WILD CARD WATCH: Tight Battle for the Final Spots in the Chase

There’s only 8 races left before the Nascar Chase for the Sprint Cup begins, and the fight to get into the postseason is tight. Eight drivers are on the bubble; that is, they are fighting for the last spots in the postseason. The drivers from 9th (Kurt Busch) to 16th (Ryan Newman) are separated by only 19 points. Here, I break down the chances that each of these drivers have of making it into the Postseason.

9th. Kurt Busch

0 wins, 2 pts ahead of 10th

What a year it’s been for the former champ and his new team, Furniture Row Racing. The team got off to a rocky start. Plagued by mechanical issues and driver error, the team staggered into Darlington, 20th in points and with only four finishes inside the top 20. But at the Bojangles’ Southern 500, something clicked. The 78 car started 1st and led the first 51 laps, and although handling issues and contact with Casey Mears relegated Busch to 14th, it was evident the team had turned a corner. Since Darlington, Busch has posted 5 top 10 finishes and has had only one finish outside of the top 12. Whether or not Busch and his team can maintain their Chase position depends on whether or not they can prevent the mistakes that plagued them at the start of the season from happening again. But if Barney Visser‘s team can perform as well as they have in the past several races, look for Kurt to be a strong contender for a spot in the chase as well as the championship. A win would greatly help him in his efforts.

10th. Tony Stewart

1 win. He is 10th.

Tony Stewart has had a season much like Kurt Busch’s. Tony started the year very poorly, only recording 1 top 10 in the first 11 races of the season. Stewart-Haas Racing as a whole got off to a bad start, as the organization fielded a third car for the first time in its history. Like Busch, Stewart managed to turn his season around in the middle of the season, placing 7th in the Coke 600 and then winning his first race of the year at Dover Downs. Since then, Stewart has run very well, taking 3 top fives including a 2nd place finish in the Coca-Cola Zero 400. Smoke has put himself in a good position with his win. The only thing holding Tony backing is his qualifying performances. He hasn’t started inside the top 10 since April 7th, at Martinsville. If Smoke can put himself in better starting spots, look for him to be a strong contender in the rest of the year.

11th. Martin Truex, Jr

1 win. 6 pts out of 10th

This has been a sweet year for Truex. At Sonoma, he broke a 218 race winless streak and put himself solidly in contention for the championship. After a long stretch of middling finishes and disappointments, the 56 team seems to have finally turned a corner. Truex has had 5 top 10’s in the last 9 races, but he’s also finished 23rd or worse 3 times, including a miserable night at Daytona where he crashed and wound up 41st. To make the Chase, Truex will have to become more consistent. He has a win, but another finish like at Daytona could send him plunging in the points.

12th. Kasey Kahne

1 win. 9 pts out of 10th

Poor Kasey just can’t catch a break. After an impressive start to the season in which he climbed to as high as 2nd in the points, Kasey has encountered awful luck. In the last 10 races, he’s had 7 finishes outside the top 15, including 4 outside the top 30. He got turned by Kyle Busch at Talladega and blew a tire while leading at Michigan. In Dover, Kasey spun out of contention while fighting for first. At Pocono, driveline problems ended his day on the first lap. Amazingly, Kasey is still only 9 points out of 10th and is hanging on to that 2nd wild card spot. His #5 Chevrolet has been running great, but somehow Kasey always seems to end up out of contention. The good news for his team is that they don’t have to change anything about the way they’ve been racing. They just need to ride out the spate of bad luck. Eventually it will subside, and when it does Kasey will be in a prime position to make the Chase.

13th. Brad Keselowski

0 wins. 11 pts out of 10th

Brad Keselowski has endured an absolutely horrible stretch of races. In the last 10 races he has finished in the top 10 once. That’s right. Once. He’s slid from 3rd to 13th in the standings, helped in no small part by 6 finishes outside of the top 20. The Blue Deuce is going in the wrong direction. Brad’s experienced his fair share of crashes, but unlike Kasey Kahne, he hasn’t been running too well otherwise. Brad’s team has been hit hard. They already lost 25 points due to an unapproved rear end housing earlier in the season, and may lose more. The #2 team was one of the 16 cars caught with unapproved roof flap spacers at Daytona. At this point, with Brad running the way he has been, the Miller Lite crew needs to adopt a go-for-broke strategy. A win or two could end up securing a wild card spot for Brad even if he is hit hard by penalties stemming from the roof flap problems.

