Chaser or Racer: NASCAR's Race to the Chase (New Hampshire)
As one of the wild cards in the summer run to the Chase, Infineon Raceway (formerly known as Sonoma) has a habit of throwing several wrenches into the overall equation; as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch found out, a nice day in the top 10 can go very bad, very quickly (they finished 22th and 26th, respectively).
Of course, the likes of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson saw mediocre days (or mistake-ridden ones at least), yet each came back to finish in the top 10 (fourth for Johnson, ninth for Gordon).
Yes, Infineon can wreak havoc on drivers, and send them from the front to the back to the front again.
Now, a few managed to come out of wine country sitting pretty (see Kasey Kahne).
Others, of course, were very happy to leave the road course behind and head to the familiar confines of the ovals for the next several weeks.
Here's a few drivers who are on the cusp of making the Chase, but still have some work left to do:
10th place: Matt Kenseth
He managed to escape several of the dangers of road racing, but didn’t exactly have the banner day he needed. A finish of 18th put him ahead of several guys who had trouble, but it wasn't exactly the type of finish that will suit him extremely well in the coming weeks.
He still sits just 43 markers ahead of 13th place Kasey Kahne, so he remains under fire. Recent strong runs have him back in a better spot, but something seems to be missing from Kenseth, especially after his back-to-back wins to start the season.
He’ll need a much better performance in New Hampshire to start feeling reasonably comfortable about qualifying for the Chase. Roush Racing would appear capable of doing so, but I’m not completely sure at the moment.
11th place: Mark Martin
He has been a little “feast or famine” with his finishes this season, but the feast outweighs the famine at this point. A disappointing run at Infineon dropped him to 11th, but that No. 5 car has been too strong this season for him to stay back there.
It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Martin crack the top 10 in the standings this week, but he will have to be careful to minimize those bad days. He has had a few to this point (especially during his incredibly unlucky start to the year), but his recent string of runs near the front, with three wins, has kept him in the Chase.
I don’t doubt that he can, at the very least, hold his spot. But, he’ll want to leave those poor runs in the dust; otherwise his spot could be in jeopardy.
12th place: Juan Montoya
While I’m sure he wanted a win coming out of Sonoma, his sixth place finish bumped him all the way up to 11th, which can’t be anything to be disappointed about. While the late-race restarts hurt him a bit, he managed to hold his spot in the top 10, showing his maturity as a driver.
The next date he’ll be watching for is Watkins Glen (again, likely his best shot at winning). But, with the way he has run this year, a win on an oval might be beckoning. The DEI/Ganassi merger seems to have really helped Montoya, and it might propel him to his (and Ganassi’s) first Chase birth.
13th place: Kasey Kahne
By a show of hands, who had Kahne pegged to win last weekend? Neither did I. Kahne’s surprise win (he has never been a star on the road courses) vaulted him to within three points of the top 12.
He has run well enough so far to rank well inside the top 10, but something has always prevented him from getting the results (see the fuel mileage derbies at Pocono and Michigan).
The team appears to be good enough to make the Chase; it’s just a matter of not faltering under pressure. While I won’t say Kahne is a choke artist, something always likes to hamper his better days (see his 2004 rookie season, in which he could have won about half-a-dozen races).
If he can avoid the troubles that have hit him in the past, I see Kahne making the Chase field, and potentially challenging for a title (if circumstances play out in his favor). Of course, that’s dependant on him staying out of trouble, which is hard to do in the run up to Richmond.
14th place: David Reutimann
He has got to be happy about leaving Sonoma; road racing is not his forte, to say the least. A 31st place finish dropped him all the way to 14th in the standings. The good news for him is that there’s only one more on the schedule, and he has run well enough everywhere else to make a run at a Chase birth.
I wholeheartedly expect Reutimann to make the field, given his performance through the year. But, it won’t be as a result of his road racing.
15th place: Jeff Burton
The lead driver for RCR this year finally fell out of the top 12 last weekend. This can’t be a good sign for the RCR team, since none of their four drivers have been running well enough as of late to crack the top 12.
This bunch could be in trouble as the summer gets underway. If they don’t get themselves sorted out soon (and I mean within a couple of races), the door will begin to close on them for this season.
Either way, it has been a very disappointing season for the entire RCR team, and all four teams have a lot of work to do over the rest of the season.
16th place: Clint Bowyer
An eighth place finish for Bowyer helped him move up in the standings, but he’s still a good ways back of the Chase (especially in performance). He’s 65 points out, but like Burton, he hasn’t been running well enough to make much headway over the past month or so.
The problems RCR is facing aren’t incredibly huge, but they’re wreaking havoc on the entire team (it doesn’t take much to be off your game in racing). It must be gut-wrenching for them, knowing that all of their teams made the Chase last year.
It doesn’t look like any of them will do it this year (unless something drastically changes in the coming races).
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