poor luck along the way, the four-time champion is in a rare position sitting on the outside looking in at the Chase field. After falling from the second wildcard slot at Watkins Glen, there’s a real chance the 41-year-old could miss the Chase for the second time since its inception in 2004. However, if the performance by the driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet at the next four tracks on the schedule is any indication, he could very easily snag the all-important Chase slot.
While Gordon is the winningest driver of the trio we’re looking at with a combined 14 wins at the four tracks in question, including five apiece at Bristol and Atlanta, much like Newman, his average finish remains outside the top 10 for all four venues. However, Gordon did win last year in Atlanta while the rest of his victories came in 2002 or earlier.
That’s not to say he can’t visit victory lane at Michigan, Bristol or Richmond, especially since he boasts back-to-back top-six results in the series’ last two trips to the 2-mile oval in Brooklyn, Mich. A little luck could go a long way for the No. 24 team, but I have a pretty strong feeling he’ll be on the outside looking in, especially when you consider how much they struggled in the early stages at Watkins Glen.
Gordon wasn’t the only one that left Watkins Glen a bit disappointed. Kyle Busch, who took the white flag as the leader only to see the victory slip away – literally – grabbed a win at Richmond but has suffered sour luck through much of the year through no fault of his own. But despite his struggles, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota has the best shot at making the Chase solely on his statistics at the four remaining venues.
With 11 wins combined, including four out of five straight events from 2009 through early 2011 at Bristol and a win at Michigan last fall, Busch has shown recently that he’s a strong driver at three of the four remaining tracks. Add in his victory from earlier this season at Richmond and there’s no reason to assume he can’t repeat in a few weeks despite how quiet he’s been for much of the year.
Look for Busch to race his way in with at least one more trip to victory lane before the final Chase field is set. After all, what more would you expect from a guy with his personality after losing a race that he was so close to heading to victory lane in?
Now these scenarios could become a moot point if Joe Gibbs Racing can’t find the momentum they so desperately need. Following two victories in the first eight races of the year, Denny Hamlin has suffered four DNFs in the last eight events, dropping him from solidly inside the top five to on the bubble in 10th. Assuming the No. 11 team fails to overcome the issues that have plagued them for several races, Hamlin still won’t miss the Chase even if he drops out of the top 10, however the likelihood that he’ll manage to mount a strong run at the championship two years after seeing it slip through his fingers is slim to none.
Simply put, with just four races left to decide the 12 drivers who will race for it all in the final 10 events of the year, there are so many possibilities. However, if the top 10 remains as it is today, I’d expect to see Kyle Busch as that second wildcard unless someone like Carl Edwards finally finds the performance that has been just outside his grasp for much of the year. One thing is for sure though: it should be an exciting fight for that last spot.
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