The Sprint Cup Series’ schedule is basically divided into two sections with the first 26 races serving as a qualifying round for the final 10 races that make up the Chase. In years past the Chase portion of the schedule was more like a mini-season that would eventually crown the champion.
NASCAR’s tweaking of the Chase rules for this year has made the 10-race stretch a playoff that will reduce the number of drivers with a chance for a run at the title along the way until there are only four remaining for the final checkered flag of the season. On Sunday at Chicago, we got our first glimpse at what appeared to be the strategy that every team will use to try and advance through the trio of three-race rounds of the Chase.
Winning is still the easiest way to move into the next round, but with only three races to post a win, the bold moves that we were seeing by drivers on the track and crew chiefs in the pits during the first 26 races of the season did not take place on Sunday. The realization that a team’s season was now only three races long was evident by everyone involved as suddenly the talk of a good finish in the points outweighed the talk of winning.
Brad Keselowski’s chances of winning seemed to be lost when he had to make an extra pit stop under a caution flag on lap 183 to tighten a loose lug nut and restarted the race 16th. His Penske Racing Ford, like it had been all season long, had the speed to win, but he found himself stuck back in the field on the mile-anda half track.
He began to work his way back to the front and benefitted greatly from a couple of cautions in the final 35 laps of the 267-lap event. When the race restarted on lap 250, Keselowski found himself in a position to race for the win as he watched Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick battle for the lead.
Larson and Harvick raced side by side for several laps with both drivers taking turns at leading at different points around the racetrack. The two were side drafting off of each other when they created a small hole between the two that turned into the window of opportunity for Keselowski.
Keselowski made the move of the race when he put the nose of his Ford between the two drivers as they battled each other and made the pass that eventually put him in victory lane. The checkered flag takes all of the pressure away from Keselowski and his crew chief Paul Wolfe as the win guaranteed that they would on to the second round of the Chase with the opportunity to continue to run for the title.
Keselowski is the only one of the 16 Chase drivers that will arrive at New Hampshire secure in knowing that he will be one of the 12 drivers that will move on to the second round of three races. There are still two guaranteed spots left for any driver with wins at either New Hampshire this weekend or Dover the following week, but the remaining nine will be filled by where a driver is in the points.
Unlike just making the Chase where a driver had 26 chances to win and move on, the three race segments of the Chase force drivers and crew chiefs to come up with a strategy that creates the best scenario to collect as many points as possible. It’s possible that a driver can advance his way through the nine races leading up to the final race if he can string together consistent finishes in the top 10 with the bulk of them being in the top five.
Even the points racing that we are seeing take place will change as the Chase moves on through the schedule as number of drivers moving into the next round will continue to dwindle. The smaller the number of drivers moving into the next round will make points racing tougher and will once again make going for the win the surest path to the final race with a chance for winning the title.
Event: Sylvania 300
Track: New Hampshire Motor Speedway (1 mile oval, 12 degrees of banking in the turns)
Date: Sept. 21, 2 p.m.
Defending Champ: Matt Kenseth