Here it is folks, the final stretch before the field for NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup is set.
Over the course of the next seven races, metal will be bent and rubber will be burned as the best drivers in stock car racing will strive to be among the top 12 men in the points standings after this September’s race at Richmond.
For those on the outside looking in, it means one last gasp of air before their championship aspirations are put on life support.
For those on the inside, it means the chances for wins and bonus points will be dwindling in number.
This stretch will separate the contenders from the pretenders and the men from the boys.
Once it’s over, the championship contenders will be known and the real racing can begin.
Breaking it down for you will be a little thing I like to call Chaseology.
Which favorite could end up outside the Chase? Which dark horse could sneak in?
Read on and find out.
The yard of bricks, the pagoda, the valley of grandstands—that could only mean one thing: the circuit is headed to Indy, baby!
Beginning in 1994, NASCAR’s top division has raced on the hallowed grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a track once thought to only be suitable for open-wheel racing.
Since then, many top drivers of the past two decades have claimed the checkered flag at the track, including Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Jimmie Johnson.
If the history of the place isn’t enough pressure on the drivers, IMS has a seating capacity of over 250,000, making it the largest sports facility in the world.
There will be a lot of eyes on the best stock car drivers in the world Sunday.
IMS is a 2.5 mile, rectangular shaped super-speedway. The corners are almost virtually flat, with only nine degrees of banking in the turns.
The long straights require a strong motor, while the tight, flat turns put the 3,500 pound stock cars on the very edge of traction. The line between a great handling, front running machine and an absolute piece of junk is razor thin.
The long, yet narrow, pit road will be a place of action throughout the day. Things will get incredibly dicey on pit road during cautions, where room for the cars to maneuver will be at a premium.
Don’t be surprised if a top competitor is relegated to mid-pack finish because of contact sustained on pit road.
Also, speeding is typically an issue here. Last year, Juan Pablo Montoya dominated the race, only to have the win snatched from him when he was penalized for breaking the speed limit on pit road.
Kevin Harvick currently has a 103 point lead on his closest competitor and is 474 points ahead of 13th place Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
It’s safe to say that Harvick is, well, safe.
After a dismal 2009 season which ended with him 19th in the standings, the driver of the No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet has been the subject of one of the greatest turnarounds in recent memory.
With two wins and a newfound flair for consistency, Harvick has gone from an also-ran to a bona fide championship contender.
At Indianapolis, Harvick has one victory and six top ten finishes in nine starts. He also ranks third in average finish among active drivers.
While Jeff Gordon has been absent from victory lane for 48 straight races, it hasn’t been for a lack of strength or effort; two second place finishes and 10 top five finishes have been the story of his season so far.
For the entirety of the season, we’ve been wondering when Gordon and the No. 24 Dupont Chevrolet will break into victory lane.
‘When’ is slowly starting to turn to ‘if.’
Still, doubting Gordon has rarely ended well for his competition. Considering he is in the second spot in the points, he’s obviously as dangerous as ever.
At Indy, Gordon could very well find himself back in victory lane. He leads all drivers with four wins at the track in sixteen starts, and ranks second in career average finish at IMS.
While Jimmie Johnson is not as far ahead in the points as the other two locks—188 points behind Harvick and 286 ahead of 13th—sheer precedence is enough to give the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet driver lock status.
With five wins this year, Johnson would be tied at the top of the leaderboard if the regular season ended and the Chase began right now.
That would leave him in the perfect place to begin a run at a fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship.
He’ll have plenty of chances to build on that over the seven races, beginning with this weekend.
Johnson has won three of the last four races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Only Gordon has more wins.
Don’t be surprised if Johnson ties his teammate with a fourth win this weekend.
Denny Hamlin has had an incredible year so far in 2010.
He’s garnered five wins, which ties him with Johnson and makes him a legitimate favorite to dethrone the four-time champ.
However, a recent lull in performance has hurt the No. 11 FedEx team and has shown that they have a couple of chinks in the armor.
Still, with a 271 point cushion on 13th, he’s in no real danger of falling out of the Chase.
His numbers at Indianapolis are rather pedestrian, with two top 10s in four starts and a 17.2 average finish.
Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford, has proven that last year’s performance was no fluke.
With two wins this season, Busch currently sits one spot behind where he finished last season, fifth in points.
Barring some sort of meltdown, he’s going to make a repeat appearance in the Chase—he has a 253 point cushion on 13th place.
While not the headline maker that his younger brother has been, Busch has been solid at many different tracks the series has run at. He has earned 11 top 10 finishes, which ties him for second in the series.
However, the older Busch hasn’t had much luck in the past at Indianapolis, where’s he only finished in the top five once. He hasn’t finished better than 10th since 2004.
From older brother to the younger, Kyle Busch has also had a strong season in the Cup Series.
