The typical powerful teams like Hendrick and Joe Gibbs have their usual representation with the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch sitting solidly in the Top 10 as likely Chase competitors. However, there are plenty of others jockeying for the playoff spots who might have to win their way into the Chase. And who are they?
Remember that the Chase takes the Top 10 in points plus the two winningest drivers among the Top 20. Currently, Martin Truex Jr. and Kasey Kahne sit 11th and 12th respectively with a win each under their belts. They would both qualify for the wildcard if the season ended today, but that’s not the case yet with still eight races to go.
Looking at the next four events, some drivers jump out as possible winners who might be in the Top 20 when the regular season ends. The four races are this week’s event at New Hampshire, then the big two-and-a-half mile tracks of Indianapolis and Pocono, followed by the road course at Watkins Glen. Here’s a quick look at each track and who might win of the challengers not yet in the Top 10.
New Hampshire’s relatively flat one-mile oval has an obvious favorite in our group. Denny Hamlin was victorious during the Chase last fall (source: ESPN) and was runner-up at the July race. Even though its been discussed as to whether he should even be racing, a Magic Mile win could help Hamlin who is driving hurt and in desperate need of win. Denny’s other issue is that he’s 122 points out of 20th position, so it won’t do him any good unless he gets multiple wins and several Top 10s.
Kahne also has done well, especially recently, with a win a year ago at New Hampshire. If he can collect a second win this season, it would almost assuredly secure him a spot in the Chase. Another Top 10 outsider who could win at New Hampshire is Jeff Gordon. He has nine top sixes over the past 13 races in New England, including a third last fall when he started on the pole. Ryan Newman has won three times at the flat track and is always a contender. Keep an eye on reigning Cup champ Brad Keselowski who hasn’t won at the one-miler but does have three straight top six finishes, including a runner-up in 2011.
This will be NASCAR’s 20th trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and probably no driver has had more success than four-time Cup champion Gordon. He hasn’t won since ’04 but has five Top 10s over the past six events at the Brickyard.
Paul Menard has had little to be happy about after blowing an engine early on at Daytona last week which has slipped him down into 20th in the standings. Menard was very happy two seasons ago with a victory at Indy and a win this year could cure a lot of woes. Jamie McMurray who has looked good at times this year also had a win at Indy back in 2010 and has four other top 10s on his resume.
Pocono offers a unique track layout that demands multiple skills. Several of our outside contenders have victories at the ‘Tricky Triangle’, but none more so than Gordon who has six trips to Victory Lane. Unlike Indy, Jeff’s Pocono triumphs have been scattered over two decades, including a win here a year ago. Another driver who has had multiple wins in Pennsylvania is Hamlin. He has four victories with his last one in 2010.
Others to watch include Ryan Newman who won10 years ago but has 10 straight top 15s, including two top fives over the last four events at Pocono. A team to keep your eye on at the Tricky Triangle is Penske Racing. Both Keselowski and Joey Logano have won here with Brad’s win coming in 2011 and Joey’s last season (source: Paddock Talk).
The last of our four races is Watkins Glen, which certainly brings out the best and worse in drivers. The best of our outsiders is Marcos Ambrose. Ambrose has won the last two events in New York and has never finished outside the top three (source: Sports Illustrated). Yeah, he would appear to be the overall favorite to win.
Ambrose will have challengers though from our group of outsiders including Gordon who has four wins under his belt at the Glen – but none since ’01. Juan Pablo Montoya is always a threat at road courses and won this event three seasons ago. He also had the pole last year and if he doesn’t crash, should be battling for the win. A non-winner to watch is Keselowski. No, the Penske driver doesn’t have a win but he’s been the runner-up the past two years.
So there you have it. Over the next four races, Jeff Gordon would seem to be a contender at each of those races. If he isn’t involved in any crashes, Gordon should have the best chance to win a race or two over the next four events. Denny Hamlin, who’s a desperate driver in need of many great finishes, has a chance at a win as well. Of the remaining outside contenders, Brad Keselowski may also have a shot at victory.
Sitting outside the Top 20, Hamlin, Montoya and Ambrose not only need wins but several solid finishes to make a victory matter. Even without wins, Keselowski, Gordon, Logano, Newman and/or McMurray still have an opportunity to work their way into the Top 10 where they won’t have to worry about a wildcard. Time is starting to run out as the drivers try to win their way into the Chase. Should be interesting.
Additional sources: NASCAR