Saturday night’s annual return trip to Daytona for the running of the Coke Zero 400 marked the halfway point of the Sprint Cup schedule. Eighteen races have already gone into the record books with another 18 to go before the 2009 champion is crowned at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
In the years before NASCAR went to the Chase format to determine its champion, the top four or five drivers leaving Daytona going into the second half of the season were thought to be the group that would eventually produce the title winner. To some extent that line of thought still lingers today but with the Chase format giving 12 drivers the chance to run for the championship, the next eight races may well produce some of the most intense racing of the entire season as the spread between seventh-place driver Ryan Newman and 12thplace Kasey Kahne is only 69 points.
Those six drivers will not only be racing each other for one of the elite 12 transfer spots but also four other drivers who are definitely close enough to be in the top 12 when the checkered flag waves at Richmond in September when the Chase field is set. Mark Martin heads that group as he now sits in 13th, 65 points out of 12th thanks to a 38th-place finish at Daytona. Martin has three wins on the season and has been in the top 12 for much of the season, but a few more finishes like Saturday night will have him watching from the outside as the final 10 races determine the champion.
David Reutimann followed Martin’s lead at Daytona as he finished 36th which dropped him down to 14th in the standings, 74 points outside of being in the top 12. The only two other drivers with a legitimate shot of making the field at this time are Richard Childress Racing teammates Jeff Burton (-104 pts.) and Clint Bowyer (-135 pts.). Both of these drivers are Chase veterans but have struggled to find any consistency this season. If either wants to drive his way in, he must be able to string together eight good races as one bad finish could take away any chance of moving into the championship round.
While these nine drivers face the intensity of what amounts to an eight-race schedule, those drivers sitting safely in the top six have the luxury of trying a few things with their race cars that they may be able to use once the Chase gets underway. Winning will still be paramount for each of these teams as a win is worth 10 bonus points heading into the Chase, but being able to try out new ideas without jeopardizing a spot in the field can pay a huge benefit as the last 10 races of the season go off the board.
Even though Tony Stewart leads the field now with a 180- point lead over second-place Jeff Gordon, he still is driving for his own first-year team which can no doubt use the races leading up to the Chase to try some things which they have not had the time to do all season. Crew chief Darien Grubb and Stewart have only been together this season and this will be the opportune time for Grubb to fine tune exactly what Tony is looking for on race day. Both Stewart and Grubb know that their race team has a tremendous amount of momentum behind it at this time and will not go too far in trying to gain an edge for the championship run.
PIT NOTES: The NASCAR Hall of Fame announced a list of 25 nominees for its inaugural induction class. That list will be reduced to five that will be announced in October and inducted next May in Charlotte at the opening of the new facility. As you would expect the list reads like a legend’s roll call in the sport but there are a couple of names that just seem to be in a class by themselves. Richard Petty and Bill France Sr. deserve the honor of going in with the first class as they were the cornerstones that the sport was built on and without either the sport may not command the stage that it now does. A strong case could be made for each of the rest of the nominees but since the sport still misses Dale Earnhardt Sr., one of those three remaining spots may already be reserved.
Race Preview — Event : LifeLock 400. Track: Chicagoland Speedway (1.5-mile tri-oval, 18 degrees of banking in the turns). Date: July 11, 8:15 p.m.TV: TNT. Radio: MRN. Defending champion: Kyle Busch.