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Chasing the wildcard

Steve Mickey


 

 

The new point system introduced by NASCAR this season in the Sprint Cup Series has been tough to figure out, especially when it came to trying to figure out just how many points that it took before a lead was considered safe. Sunday’s race at Pocono finally gave us something to go by, as the points chase is now considerably closer after Carl Edwards limped home in 37th place.

Edwards entered Sunday’s race with a 40-point cushion over second-place driver Jimmie Johnson, but after just being able to finish only 59 laps he saw his once comfortable lead shrink to just six points as Johnson finished fourth in his Chevrolet. Every driver in the top five picked up points as 60 points separated first from fifth going into the race. When the checkered flag waved the deficit had been cut down to 25 points.

Edwards’ trouble shows that what was once thought to be a safe lead is no longer safe with the new point system. Only the top 10 in the points will automatically move into the Chase after the first 26 races of the season. The Chase field will still be made up of 12 drivers, but the last two spots are reserved for drivers outside of the top-10 but still inside the top-20 with the most wins.

The magic number of wins a driver needs to make the Chase is yet to be determined as there are still 12 races remaining before the field is set to race for this year’s title. Jeff Gordon is the only driver at this time that may have a Chase slot secured. His win at Pocono on Sunday was the second of the season and he now sits in 11th place in the points.

Brad Keselowski and Ragan Smith have both visited victory lane this season, but neither of the drivers is presently in the top 20. Keselowski sits in the 22nd place in the points, 13 points out of the 20th position while Smith is in 27th, 47 points out of 20th. Unless both drivers can crack the top 20 before the final race leading to the Chase at Richmond in September, their wins will not count toward making the field.

If no driver has any wins outside of the top 10 but still inside the top 20 after the Richmond race, those final two spots will go to the drivers in the 11th and 12th position in points. What makes all of this the more interesting is that Gordon is now only six points away from cracking the top 10.

There is still plenty of racing to go before the Chase is set, but if Gordon is able to race his way into the Chase by finishing in the top 10, that would mean that a driver finishing outside the top 10 but inside the top 20 may only need to win one race to secure his spot in the Chase. The drivers in that position are no strangers to victory lane and it includes Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Juan Pablo Montoya, Mark Martin and Kasey Kahne. These drivers are capable of winning any time a green flag waves. It’s a unique position that these drivers find themselves in and one that now puts much more of an emphasis on winning than those drivers that at the present time are safely inside the top 10.

It’s just another race inside the race each weekend. There will be those drivers competing to stay inside the top 10, drivers trying to notch a win, drivers trying to move into the top 20 with a win and the competition between those drivers trying to secure a spot in the top 35 that guarantees a spot in the starting field at each stop on the schedule.

This is no doubt about what NASCAR envisioned when the change in points was announced before the season. Usually at this point in the season the number of drivers still with a legitimate shot of making the chase has been cut down to around 15 at the most. That’s not the case now. The list of drivers still with a chance of getting the opportunity to run for the title includes over half of the starting field each week. That is competition and that is what this sport has always been about!

Race Preview Event: Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 Track: Michigan International Speedway (2-mile D-shaped oval, 18 degrees of banking) Date: June 19, 1 p.m. TV: TNT Radio: MRN Defending Champion: Denny Hamlin


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