While he’s never a big fan of being anything other than first, Busch has to be at least somewhat happy with where he currently sits. Last season, he was fighting for his Chase life at this point, a fight which he ended up losing.
Busch, who like his older brother has won twice on the circuit, is one of those drivers who could be a threat to win any given weekend.
Like teammate Hamlin, however, he is currently in a slump. In the last five races, he has zero finishes inside the top 10.
Indy, however, could be a turning point for Busch and a place to start building back some momentum before the Chase begins. He has three top 10 finishes in five starts and ranks eighth among current full-time drivers in average finish with a 14.8 at IMS.
The final driver who currently looks to have clear sailing into the Chase is Jeff Burton.
Burton has had a season much like Jeff Gordon: close to winning many times, yet never being able to pull it out.
Burton, like his teammate Harvick, has been an integral part of Richard Childress Racing’s resurgence. He has nine top 10 finishes this season and, in the last six races, has finished worse than 12th only once.
Like Gordon, expect Burton to break through into winner’s circle before the season is over.
Burton’s numbers at Indianapolis are rather pedestrian, with only four top 10 finishes in sixteen starts. But two of those top 10s have come in the last three years.
Now we get to the drivers who are anything but safe.
Matt Kenseth is only 175 points ahead of 13th place with seven races to go.
Kenseth is currently leading the Roush-Fenway Racing organization, which has overall struggled mightily this season. After a strong start to the year where Kenseth finished in the top 10 in six of the first seven races, he’s finished 10th or better only twice in the last 10 races.
However, he has finished better than 17th in all but one of those events. So Kenseth has been a model of consistency, but it has been mediocre consistency.
If that trend continues, he may not fall out of the Chase, but he won’t be much of a threat to the championship once it starts. If that team starts struggling more than they already are, that should be cause for tons of concern in the No. 17 camp.
At Indianapolis, Kenseth’s numbers are relatively decent, with six career top 10s in 10 starts at the track. Four of those have come in the last five races there.
Tony Stewart, like clockwork, has caught fire this summer.
Eight races ago, Stewart stood 18th in the points. His season appeared to be in critical condition. Since then, Stewart has gone on a run that has included six finishes of ninth or better and three top fives.
Over that stretch, he gained nine spots in the standings, improving to ninth overall. Still, he is only 118 points ahead of 13th place.
Expect that margin to increase this weekend.
At Indianapolis, Stewart has two wins, seven top 10 finishes, and leads all drivers in average finish.
Expect the No. 14 Old Spice Chevrolet to compete for the win Sunday.
Carl Edwards has had a very quiet week. Staying away from headlines has apparently been the main strategy for the driver of the No. 99 Aflac Ford.
Oh, who am I kidding, Edwards has been the main topic of discussion these past few days. Opinions on his run-in with Brad Keselowski in last weekend’s Nationwide race have been too numerous to count, so I’ll stay out of it.
However, I will say that it could end up being a distraction with a profound affect on what has already been a less than stellar season so far for the driver from Missouri.
There is currently only a 74 point gap between him and 13th place.
However, Edwards’ performance has picked up a bit in the last few weeks. He’s earned a couple of victories in the Nationwide Series and has finished better than sixth in his last two Cup Series races, including a second at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago.
Edwards will need to keep that up if he doesn’t want to lose his current spot in the Chase.
He ranks fourth among all active drivers in average finish at Indianapolis, despite only having two career top 10 finishes at the track in five starts.
He finished 15th there one year ago.
Along with his Roush-Fenway Racing teammates Kenseth and Edwards, Greg Biffle also currently sits inside the Chase.
His position, however, is a bit more precarious.
With seven races to go, he’s only 21 points ahead of 13th going into Indianapolis. He’s not exactly setting the world on fire either.
Over the course of the last three races, Biffle hasn’t finished better than 16th. In the last race at Chicago, he finished a dismal 35th after an engine failure.
Over the course of the last 10 races, he and his team have finished 20th or worse six times.
He could get things back on track at Indy, where he has an average finish of 15.4, tying him for 10th among active drivers.
However, considering that team is down this year, expect a below average performance from Biffle.
Currently holding down the 12th and final spot in the Chase, Clint Bowyer is the third RCR driver to be represented among those eligible for NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.
Like his teammates, the performance of Bowyer and the No. 33 Cheerios Chevrolet has greatly improved over last season.
Still, with only two top five finishes and four finishes of 31st or worse, he finds himself with only 15 points separating him from 13th place and no shot at a championship.
His lack of consistency has been a hindrance and could hamper his efforts going forward. However, he has shown strength at a variety of tracks, meaning he could very easily string several good finishes together in the upcoming weeks.
He ranks seventh among active full-time drivers in average finish at Indianapolis, but has only one top 10 finish at the track. That was a fourth place finish back in 2006, his first trip to Indy.
He finished 18th there last season.
