Next week marks the beginning of summer, and the start of NASCAR’s stretch run to the Chase for The Sprint Cup. Now in its sixth year, the drama and excitement we saw in the first years has waned slightly (due to the large Chase field), but it still represents the biggest point of stress for teams and drivers this side of Daytona.
The top three in the standings (Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson) appear to be safe locks to make The Chase, and Kurt Busch (fourth in the standings) looks to be relatively safe as well.
However, from fifth on back, there is a bit of a dogfight. A little more than 120 points separates Ryan Newman (fifth) from Jeff Burton (12th).
Like last year, I’ll be starting up the “Chaser or Racer” pieces in the lead into each race, looking at the drivers between 10th and 16th in the standings and their chances of cracking, or staying in, the top 12, with a final prediction coming just before the Richmond race.
This time of the season is always fun for fans and journalists, and stressful for the teams and drivers. It’s the run to the “postseason” folks; strap in and hold on.
10th Place: Denny Hamlin
It’s hard to believe he’s the “senior” driver in the Joe Gibbs team, but the 2006 Rookie of the Year is indeed the elder statesmen of the coach’s driver lineup. Unfortunately, his driving performances haven’t indicated that very much.
Hamlin is the epitome of “woulda, coulda, shoulda.” Since 2007, he has had the best car in a given race probably more than a dozen times, but has only two wins in that time period to show for it.
Now, that’s not to say he hasn’t run well, because he has. He consistently puts himself in the in the top ten, but can’t seem to find his way to Victory Lane. His consistency will help him (assuming he can avoid bad luck), but his lack of wins will hurt his title chances.
Hamlin is heading to one of his better tracks in New Hampshire in a couple weeks, and he’s usually very good in the summer. Maybe he can take advantage and grab a win during this stretch? He’s capable of doing so, but he’ll have to learn to seal the deal. Otherwise, a title chance may be just out of his reach.
11th Place: Matt Kenseth
He became the first driver since Jeff Gordon (1997) to win the opening two races. Since then, however, the Roush Fenway driver has struggled mightily, and has fallen out of the top 10.
This is a driver that should be slightly worried. He and the team have been off since those two wins (even though their results have picked up, ever so slightly, recently) and can’t afford many more bad runs.
Kenseth has had to come from behind to make the Chase twice, in 2005 and 2008. He may have to do it again this year, since it seems they may be on the verge of falling out.
Watch for him in the coming weeks. They may be important to his Chase aspirations.
12th Place: Jeff Burton
The Richard Childress driver is barely hanging on to a spot in the top 12 (David Reutimann is only three points behind him). The best of the RCR bunch, Burton has been a staple in the top 12 throughout the year, but is beginning to struggle as the year goes.
In fact, all of the RCR teams are struggling (including Clint Bowyer, who was second in the standings at one point). It’s hard to believe that a group that put all its outfits in the Chase one year ago might see none of its teams make it this year.
But, that appears to be a road RCR is going down. As of now, Burton may be their best bet to crack the Chase field. But, that is far from a good bet, given the performance of the team.
This is another driver who should be worried right now; like Kenseth, keep an eye on him over the next few weeks. If the struggles continue, he may very well find himself on the outside looking in after Richmond.
13th Place: David Reutimann
He may have lucked into a win at Lowes Motor Speedway, but “The Franchise” has been on the mark this year and is one of the most improved since last year (along with Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon).
A pair of poles and a handful of recent runs in the top 10 have him but three points outside of the top 12. He has got to be liking his chances right now. Quietly, he is putting together a very fine season, and could very well sneak into the top 12 come Richmond.
If so, he will be the first of Toyota’s “startup” efforts to do so (remember, they brought Michael Waltrip Racing and Team Red Bull into the mix, while Joe Gibbs Racing was signed on afterward).
Don’t sleep on “Reutty.” He could surprise you…if he hasn’t already.
14th Place: Juan Pablo Montoya
The Columbian is licking his chops right now. A string of six top tens has him just outside The Chase, and he’s heading to Sonoma, where he won two years ago. This date, along with Watkins Glen, has probably been circled on his calendar since the start of the year.
This race represents his best shot at making ground. If he can take full advantage and get a win, it may be the spring board he needs to make a Chase run (we all know how crucial momentum can be).
If he doesn’t take advantage, then it will be interesting to see how he and team react. Regardless, this is a critical weekend for Montoya that could define his season. Watch out for the Columbian; you know he’ll try to come out firing.
Chip Ganassi’s team has experienced an upswing after downsizing and merging with DEI. That improvement could land his organization in the Chase for the first time.
15th Place: Kasey Kahne
Like Hamlin, Kahne represents “coulda, woulda, shoulda” so far this season. If not for fuel mileage, he’d likely be sitting on consecutive top fives (with one possibly being a win). The new Dodge engine certainly seems to be giving him a nice performance boost, which will suit him well on the big ovals.
His strong point has been 1.5-2 mile tracks, and with several of those in the coming weeks, Kahne might be poised to put himself back in The Chase.
Once labeled as NASCAR’s next star, Kahne has only made The Chase once in his career, and has never been a true contender. He could go a long way to changing that this year, but he’ll need to turn his solid runs in equally solid finishes.
If he doesn’t do that, then he’ll spend another year watching 12 others fight for a title.
16th Place: Clint Bowyer
After Martinsville, Bowyer sat second in the standings and was one of the big surprises of 2009. Since then, the bottom has fallen out, and he has dropped well out of the top 12. As I said earlier, all of the RCR cars are struggling this year, and Bowyer seems to have been hit very hard in the last 10 races.
Since Martinsville, he has one top 10 (which came last week at Michigan). Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Bowyer will need to pick up the pace in the coming weeks if he has any chance of making the Chase. Otherwise, Burton may be the only RCR representative in the Chase run.