NASCAR: Top 6 Things That Could Shake Up the Race to the Chase
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With the beginning of the Chase for the Sprint Cup just six races away, 2012's "Race to the Chase" is shaping up to be one of the most interesting yet.
So much can happen over the course of one race that six races feels like an eternity when it comes to what could happen before the Chase starts.
There are a ton of storylines that are, or could, come into play over the next month and a half.
Here's a look at six things that could play a crucial part in setting the stage for the Chase for the Sprint Cup:
The Race for the Wild Card
Teammates Kasey Kahne (left) and Jeff Gordon are both in the wild card race, but in very different ways.
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NASCAR has made some good moves in the past and some not-so-good moves, but this idea was a home run.
2012 is the second year in which the top two drivers outside the top 10 with the most victories also qualify for the Chase, a so-called "wild card" berth.
This year's wild card battle is shaping up to be a fun one. Kasey Kahne sits 13th in the standings, but wins at Charlotte and Loudon have him in great shape to earn one of the wild card berths.
The other spot, however, is going to be hotly contested all the way down to the final lap at Richmond in September.
Kyle Busch (11th in points), Ryan Newman (14th) and Joey Logano (17th) all have one victory. If the Chase started today, Busch would get the second wild card spot.
A second win for Newman or Logano would catapult them past Busch into position to make the Chase. Factor in desperate guys like Carl Edwards (12th in points), Jeff Gordon (15th), Paul Menard (16th) and Marcos Ambrose (18th), and that's a whole lot of guys looking for wins the next six races.
As the Chase cutoff draws closer, the time is approaching where you start seeing teams roll the dice more on pit strategy or drivers start making more aggressive moves on the race track to try to sneak into victory lane.
When things like that start happening, the running order can get shuffled and turn the entire wild card situation on its head.
Jimmie Johnson's Resurgence
If Jimmie Johnson and Co. get hot, fans could see a lot more of this this season.
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The term "resurgence" is used very loosely here, because, after all, it's not like Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team every really went anywhere.
Johnson is fourth in points, 27 points behind leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. Not only did he win earlier in the year at Darlington and Dover, but he leads the Sprint Cup series in top-5 finishes (10) and is tied with Earnhardt Jr. for the lead in top 10s (15).
But while Johnson's team hasn't struggled this year, per se, it never really showed that week-to-week muscle that it personified during their five-year string of Cup titles (though his win at Dover was thoroughly convincing).
This past Sunday's race at Indianapolis, however, could change all that.
Johnson was untouchable Sunday, showing shades of the dominance that the No. 48 team used to show on his way to his fourth Indy victory. It was a performance that could be just what Johnson and Co. need to build up a head of steam headed towards the Chase.
Johnson's three victories would tie him for the points lead, were the Chase to start this weekend. If Johnson can earn another win or two before the cutoff, it would put the Cup series on notice that he and crew chief Chad Knaus should be the odds-on favorite to claim their sixth Cup crown.
If things go according to plan, unscathed cars like these will be a thing of Bristol's past...again.
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Ask and you shall receive.
After fans voiced their displeasure about the racing at the revamped Bristol, track owner Bruton Smith gave in and did what the fans wanted.
He announced that he was putting Bristol back to the way it was (via Sporting News).
August 25th's Irwin Tools Night Race will be the first event at the beloved 0.533-mile Tennessee bullring since Smith made good on his promise and ground away the top groove of the racing surface in an attempt to bring back the beating and slamming that once made Bristol the toughest ticket in NASCAR.
If it's true that the track is back to the way it was—and drivers' reactions (via Sporting News) from a June tire test say it is—then the rough-and-tumble racing just two races away from the Chase cutoff could play havoc with who gets in and who is left out.
So much can happen on Bristol's high banks, especially late in the race when positions are up for grabs and contact is all but expected. Jeff Gordon saw that in April, when contact with Dale Earnhardt Jr. while racing inside the top 5 caused a cut tire and a 35th-place finish.
If something like that were to happen later this month to a Chase contender, it could make the Race to the Chase even crazier.
Matt Kenseth's Lame Duck Status
Matt Kenseth's impending departure from Roush Fenway could hinder his team's title hopes.
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When Matt Kenseth announced he was leaving Roush Fenway Racing at the end of 2012 (via ESPN), his team was sitting atop the Sprint Cup standings.
Immediately, and somewhat predictably, the questions started.
Can the No. 17 team maintain focus to fight for the title? Will Kenseth's heart be in it? Will his team give it their best when their driver is leaving them? Can their relationship stay strong long enough to win it all?
Kenseth and his team assured everyone that they were as committed as ever to winning a championship, and they maintained the points lead for weeks after that.
But after a 13th-place run at Loudon in which Kenseth was virtually invisible and a 35th-place finish at Indy that came after a crash with Joey Logano, Kenseth goes to the track this weekend without the points lead for the first time since the series headed to Pocono in June.
This weekend, he's headed back to Pocono with two sub-par finishes and a ton of negative momentum. Until now, things had been all sunshine and roses and everyone sort of forgot that this team is on borrowed time.
Now that it isn't sitting at the top of the mountain riding a wave of momentum, it'll be interesting to see if the wheels begin to fall off this team. How Kenseth and his team rebound over the next six weeks will show if they are legitimate championship contenders, or doomed to suffer through the Chase in mediocrity as their marriage winds down.
The Glen's winding turns always have potential to shake up the standings.
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NASCAR's annual visit to New York comes up a week from Sunday, and to say that anything can happen on the winding road course at the Glen is an understatement.
Over the years, road course racing has evolved from a show of finesse and skill to a raucous affair filled with a robust amount of door-slamming that can rival any short track.
The Glen still takes an awful lot of finesse, though. Last year, Kyle Busch was in prime position for a victory, but over-drove Turn 1 on a late restart and handed Marcos Ambrose his first career win.
Every position and every point is precious from here on out, both for those trying to claw their way into the Chase and those jockeying for position inside of it.
If one or more of these contenders goes to Watkins Glen and tears up their car, or over-drives a corner late and gives up a ton of spots, it could be the difference between making the Chase and being on the outside looking in.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Winning Again
Dale Earnhardt Jr. could stamp his spot as a legitimate title contender with another win or two.
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2012 has, in many ways, been the best season of Dale Earnhardt Jr’s career.
He leads the points for the first time since 2004, won a race at Michigan in June that ended a 143-race winless drought, and stands to enter the Chase with his best chance ever to capture his first Sprint Cup title.
Earnhardt is the only driver to complete every single lap on the Sprint Cup circuit through 20 races in 2012, a remarkable show of consistency.
But, fairly or unfairly, NASCAR’s reseeding system after the Chase cutoff is built to promote winning, not consistency.
Were the points to be reseeded as they are now, Junior would go from the points lead to a tie for fifth place, based on his single victory this season.
Even when he was fantastically competitive early in the year, detractors said that Earnhardt stood no chance of winning the championship because he had not won a race.
Then, he did win, and the knock became that he couldn’t win the title with just one win.
The fact is simple: The No. 88 team will not be looked at as a legitimate championship threat without winning another race before the Chase.
The Chase would take an entirely different complexion if Junior goes into the Chase near the top of the standings with two or even three victories. Winning another race would make the entire NASCAR world take the 88 team’s title chances a little more seriously.
Earnhardt had the best car at Pocono in June, and has previous wins at Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta, and Richmond—all tracks the Sprint Cup Series returns to before the Chase.
If the Dew Crew could get another victory before the Chase begins, it could just be the shove that gets Junior into prime position for his first title.