Monday, July 23, 2012

NASCAR: Chasing The Chase

Kahne Waiting For The Call
Just past the halfway point in the Sprint Cup season and with seven races left until The Chase, it’s a good time to take a look at one of NASCAR’s most competitive fields in years.  Most seem to agree that the Top 10 is all but locked in.

That means Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Martin Truex, Jr., Clint Boyer and Brad Keselowski are in.  Outside looking in are winners Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano.

Although he’s currently 11th in points, Carl Edwards may be the odd man out.  A crew chief change last week has the smell of desperation.     Edwards needs a victory to be a contender, but is riding a 52-race winless streak.  So far this season he hasn’t come close. 

Kahne, already with two wins and currently 12th in points, is in the driver’s seat for one of the Wild Card spots.  A newcomer to the Hendrick team this year, he started slowly, but has come on strong.  He’s coming off a win at New Hampshire and headed for Indianapolis where he’s done well in the past, leading much of the event last season.  The Hendrick cars also run well at Indy.  So give Kahne one of the Wild Card spots.  Heck, right now he’s one of the Championship favorites.

The real battle is for the second Wild Card spot and it’s currently between Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano, each with one win each.

You keep waiting for Busch to break out of the pack, but he’s been plagued by inconsistency and engine troubles.  He hasn’t regained his stride since being parked by NASCAR at Texas last year.  But he does have the best driver rating of the group at the seven tracks remaining.  And he is Kyle Busch.  He’s got to be the favorite for the remaining spot.

Then there’s Logano, a winner earlier this year at Pocono.  He’s racing for both a spot in The Chase and next season.  With Kenseth headed for his seat at Joe Gibbs Racing, a spot in The Chase may be the difference between a Sprint Cup ride with somebody like Roger Penske, or a demotion to Nationwide circuit with JGR.  His win at Pocono might seem to give him an edge, but as we’ve seen in the past, a win in the first Pocono race of the year doesn’t necessarily translate into a good run in the second race.

I don’t know what to make of Newman.  He also may be racing for next year, his contract with Stewart-Haas Racing up and one his sponsors – the Army – pulling out.  Of the group, he’d be the biggest surprise to make his way into The Chase.

Of course someone could always pull a Brad Keselowski, who was 23rd after 19 races last year.  He then posted two wins and six top 10 finishes to grab a Wild Card spot.  One possible candidate is Jeff Gordon.  Always strong at Indy, he’s due for a change in fortune.

Finally, I’ve always wondered what would happen if one teammate checked up and allowed another teammate through to win a race in order to qualify for the chase.  It’s never happened before.  But let’s say Denny Hamlin is leading at Richmond.  Kyle Bush is second.   Entirely possible given the past history for the drivers and the team.  Does Hamlin, firmly in The Chase, back off and let Busch win, his two victories for the season moving him into The Chase?  Gordon could be another one benefitting from a teammate’s move.   With all three teammates virtually locked in, would one (or more) of them pull aside and let Gordon through for the win if the situation is right?   

Just wondering.

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