The race to the Chase has only four events remaining until NASCAR’s version of the playoffs begin at Chicagoland Speedway Sept. 18.
For the drivers that haven’t qualified yet we’re going to see some interesting strategy. Only 12 have made themselves automatic qualifiers with a win on the season, but one of them – rookie Chris Buescher – is three points out of 30th position in points, which makes him ineligible to qualify.
So what we’re looking at during NASCAR’s final off weekend of the season – they race next week at Bristol – is 10 drivers with no wins in 2016 that are fighting for the final five Chase positions and they’re all within 87 points of each other.
It’s going to be a mad dash, and if Buescher can make up those three points, because of his win, only four spots would be available for those 10 drivers. It’s probably the best thing about the Chase. Let’s just call the next four weeks the wild card round.
Now to give an idea of how small a number like 87 points is, consider that Denny Hamlin gathered 44 for his win Sunday at Watkins Glen and Jimmie Johnson collected just one for finishing dead last. These drivers can be shuffled around quickly, but the surest way to collect points is by staying out of trouble and finishing well.
Last Sunday, Kyle Larson had a top-five finish coming to him and on the last lap A.J. Allmendinger spun him out. Instead of getting 37 points for finishing fourth, he got only 12 for 29th place. Larson is currently holding the 16th and final position, eight points ahead of Trevor Bayne.
Of the 10 contenders racing for the Chase, there are probably only two drivers that have a legitimate shot of winning and getting the automatic berth between Bristol, Michigan, Darlington and Richmond.
Larson is one of them – he’s running extremely well in his last three – and the other is Chase Elliott – 41 points ahead of Larson. Elliott has been struggling the past six weeks. The other eight drivers have to race as best as possible and finish well in all four races.
Meanwhile the 11 drivers with wins – not including Buescher – can all comfortably race for the win. They don’t have any consequences for poor finishes. Some drivers like Hamlin are using these final races as a practice to prepare themselves for the Chase.
Kevin Harvick’s team started treating the past three races as a Chase simulator to get acclimated to the pressure of finishing well weekly – they failed Sunday, finishing 32nd. Others like Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski just want to win and are going all out to do so, which is something to keep in mind when wagering these next four races.
Just a refresher of how the actual Chase works: 16 drivers qualify and the final 10 races are broken into four elimination stages. Four drivers are eliminated after the first three races, four more get axed over the next three and then the Final Four is set after the next three. Whoever finishes the best in the season finale at Homestead wins the Championship.
The intensity picks up next week with several races within the race and differing agendas. To get started on your Bristol handicapping, refer to the April race won by Carl Edwards and also the results from May at Dover, another concrete high-banked layout, albeit a half-mile longer in distance.
Matt Kenseth won that race making the two most applicable reference points won by Joe Gibbs Racing. What a surprise, they’ve only won 11 of the 22 races this season between five cars. And they just might win the Sprint Cup for the second consecutive year as well.