The Nextel Cup Series enjoyed its final open week of the season this past weekend before embarking on the stretch run of the schedule that will not only set the drivers for the Chase but also eventually crown this year’s champion. Including this week’s stop at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there are only seven races left before the field of a dozen drivers is set to race for the title over the last 10 races on the schedule.
In years past there were only 10 drivers who moved into the championship round of the schedule, but this year NASCAR has increased that number and in doing so has given a few more drivers the opportunity to race their way into the Chase thanks to the two extra spots. Dale Earnhardt Jr. now sits in the 12th and final transfer spot with a very slim 30-point lead over Ryan Newman, and if that is not enough to make the Budweiser driver nervous, Kurt Busch trails by 77 followed by Jamie McMurray who is only 111 points from making his first-ever Chase.
While those drivers are fighting to make their way into the elite dozen, there are several drivers that will have to race just as hard to make sure they remain inside the top 12. Martin Truex Jr. is only 57 points ahead of Earnhardt Jr. and even Clint Bowyer who is 130 points ahead can’t afford any bad races during the portion of the schedule leading up to the Sept. 8 race at Richmond that will set the field for the Chase.
Beginning at Indy this weekend, those drivers that are now in the top 12 and those we have mentioned that are on the bubble will be facing a schedule that features a wide variety of racetracks that will call upon every skill the driver has. This weekend at Indy, drivers will have to not only contend with the hoopla that surrounds every stop the series makes at the historic venue but also those wide sweeping flat turns that put a premium on how the car is set up.
Indy will seem like a picnic compared to some other stops on the schedule during this sevenrace run to the Chase. Pocono with its unique three-turn layout that features a different amount of banking at each end will present its own set of problems, but if a driver and team can’t figure out three turns then the 11 turns that await the series the following week at Watkins Glen could prove to be the downfall of some of the contenders.
There are two races during the stretch run to the Chase that are familiar and they are Michigan and California. Both of these tracks are two-mile D-shaped ovals that oftentimes end up as fuel mileage races.
There are also two other races that have something in common and they are Bristol and Richmond. Since they are both less than a mile in length they are classified as short tracks, but that is where the similarity ends. Bristol is a high-banked all concrete halfmile that has been repaved since the spring race in March. Anytime they turn on the lights for the August race at this track there are plenty of fireworks both on and off the track. With no testing on the new surface, Bristol may just be the stop that separates the contenders from the pretenders.
The last stop as we said is at the Richmond track that races more like a superspeedway than a short track. This is the last chance to make it into the championship, which actually gives us a couple of races within the race. You have those that are already securely in the Chase that have nothing to lose, you have those that are fighting for the last couple of spots to move into the Chase, and then you have the rest of the field that can play the role of spoiler. Since the Chase started it has been a night of what if’s for many teams as they come close but have to face the reality of finishing the season without a chance to run for the title.
Even though the schedule shows races all the way through mid-November, remember, for all but a dozen teams the schedule is really only seven races long. Making the Chase is what it is all about and even if you don’t win the title, you have had a successful season by being included in such an elite class of race teams. The real pressure of competing at the Cup level begins this weekend – it’s basically race your way in or start looking toward next season.
Race Preview – Event: Allstate 400 At The Brickyard.
Track: Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2.5-mile rectangle, 9 degrees of banking in the turns). Date: July 29, 2 p.m. TV: ESPN. Radio: IMS. Defending champion: Jimmie Johnson.