Sunday’s Gillette Fusion Pro- Glide 500 at Pocono marked the beginning of the second half of the 26 races that leads to the field being set for the all-important Chase. There are now only a dozen races before 12 drivers will have the opportunity to run for this season’s Sprint Cup title. This stretch of races leading up to the final race at Richmond in September that will set the Chase field plays no favorites as it represents a wide cross section of the tracks that make up the Sprint Cup schedule.
Trying to break down this portion of the schedule into groups is extremely tough, as many of the venues are one of a type. Michigan, which plays host to the series this weekend, gets the honor of being in its own group as both stops at the two-mile D-shaped oval take place within a two-month stretch.
Oddly, both road course races occur during this stretch of the schedule. Infineon Raceway plays host to the first road course race immediately after the first Michigan race, with the second road course event taking place six races later at Watkins Glen. Those races, at one, time used to be tough on drivers trying to stake a claim to the championship, but so many are now going to driving schools to improve their road course skills that both of these races are wide open with no one driver being the favorite.
After the West Coast trip to Infi- neon, the next four races have little in common, with the exception of the green flag waving at the start and the checkered flag waving to proclaim the winner. New Hampshire is up first with its very flat one-mile oval that actually races like a short track. It’s also one of the shorter events on the schedule, as it consists of only 301 laps.
Next is the annual Fourth of July stop at Daytona for the running of the Coke Zero 400. It’s the only restrictor plate race leading up to the Chase, and it is also the one race that a driver must have a lot of help from other drivers if he wants a chance at making it to victory lane.
Chicagoland Speedway awaits the series after Daytona, and that track can be grouped with Atlanta, which plays host to the series during Labor Day. Those are the only two 1.5-mile tracks during this stretch but some teams work hard on their programs for this length track and with so many races being held at tracks this size, some teams can really make up some points.
Indy takes center stage next as it has as much media coverage as any other track on the schedule. It is considered one of the crown jewels on the schedule and every driver would like to have an Indy win on his resume, but the bottom line is that Sprint Cup cars just don’t put on a good show at the giant flat track. The following week the series goes back to Pocono, which even though it only has three turns, it is very similar to Indy as it has very little banking and, like Indy, is 2.5 miles in length.
That leaves races only at the short tracks of Bristol and Richmond. The Chase has had more of an impact on these two tracks than they have had on the Chase. The night race at Bristol used to be one of the most highly competitive events on the entire schedule, but with only races at Atlanta and Richmond remaining before the field is set, few drivers seem willing to risk getting their cars banged up while racing for a win.
Richmond is in the unique spot of being the final race before the Chase field is set. There are always a couple of drivers just outside the top 12 trying to race their way in, while there are usually a couple of drivers just inside the same list trying to maintain their spot. It usually makes for some great racing as those drivers safely in the field will pull out all stops in trying to win the race, and in the process pick up the 10 bonus points for the win.
The wide variety of tracks and the pressure of making the Chase during this stretch produces some of the best racing of the season. This is the time that a driver and team must make a move if they wants to become the next Sprint Cup champions.
Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400. Track:
Michigan International Speedway (twomile D-shaped oval, 18 degrees of banking). Date:
June 13, 1 p.m. TV: