Wow, does time fly. At the completion of Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway, we’ll have 18 races in the books and will officially be halfway through the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
As it sits right now, there are nine races remaining for fringe drivers to race their way into the Chase. Eleven drivers have combined to win the first 17 races, meaning there are five positions remaining in the Chase. A win in any of these next nine races would almost automatically qualify for one of the five Chase positions left.
Drivers sitting inside the top-16 in points that don’t have wins like rookie Chase Elliott (8th), Austin Dillon (12th) or Dale Earnhardt Jr. (13th) appear safe to make it. There will likely be only two Chase positions left for several drivers to fight for. Ryan Newman sits in 14th and Rookie Ryan Blaney (15th) currently has a slim four-point lead over Jamie McMurray. Then there’s a long list of hopeful drivers.
Trevor Bayne is the top scoring Roush Fenway Racing Ford and he sits 10-points behind Blaney for the final transfer position (remember, Tony Stewart is 30th in points but gets in due to Sonoma win). Kasey Kahne (-9), A.J. Allmendinger (-12), Kyle Larson (-15) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-17) are right behind with hopes of taking their games up a notch to qualify for an opportunity to win their first championship.
Those drivers fighting to make the Chase at this stage are what is supposed to be cool about the Chase format. It’s a race within the race for their season, kind of like a wild card game for the next nine weeks.
Meanwhile, drivers who already have wins are sitting comfortably just waiting for Sept. 18 at Chicago when the Chase starts and points really matter. All they want now is wins and nothing else matters at this point. If they get in a wreck, they bring the car in to the garage and call it a day. In the old days they patched things up and raced for every point and position they could. Where this become a big deal is when wagering in driver match-ups.
Alright, let’s get into this week’s race and what to expect.
NASCAR announced mid-May they would be reducing the spoiler from 3.5-inches to 2.5 and the splitter down to 2 for enhancing the racing, but that the package would be on a trial period only for races at Michigan and Kentucky. After Saturday’s race, that package will be shelved until being discussed again in the off-season.
Last year Kentucky was the site of reduced downforce on a trial basis and it turned out to be the best race of the season, which ushered the changes into being permanent for 2016. Now they’re trying to make things even better, I guess – the racing on 1.5-mile tracks this season looked nothing like Kentucky’s 2015 race.
When looking back at last month’s Michigan race, the racing wasn’t all that good. In fact, it was rather boring. Only eight drivers led a lap and there were only 14 lead changes – yawn. Joey Logano led a race-high 138 of the 200 laps, including the final 47. Let’s hope Kentucky’s 1.5-mile layout produces some better racing like it did last season.
What we can use Michigan for is to look at who fared well in an attempt to keep up with Logano. Chances are they’ll all be good again this weekend. Chase Elliott led 35 laps and had his best career finish with second-place. Kyle Larson was third, Brad Keselowski was fourth and Kevin Harvick fifth.
Surprisingly, no Joe Gibbs Racing drivers were in the top-five – Carl Edwards was sixth. Last year at Kentucky in the package debut, JGR drivers were way ahead of the game with four of its drivers in the top-five. Could it be Team Penske has this thing figured out best? Only two drivers in the top-four is a strong indicator they know what’s up.
Even though Logano won at Michigan, Keselowski would be the driver to key on of the Penske duo. This guy loves Kentucky. He won there in 2012 and 2014 in the Cup Series and then he’s also got three wins in the Xfinity Series. For the past five seasons he’s won some kind of NASCAR race at Kentucky.
Logano was runner-up in this race last season and he’s won three times in the Xfinity Series.
If just looking on past history at Kentucky, Kyle Busch would be King. All he’s done is average a 3.8 finish in five starts, which includes a win in the inaugural Cup race in 2011 and last season. His worst finish was 10th in 2012. He’s one of three drivers to have top-10 finishes in all five Kentucky Cup races (Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson the others).
Let’s go with Keselowski and Busch to battle it out for the win. The two are tied for the series lead with three wins and they don’t really like each other too much, which makes it even more fun.
I’m sure Brad still remembers the days when Kyle was calling the young and brash Keselowski “Brad Crash-a-lot-ski.”
I’m also sure Kyle remembers how it felt when Keselowski won a championship before he did.
Mutual respect now, though, for sure.