by Ryan Isley
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
NASCAR’s new eligibility rules for the Chase for the Sprint Cup are in their second season. And while people have gotten a little more comfortable with how a driver becomes Chase eligible, there still seems to be a little bit of confusion.
With just nine races remaining until the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins, there are just four drivers who have actually clinched their spots in the Chase. Jimmie Johnson (four wins), Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Kurt Busch (two wins each) are the only drivers so far who have locked themselves into the Chase. Well, unless somehow one of the four finds a way to fall out of the top-30 in points or doesn’t attempt to qualify for one of the next nine races.
There are six other drivers inside the top-30 – Joey Logano (4th), Martin Truex Jr (5th), Brad Keselowski (7th), Matt Kenseth (9th), Denny Hamlin (12th) and Carl Edwards (17th) – who have picked up a single win on the season. Those drivers have not clinched their Chase spots, despite what you may be hearing. Then of course there is Kyle Busch, who has a win but is still 37th in the standings and needs to get into the top-30 to even be Chase eligible.
Here is how it would look if the Chase began today:
3. Earnhardt Jr
4. Kurt Busch
6. Truex Jr
11. Jamie McMurray
12. Jeff Gordon
13. Kasey Kahne
14. Paul Menard
15. Ryan Newman
16. Clint Bowyer
The top 10 drivers would all be in based on their wins, while spots 11-16 would be in based on points.
Here is the issue when it comes to the Chase – there are too many people (NASCAR media included) who are automatically locking any driver with a win into the Chase. That just isn’t how it works. While those drivers have a great chance at making the Chase, there are still no guarantees – especially for someone like Edwards (or Kyle Busch, should he get into the top 30).
The Chase field is set after the 26th race by granting the 16 drivers with the most wins a spot in the Chase. If there are more than 16 winners, the drivers with a win who are highest in the points standings would be the drivers invited to the Chase. Well, unless the points leader doesn’t have a win – then that driver would clinch a spot as well, no matter how many winners there are. That option won’t come into play this season, as each of the top-5 drivers have won a race.
The part that might come into play in 2015 is what happens should more than 16 drivers pick up a win in the first 26 races. We have seen 11 winners already and while there isn’t a high probability that we will see six more winners in the next nine races, the possibility still exists.
There are six drivers who would round out the Chase field right now who are winless but could easily pick up a win in the next nine races. McMurray (7 career wins, 1 3rd in 2015), Gordon (92 career wins, 2 top-5s in 2015), Kahne (17 career wins, 2 top-5s in 2015), Menard (1 career win, 2 top-5s in 2015), Newman (17 career wins, 2 3rds in 2015) and Bowyer (8 career wins, 1 3rd in 2015) all have a chance to find victory lane in the next nine races and put themselves in a better position to make the Chase.
And then a look outside those 16 shows drivers like Danica Patrick, Kyle Larson, Austin DIllon or Ricky Stenhouse Jr who could ruin someone’s season should they make their initial career trip to victory lane in the Sprint Cup Series. Also drivers like Aric Almirola, Casey Mears, Trevor Bayne and David Ragan who have been to victory lane are looming just waiting to steal a spot. And of course there are guys like Greg Biffle (19 career wins) or Tony Stewart (48 career wins) who could win a race and put themselves in contention.
One of the chances for a driver to sneak into the Chase has passed, as Earnhardt Jr made sure that there wouldn’t be any underdogs grabbing their Chase spot by winning at Daytona the way Almirola did in 2014. When Earnhardt Jr crossed the finish line and won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway this past Sunday night (or Monday morning), he wasn’t the only one who was celebrating. With his win, he helped out all of the drivers who have one win and also those who would currently make the Chase on points.
One of the other wild card tracks is where AJ Allmendinger took home the win and a Chase spot in 2014. Watkins Glen has seen four drivers over the past five seasons who would have snuck into the Chase with a win had the new Chase been in place. Juan Pablo Montoya in 2010, Marcos Ambrose in 2011 and 2012 and then Allmendinger last season. Someone to watch this season might be Stewart, who is still winless this season and sits 25th in the standings but has five career wins at Watkins Glen.
Another track that might produce a surprise winner could be this week at Kentucky. NASCAR has rolled out a new rules package but has had limited practice due to weather in Kentucky that hasn’t been cooperating this week. With a new package and limited practice time on it, you never know what could happen.
And that’s the fun part of the new Chase format – you just never know what could happen week to week and any driver could give themselves a chance to run for a championship by just grabbing a win. With nine races left to go before the Chase field is set, anything can happen. That could even include a driver with a win being left out of the Chase.