Currently outside of the Chase in 13th place is NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
While its not nearly where expectations dictate he should be, it's still a major accomplishment for the No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard team to even be in the fight for the postseason. At this point last year, they were 21st, completely lost, and noncompetitive at every track they raced at.
That being said, Earnhardt needs to pick it up if he wants to satisfy his fan base and make The Chase.
After a stretch of four races where he finished better than 11th, he struggled to a 23rd place finish last race.
Earnhardt hasn’t been consistent at any point this season, and future performance will be hard to gauge.
In his last five events at Indianapolis, he failed to finish the race three times and finished sixth and 12th in the other two.
However, despite finishing 36th with a blown engine last year, he was ranked 11th in driver rating for the race.
Fighting for his playoff life, Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin finds himself in familiar territory. This time around, he’s on the outside looking in.
Compared to last season, his performance has been nothing short of disappointing. Martin has finished better than 14th only once in the last ten races, and there are no real signs of that changing.
Mark ranks sixth in average finish among full-time drivers at Indianapolis and finished second there last season.
If Mark Martin doesn’t run well this weekend, don’t expect him to run much better anywhere else.
David Reutimann and his win at Chicagoland two weeks ago has been the subject of arguably the best underdog story so far in 2010.
But Reutimann needs to match that performance in the upcoming races if he wants any shot at the Chase. The driver of the No. 00 Aaron’s Toyota is currently 96 points behind 12th place Bowyer.
In the last six races, his win has been the only finish better than 11th. That won’t be good enough to make up 96 points.
Reutimann’s career at Indianapolis hasn’t been sparkling, but he finished 8th there last year.
Ryan Newman is another driver with a win who has been mediocre for much of the season. Outside of that win, he has only one other top five finish and only five other top 10s.
Only one of those has been in the last six events.
Unless several of the drivers in front of him experience total meltdowns and he suddenly catches on fire, Newman’s team might as well start working toward next year.
Newman finished 14th at Indianapolis last year, and has finished better than 11th there only once in his career.
The biggest threat among these three drivers, and interestingly the farthest back at 120 points behind 12th, is driver of the No. 9 Budweiser Ford, Kasey Kahne.
After an absolutely dreadful beginning to the season, Kahne has acted out his best Tony Stewart impression and has caught fire this summer.
In the last five races, he has finished better than sixth four times. In his one poor race during that stretch, New Hampshire, he led the most laps but was relegated to 36th by a blown engine.
Kahne is primed for another strong run at Indy. In six starts at the track, he has four career top eight finishes. He was wrecked out in the other two events.
Kahne is building up a ton of momentum right now, and is mounting a charge similar to the one that Brian Vickers made last season.
If you remember, despite being farther out than Kahne is right now, Vickers was able to make the Chase.
At 181, 183, and 226 points back respectively, Jamie McMurray, Joey Logano, and Martin Truex, Jr. are too far behind to make the Chase.
McMurray started off the year winning the Daytona 500, providing one of the most emotional moments of 2010. He’s shown flashes of strength by finishing second three times.
Wild inconsistency, however, has relegated him to where he is right now.
The same thing could be said for Logano, who hasn’t put two consecutive top 10 finishes together since the second and third races of the year.
Logano has shown great improvement in his second full year, and should be a threat in the future. This year, he’s all but done.
At one point, Truex had climbed as high as 13th in the points. However, his current stretch of nine races where he has no top 10s and five finishes of worse than 22nd have killed his Chase chance and relegated him to 20th in the points.
Good luck next year, Truex.
Out of these three drivers, Logano posted the best finish at Indianapolis last season with a 12th place run. Truex was 17th and McMurray was 21st.
The most points a driver can receive in race is 195. The least a driver can earn is 34. That means a driver can at most lose or gain 161 points in a given race.
With seven races remaining, that means any driver 1,127 points behind 12th place is not mathematically eliminated.
These drivers, while they have no legitimate shot, are still mathematically alive.
21. Juan Pablo Montoya
22. A.J. Allmendinger
23. Paul Menard
24. Scott Speed
25. David Ragan
26. Brad Keselowski
27. Elliott Sadler
28. Marcos Ambrose
29. Sam Hornish Jr.
30. Regan Smith
31. Bobby Labonte
32. Robby Gordon
33. Travis Kvapil
34. David Gilliland
35. Kevin Conway
Projected Position, Name, Current Position
1st. Kevin Harvck (1)
2nd. Jeff Gordon (2)
3rd. Jimmie Johnson (3)
4th. Denny Hamlin (4)
5th. Kyle Busch (6)
6th. Kurt Busch (5)
7th. Jeff Burton (7)
8th. Tony Stewart (9)
9th. Matt Kenseth (8)
10th. Clint Bowyer (12)
11th. Carl Edwards (10)
12th. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (13)
***Chase For the Sprint Cup Cutoff***
13th. Kasey Kahne (17)
14th. Greg Biffle (11)
15th. Mark Martin (14)