Before the season started, NASCAR announced that it was overhauling the point system and that it would also do some tweaking on how the field for the Chase is set. In years prior to this season, the top 12 in points after the 26th race of the season at Richmond in September moved into the championship round of 10 races with the opportunity to run for the title.
All of that has changed now as NASCAR has made a move to reward teams for winning, regardless of where they are in the point standings. Only the top 10 in points after the September Richmond race will be guaranteed a starting spot in the Chase field. The Chase will still consist of a dozen drivers, but the final two spots in the field will be reserved for the two drivers not in the top 10 that have posted the most victories regardless of their point standings.
California was the fifth race of the season and no one really knows yet just how hard it will be for a driver to drive his way back into the top 10 after getting off to a rough start. Making the climb to the top 10 will be made even harder by the closeness that is now between Carl Edwards in first and Matt Kenseth in the 10th spot. Kenseth is 30 points out of the top spot, but he trails second-place driver Ryan Newman by only 21 points.
Other than Edwards in the top spot with a nine-point cushion as the series goes into Martinsville this weekend, the nine drivers separated by just 21 points make the top 10 very fluid as the sight of new drivers moving up while other drivers are falling out of the elite list becomes the norm. In the past, drivers came and went out of the top 10 during the spring portion of the schedule, but that was under the old point system. This season is just too early to try and predict how difficult it will be to really come from deep in the standings at this time to make a run at the top 10.
Unfortunately, there are several drivers that before the season started were always mentioned as some of the drivers that should be in the hunt to secure one of the top-10 spots and move on into the Chase. Greg Biffle in the 20th spot now finds himself 38 points out of being in 10th, but he is in better shape than some other big names that have gotten off to a slower start.
Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton were both in the Chase last year, but now might be considered long shots to make it back with a top- 10 finish. Hamlin, after suffering engine problems on Sunday at California, finds himself 45 points out of 10th with Burton 54 points from the final transfer spot. They are joined by Jamie McMurray (-60) and Joey Logano (-64) as the drivers that might have to race their way into the Chase by making several trips to victory lane in the races leading up to the all-important final race before the Chase at Richmond.
This is where the tweaking of the Chase for this season will come into play. While there should be a great battle for drivers trying to secure one of the 10 guaranteed spots in the Chase by finishing in the top 10, it could be that competition for those last two spots will create even more excitement.
The way those drivers compete that are fighting for one of the 10 spots in the Chase courtesy of being in the top 10 will not change. Those with a safe lead in the final races will race to protect their spot, while the drivers trying to nail down one of the last couple of spots will have to push it a lot harder.
That’s fine if you are trying to race your way into the Chase by being in the points, but the bulk of the field will be relegated to making the field by winning races. Drivers that don’t have to worry about points and only race for wins make up the recipe for a great show on race day. All we have to do is look at the All-Star race at Charlotte and the Budweiser Shootout in Daytona to see the kind of racing that we may be treated to when the schedule winds down through the final races of the summer months.
Five races is not really enough to get a good feel on what might be in store regarding the battle for the Chase, but it has already become apparent that there will be two different battles ragging as we approach the setting of the Chase field.
Race Preview Event: Goody’s Fast Relief 500 Track: Martinsville Speedway (.526 mile oval, 12 degrees of banking in the turns) Date: April 3, 1 p.m. TV: FOX Radio: MRN Defending Champion: Denny Hamlin