Halfway to the start of NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship

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We’re at the halfway point of the season before NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship starts, and a few drivers are going to have to make some things happen quickly if they want to be part of NASCAR’s playoffs.

The top-10 drivers in the standings are all guaranteed a spot in the Chase, and two wild card spots will be offered to drivers sitting 11-20 who have the most wins.

Tony Stewart enhanced his chances of making the Chase by winning last week at Dover. He is the only driver currently sitting 11-20 in points to have a win, and as each of the next 13 races passes, he can start to lower his magic number.

Stewart, who has been awful all season, captured his first top-5 with his Dover win. This is supposed to be the time of year when he takes his game to another level and this week’s race at Pocono should help him continue his upward progression. He’s won twice on the tricky 2.5-mile triangle layout at Pocono and has finished fifth or better in six of his past nine starts there.

One of the drivers outside the top-20 in points who needs great finishes, and wins, every week is Denny Hamlin. Last week at Dover, Hamlin led three times for 43 laps, and looked to be in position to possibly get his first win of the season. Then he got involved in an accident relegating him to a 34th-place finish and dropping to 26th in points.

Things should get better real quick for Hamlin, who missed four races earlier in the season with a back injury. There aren’t many better at Pocono than the Virginia native, who has won there four times over his career, including twice as a rookie in 2006. If Hamlin can at least get a win or two along the way over the next few races, he can then focus on points racing to get positioned in the top-20.

As for now, Hamlin will be going all out.

Points leader Jimmie Johnson is a two-time Pocono winner and always seems to be near the front, but hasn’t won there since sweeping the 2004 season. He’s finished fourth in three of his last four starts there.

Jeff Gordon is the active leader with six Pocono wins, including the last time they were on the track in 2012. Gordon is in a better situation than most on the season, but still doesn’t have any wins. If the final wild card spot came down to Gordon and Stewart, Gordon would miss out even though being higher in points. Like Hamlin, he needs to win.

Other drivers who have fared well in recent years at Pocono are Carl Edwards (2 wins) and Brad Keselowski (2011 winner). Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch have never won at Pocono, but they’ll have the horses to be close this year. Busch is a two-time runner-up.

Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Follow Micah on Twitter @MicahRoberts7 Contact Micah at [email protected].

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