When all of the smoke and flying debris came to a halt after the last lap of the Coke Zero 400 from Daytona International Speedway Saturday night, the season had actually reached the halfway point.
It used to be when the sport crowned its champion by what I call the traditional method that the leader of the points at this stage had a great chance of going on and claiming the title. It was 18 races down and 18 to go under that system, but that has all changed now even though there are still 36 races making up the Sprint Cup schedule.
The reason for the change is NASCAR’s move to the Chase system for crowning its champion. Now, the annual trip back to Daytona during the Fourth of July week doesn’t really give any driver a leg up on the title, but it does have a say on which drivers have the best shot of earning one of the 12 spots in the Chase.
So there is really no more of the so-called “halfway” point of the season. Every team and driver has the first 26 races to earn a spot in the Chase field. The top 10 in points automatically move on into the Championship round but the two “wild card” drivers in the field actually have to earn their way into the field by winning races.
Maybe the old method of points was easier to follow, but you sure have to love the excitement level that the Chase brings to the sport and the way it keeps more drivers in the hunt as the summer months begin to give away to the fall. Those drivers in the top 10 seem to always be there season after season with an occasional driver putting together a breakout year that lands him one of the 10 guaranteed spots.
This season the real battle is shaping up among those drivers who are trying to secure one of the two remaining Chase spots by the number of wins they have. All of the multiple race winners this season are in the top 10 at this time. Tony Stewart’s win at Daytona on Saturday night tied him with Brad Keselowski for the series lead with three each, while Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson are a solid bet to make the Chase field with two wins apiece as they have established their spots in the top 10.
That leaves four drivers as we begin the eight-race stretch that will ultimately set the Chase field with a win each. Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne have a win each and are in contention to move into the Chase round, but since they all have the same amount of wins, it will come down to who finishes the highest in the points inside the top 20. This is where it can change after every race and that is just what happened after the Coke Zero 400.
Logano finished fourth on Saturday one spot ahead of Ryan Newman and in the process moved up two spots in the point standings to 14th. That one spot is the difference between being in the Chase at this point and missing it as Newman trails Logano by only one point. Busch leads all of those wild card drivers by being in the 12th spot, but the difference between him and Kahne in 16th is only 20 points.
It could be that these drivers will not be the only ones fighting it out for a wild card spot as Carl Edwards sits in 11th and he is always a threat to win at any track. Clint Bowyer is in 10th with a win, so if he would slip down a spot he would have one of the wild card spots. This is definitely where the competition will be the greatest over the next couple of months. All of these drivers are in the peculiar position of not only racing for points, but each also knows that just one more win would separate him from the rest of the field that just has one trip to victory lane.
PIT NOTES: When the Chase field is set, drivers are rewarded for their wins only if they made the Chase by being in the top 10 in points. Every driver in the Chase will have their points reset to 2,000 with those in the top 10 receiving three bonus points per win. Wild card drivers do not get a bonus for any wins.
Event: Lenox Industrial Tools 301
Track: New Hampshire Motor
Speedway (1.058 mile oval, 12
degrees of banking in the turns)
Date: July 15, 1 p.m.
Defending Champion: Ryan