14th. Jeff Gordon

0 wins. 12 pts out of 10th

Jeff Gordon’s campaign, for the second year in a row, has been marred by bad luck. Gordon has had 5 DNF’s this year, the most of any driver on this list. Aside from these 5 finishes outside the top 30, Gordon has been a model of consistency, with 11 finishes inside the top 13, including four top 3 results. In his non-DNF races he averaged a finish of 10.1, second best among all drivers.  Gordon, like Kasey Kahne, has been running well recently and just needs to ride out the bad luck he’s been having. Unlike Brad, if Jeff Gordon keeps up his solid finishes and performances, he should find himself in the top 10 in points come Richmond. But, if he has another DNF, it may be time for Jeff to start thinking about going all out in the quest for a win or two.

15th. Joey Logano

0 wins. 16 pts out of 10th

Joey Logano has had an eventful season. He had altercations early in the season with Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin, including a wreck in Fontana, California that sidelined Hamlin for four weeks with a lumbar fracture. Since then, Logano has been making steady progress. Logano entered the Pepsi 400 in 10th, having cracked the Chase field for the first time. But the same late race wreck that sidelined Martin Truex took Logano out of contention, sending him plummeting to 15th. Logano is only 16 points out of a top 10 spot, but              he may fall further if penalties are dealt down for the unapproved spacers that were found on Logano’s car. If he loses a lot of points, he’s going to have to start going all-out for wins in order to claim a spot in the Chase.

16th. Ryan Newman

0 wins. 19 pts out of 10th.

Out of all the Chase drivers on the bubble, Ryan Newman is perhaps the most surprising. Newman has quietly been putting together a decent season. He failed to finish on 4 occasions,  but has finished 12 races inside the top 15. These stats seem pretty good at first, but the problem with Ryan Newman’s team has been their overall performance. In most races, Newman started in the middle of the pack and stayed there. Rarely has he been in contention for a win or even a strong finish–the 39 team has had only two top fives this entire season. At this point, even though Ryan is only 19 points out of 10th, he’s simply not driving good enough to win races or make a run at the postseason. The Quicken Loans team will have to turn things around and do it fast in order to have any chance of making the Chase.

These aren’t the only drivers fighting for the final Chase spots. Several others have the potential to make a run at a spot in the postseason.

17th. Jamie McMurray:  Jamie’s Earnhardt-Ganassi team is finally showing signs of life, and McMurray appears poised, improbably, to make a run at the postseason. He qualified 1st at Infineon, and has since posted finishes of 2nd and 7th, respectively. The 1 car has run in the top 10 in many other events, only to experience mechanical issues. If Jamie Mac can start showing some consistency, he could have a real shot at sneaking into the Chase. He’s only 26 points away from 10th.

20th. Paul Menard:  Menard started the season spending 12 week inside the top 12 in points. But since then, a wreck at Kentucky and an engine failure at Daytona pummeled Paul, sending him to 20th in points. Menard is 39 points out of the top 10, but is coming upon some favorable tracks, namely Loudon, where his worst finish over the past 3 years has been 14th, and Indianapolis, where he won in 2011. On another high note, the 3 drivers ahead of Paul may receive penalties after being swept up in the roof flap scandal. If Menard can win, or at least perform well at any of these upcoming tracks, he’ll be right back in the hunt for that Chase spot.

These two drivers, although fairly close to the top 10, probably won’t be making an appearance in the Chase.

18th. Ricky Stenhouse Jr: With an 11th place showing in the Coke Zero 400, the rookie moved up to 18th, 33 points back from a Chase spot. But with no top 10 finishes this year, and possible penalties coming from the roof flap scandal, don’t look for him to be making any big moves any time soon.

19th. Aric Almirola:  At one point, after a 10th place finish at Talladega, Aric was 8th in the points. However, he hasn’t finished in the top 15 since that race. He’s fading fast. If the 43 machine, which was caught with the bad spacers at Daytona, gets hit with a large points penalty, it could be the proverbial nail in the coffin for Almirola’s season.

This has been one of the most exciting battles to make it into the Chase since the postseason system was invented. With so few points separating the drivers on the bubble, the final spots in the postseason are anyone’s game.

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