The summer portion of the Sprint Cup schedule will get underway this weekend at Sonoma’s road course, and with the dropping of its green flag there will only be 11 races left for a driver to become Chase eligible. Ten drivers have already won a race this season, including seven different winners in the last seven races, and each one will have the opportunity to run for the title.
Ten winners only leaves six spots left to be filled before the Chase begins and since the inception of the Chase format, the 11-race summer portion of the schedule leading up to the championship round produces no more than two or three new winners. That leaves only a handful of Chase spots left for drivers to claim one of the remaining 16 spots because of their position in the points.
Both points and wins may become a little more difficult during this summer stretch as the schedule makes stops at some of its toughest tracks. This weekend’s road course event will be the first of two tracks that requires both left and the rare right turn as the series will also be making a stop at Watkins Glen in August.
The wild card race on the schedule will be the July 4 weekend restrictor plate race at Daytona International Speedway. It is the one race that gives the entire field a great opportunity to take the checkered flag as the use of the restrictor plate levels the playing field. Daytona’s famous wrecks, known as the “big one”, can wipe out a large portion of the field which leaves those drivers lucky enough not to be involved with an even greater chance of making that all-Important trip to victory lane.
Our own state of Kentucky might also have a say in who makes it into the Chase as Kentucky Speedway’s mile-and-a-half track has been tweaked somewhat and has also undergone a repaving. The track’s old surface was famous for how rough it was, but the new paving has removed many of the bumps. The real difference for the drivers may be the new downforce package that will be used for the race. Many of the teams have tested on the new surface and came away feeling that when they come back next month it should be a high-speed race, but the new package should give the drivers more opportunity to complete a pass.
The remaining two races that can provide another driver with the chance to punch his ticket into the Chase are the stops at Bristol and Richmond. Those two shorttrack races don’t really resemble each other, but both produce side-by-side racing that leads to a lot of rubbing. It is that rubbing and torn up sheet metal that can get the best of a driver’s emotions cause him to make a decision that can take away any chance he has of winning.
The two drivers that are still looking for that first win of the season with the best opportunity to make the Chase should be Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chase Elliott. Earnhardt now sits in the 11th spot, but has been a threat to win at several races this season. His entire team has Chase experience so the pressure and the grind of the remaining races should not add any extra pressure when they unload at each stop on the schedule.
Elliott, who is in his rookie season with Hendrick Motorsports, has put together the kind of season that has made him a solid favorite to make the Chase because he now sits in sixth in the point standings and seems to be getting stronger each week. Even though he doesn’t have a win, he leads all Hendrick drivers (Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne) in top-10 finishes, tied with Johnson for the most top-5’s and has accumulated the most points.
Those two may be the favorites to advance to the Chase, but with such a wide variety of tracks remaining, it just takes a driver and crew chief one great race to put together to become part of the Chase.
Event: Toyota/Save Mart 350
Track: Sonoma Raceway (1.99- mile road course with 10 turns)
Date: June 26, 3 p.m.
Defending Champ: Kyle Busch