It’s time to start thinking seriously about NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. With six races to go until the field is set – including this weekend’s Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono – teams and drivers are working to lock themselves into a coveted top-12 slot.
Who’s already in? Using 2,600 points as a cutoff, it can safely be assumed that seven cars are locked into the Chase: Kevin Harvick’s No. 29, Jeff Gordon’s No. 24, Denny Hamlin’s No. 11, Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48, Kurt Busch’s No. 2, Kyle Busch’s No. 18 and Jeff Burton’s No. 31. Barring a disaster, these teams will be racing for a championship during the last 10 weeks of the season -- including Nov. 14 here in Phoenix for the Kobalt Tools 500.
Sitting just below the 2,600 point mark – at eight and ninth in the standings, respectively – are Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart. Both former Sprint Cup champions, it’s hard to imagine either dropping more than three spots and out of the Chase. For argument’s sake, let’s call Kenseth’s No. 17 and Stewart’s No. 14 “in” as well.
That leaves us with three swing spots at 10, 11 and 12 in the Sprint Cup standings. Currently these spots are held by Carl Edwards (2,496 points), Greg Biffle (2,462 points) and Clint Bowyer (2,446 points). All three of these drivers have competed in multiple Chases – Edwards four times, Biffle three and Bowyer twice.
Who are the contenders sitting just outside the Chase field? Six drivers – Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne and David Reutimann – are within 250 points of Edwards, Biffle and Bowyer. Martin, Newman and Kahne were all in the 12-car field in 2010, while Earnhardt made the Chase in 2009. McMurray and Reutimann have never made the Chase.
Winner of both the Daytona 500 and last week’s Brickyard 400, McMurray said he won’t deem his season less of a success if he doesn’t end up in the Chase. In fact, he said the Chase really isn’t even a focal point for him.
“Everyone wants to make the Chase,” McMurray said. But getting to win the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 means more to me this year than making the Chase. This year or in 10 years, the guy that won that race one time everybody will talk about. The guy that finished third in the points, nobody cares. I would really like to be in the Chase, but I have no focus on that at all.”
Reutimann, who won his second career Sprint Cup event three weekends ago at Chicagoland, said he and the 00 team are just trying to win races.
“Our approach is not really to be concerned about the points; just go out there and race and put it all out there,” Reutimann said. “At this point you don't have anything to lose. You need to make up ground. That enables your crew chief to maybe take some chances he wouldn't normally take maybe during the race, whether it means taking two, gambling on fuel. It opens up your window.”
If any of the drivers sitting just outside the top-12 are to make a move into the Chase field, success needs to start this weekend at Pocono. Kahne won at Pocono in 2008, as did Newman in 2003. None of the six drivers mentioned as Chase contenders finished in the top 10 at Pocono earlier this year.
“You need to qualify up front and you need to finish up front, in the top 10, in the top five in order to remotely having a chance of being where you need to be,” Reutimann said. “We're going to go out there and see what we can do and try to get as many points on the board at the end of the race.”