Scratch one wildcard off the list in the Race to the Chase. So, just how badly did Daytona shake up the point standings? Well, going into last Saturday's race, one point separated 12th and 13th. This week, that gap is 65…quite a bit larger than we’ve seen of late.
So, who came out of Daytona smelling pretty, and who came out smelling…well…not so pretty? Well, aside from the obvious (i.e. Tony Stewart), Carl Edwards helped his Chase efforts by finishing fourth, solidly keeping him in the top five in the standings. He hasn't locked up a spot, but nothing says he won't do so at this point.
Denny Hamlin also boosted his Chase hopes with a third, keeping him only 15 points out of the top five. Like Edwards, he hasn't locked up a spot by any means, runs like that will keep up near (or even in) the top five; Hamlin’s main issue is going to be breaking his current winless streak, which dates back to Martinsville in April…of 2008.
So, what about the bubble drivers? Who struck gold, and who went broke (or is on the way to do so) trying?
10th place Matt Kenseth
He managed to back up is 500 win with an eighth last Saturday night, a top ten that he needed. Kenseth’s struggles from March until now have documented, and any finish in the top ten will suit him well.
Of course, that run came in a restrictor plate race, and they don't make up the bulk of run to Richmond. He'll have to prove he ran in the top 10 (and top five) consistently on the intermediate tracks, starting this week in Chicagoland.
The good news for him is that he typically runs well in the Windy City, and could be poised to get another solid run. He'll need more to sure up his Chase spot and he can’t afford finishes below 20th or 25th. The team has it in them, but it might be a matter of not making mistakes…which isn’t necessarily easy to do.
11th place Juan Pablo Montoya
No top fives for the Colombian, but eight top tens have him in the Chase this week. Typical of his season, his Daytona was quiet, but efficient. He ended up ninth, avoiding all the trouble (including the last-lap crash) and moved up a spot in the standings.
Me thinks that this driver and team is getting stronger as the year goes. And, with one more road course looming, at least one really good shot at a win is in front of them
What out for this bunch. Something tells me they could make a lot noise through the summer…and might be a dark horse come the fall (assuming they can stay in the top 12). Montoya’s always been an exciting driver, but maybe he has got his skills honed enough to become a true contender.
12th place Kasey Kahne
He has got a little more breathing room this week. He may have clobbered Kyle Busch at the start/finish line last week, but he ended up sliding across the line (busted front end and all) in 15th. Not a great run, but nothing too terrible either (especially for a restrictor plate race).
Now, they got to go to some more tracks that they are suited for. Kahne's strength throughout his career has been the intermediate ovals, the exact type of track that makes up the bulk of the races up to Richmond. A good run in Chicagoland could set them on a role…but a run without mistakes would also do them well.
If they can avoid mistakes, I see no reason to think this driver and team will miss the Chase. Like Montoya, this is a driver would could catch fire in the coming weeks…so keep an eye on him.
13th place Mark Martin
Martin’s “feast or famine” year continued at Daytona, where an early wreck saw him finish no better than 38th, a tough night for a driver who has easily run well enough to rank in the top five, but has been riddled with bad luck.
Based on performance, Martin should easily be in the top 12. But, his string of DNF's has him on the outside looking in. He’s tied for the series lead with wins, but he’ll need more runs in the top five and top ten in order to secure a Chase spot.
He and team have it in them; it's just a matter of shaking off that black cloud that's hovering over them…which may want to hang around longer than it’s wanted.
14th place David Reutimann
He has got some ground to make up after he got caught in the first rendition of "The Big One," but he'll be happy to visit a track that suits him and the team. The 1.5 mile ovals have been their strong point this year, so this race presents him with a nice opportunity to make up the ground he lost last week.
If this team could find just a little more consistency, then they could easily crack the top 12. But, that aspect is lacking just a little bit. But, I’d certainly be worried if I was someone in the top 12 who has struggled a bit lately (i.e. Matt Kenseth, or even Kyle Busch, who hasn’t exactly had the banner year we’ve expected at this point).
Reutimann could certainly make a run over the remainder of the summer, but he'll need find a little more consistency.
15th place Jeff Burton
He and the RCR bunch continue to hang around and stay alive, but I just don’t it happening for any of them this year. Sure, Burton stayed out of trouble (discounting a cut tire) and came home 16th, but it's not going to be enough to let him make up significant ground, which he needs to do.
The elder statesmen of this bunch, Burton has been the team's best driver since April, but he has been the best of a minor league team (at best). Richard Childress' bunch may have two drivers still hanging on, but I don’t either having a good chance to make a run at a Chase berth.
16th place Clint Bowyer
Bowyer's chances of making the Chase may have put out to pasture last week. A finish of 19th has him more than 130 points out of the Chase. He'll need a lot of help to get in (he is barely hanging on right now), but I don't see that happening. Bowyer’s started out with lots of potential, but has gone downhill fast.