It never fails to amaze me how quickly the NASCAR season passes despite its immense longevity. Perhaps this is just simply a function of the passing of time – I keep getting older despite my best intentions – but can there really only be three races left until we start the oft ballyhooed 2012 Chase? It only seems like yesterday the one-man wrecking crew Juan Pablo Montoya smacked into the jet dryer at Daytona during the Great American Race. He’s been hitting just about everything else too, since. Ah, good times.
But I digress from my main point – a common theme for my columns these last five years I’ll admit. And today, that theme is the wild card spots up for grabs in this year’s race. Sure, there are some, like Kasey Kahne with his pair of wins, that are looking good but with three races to go, and with the way this season has gone the simple fact is that the two spots are very much up for grabs. Not least given the schedule these next three weeks.
Next up it’s the newly reconfigured bullring of Bristol Motor Speedway and the hope is that track that once very much lived up to its moniker of Thunder Valley returns to an approximation of what made it so beloved in the first place. From there we go to the venerable high speed, high banked Atlanta Motor Speedway – the 105th Cup race in the storied venue’s history – before finishing up the pre-Chase portion of the schedule at that jewel of a short track: Richmond International Raceway in what is sure, in many ways, to be a pivotal and critical event in the 36-race calendar.
As of today, with wins and then position in the overall points standings being the two factors (in order) to determine the spots, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman are in possession of the final two slots but there are a number of other drivers more than in contention. Kyle Busch, who has endured a quiet season by his high standards, is just eleven points (or positions on the track) behind Ryan Newman. Jeff Gordon, with his one win, is just 30 markers back. Marcos Ambrose, courtesy of his second straight win at Watkins Glen, is also in a strong position, 41 points behind Newman while Joey Logano sits a more distant 80 points back, also with one win already in the bank.
Then, of course, there’s Carl Edwards, suffering the second place slump whatever he wants to say to the contrary, who is only a win out of moving into a wild card slot, sitting in 12th spot in the overall standings just nine behind 11th place Ryan Newman. Other drivers such as Paul Menard (0 wins, 15th place), Jamie McMurray (0 wins, 19th place) and Jeff Burton (0 wins, 20th place) are also still in mathematical, albeit unlikely, contention. And anything can and probably could occur. And I haven’t even mentioned Tony Stewart (three wins, ninth place, 34 points ahead of 11th) and Denny Hamlin (two wins, 10th place, 33 points up on the 11th slot) for who two or three sub-par finishes could still see them fall out of the top ten.
In short, then, it’s complicated. And not even the boldest of prognosticators can truly say today what the final composition of 12 might be come the first race of the Chase at Chicagoland. This is, then, very much what NASCAR must have hoped for when they introduced the wild card spots. Sure, there are those who are all but guaranteed Chase berths, but there are plenty of others fighting tooth and nail, scrapping for every last win and every vital point, and that’s only going to add more excitement to these next three weeks. What is for sure, though, is that with each of the next three races the picture will shift, perhaps quite wildly, with three unpredictable tracks ahead of us.
And three tracks, might I add, that number amongst my very favorite on the circuit – assuming we get back to seeing Bristol like it was meant to be and not the pale imitation of a great track it has become these past few years following the tremendously ill-advised changing of the track. One thing is for sure, it certainly should be fascinating to watch how it all unfolds these next few weeks before the Chase field for 2012 is finally set and the serious business of winning a Cup championship gets underway.
Two final points to finish up: There’s not much I enjoy more in NASCAR than seeing a sour expression on Chad Knaus’ face as he stomped, all moody, back to the garage after Johnson’s engine expired with a handful of laps to go while leading. Truth is with the way Jimmie has run (restrictor plate tracks excepted) 2012 sure looks like the year Double J adds to his clutch of five Sprint Cup crowns and comes within one title of the hallowed number of seven. When the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy finally made it past Brad Keselowski (no high-fiving of the winner’s crew for second place finisher this week, it seems, something that struck me as very strange given the importance of every point and the three bonus points for a win in the Chase) it was his race to lose. And lose he did. It doesn’t happen that often, that’s for sure and like I say, he’s the one to beat.
And finally, thank the good Lord above Mark Martin is okay after a truly bizarre and terrifying wreck at Michigan this past Sunday. I shudder to think how much worse that could have been. It just goes to show once again how dangerous NASCAR can be, even with all the safety enhancements. I’m just glad the ageless raisin man, a term I use with great affection, is absolutely fine to strap back in and ride again. You keep it up, Mark Martin. You are indisputably the man.
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