Five races on five very different tracks give NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers a challenge as they countdown to the Chase.
That’s what faces the Sprint Cup Series and the 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. For 11 drivers, it’s all or nothing time. For those 11 drivers with wins – and a likely Chase spot – a victory means three more bonus points tacked on their total to start the Chase.
But, really, these next five races are all about those with no wins. There are some big names out there battling for their playoff hopes – Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle. If the Chase started today, only Biffle would make it among the three perennial Chasers.
So while this is not yet panic time, there’s a definite sense of urgency – with a big opportunity awaiting drivers on Sunday afternoon.
For some, Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen might be the last best hope at a spot in NASCAR’s Chase. Here’s a look at some of the favorites, and their chances:
Marcos Ambrose: The series’ unofficial ‘road course ringer’ has waited for this chance since his eighth-place finish at Sonoma – which, for him, might as well have been a 38th-place finish. However, put the Glen a notch above Sonoma in the Ambrose track hierarchy. He’s won two of the last three races there, and besides a wreck-marred 31st place finish last season, he has never finished worse than third. After winning the Nationwide Series’ Zippo 200 on Saturday afternoon, Ambrose is looking hard for a sweep at Watkins Glen on Sunday afternoon.
Tony Stewart: The king of Watkins Glen, Stewart boasts five wins at the Glen, the most all-time at the upstate New York road course. His last two finishes were outside the top-ten, but he has scored a driver rating above 100 in six of the last seven races at Watkins Glen. On Sunday, fans find out if Stewart will take advantage of his road course racing skills to grab a win.
AJ Allmendinger: Last year, Allmendinger went two-for-two at road courses in the Nationwide Series, so he knows how to win at this style of racing. At Watkins Glen, he’s finished in the top-ten in the last three races. And at Sonoma earlier this season, he led 35 laps before finishing 35th. So Allmendinger is looking for his chance for redemption at Watkins Glen.
Martin Truex Jr.: He could sneak up on the field in this one. The 2014 season has been mostly a slog for Truex, but one win could erase all his troubles. Currently 26th in points, a win is pretty much the only means of advancement into the Chase. It’s not impossible. After all, he won last year at Sonoma and finished in the top-ten in the last three Watkins Glen races, including a third-place finish last year. A win could turn the tide for Truex and his No. 78 team.
Kasey Kahne: Kahne has a Sonoma win on his record, but it’s a different story at Watkins Glen. In ten starts there, he has yet to score a top-ten finish. He has a ton of momentum on his side, with five top-ten finishes in the last seven series’ races. Watkins Glen could bring at least another top-five finish and maybe a win to Kahne this time around.
Greg Biffle: Biffle is coming off only his third top-five finish of the season. That’s the good news. The not so good news: With an average finish of 23.1, the Glen ranks as his worst track. Biffle and his team need improvement in the Cheez-it 355 on Sunday.
You know who’s NOT rooting for any of the above drivers? Guys with one win. Let’s explain…
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick have all clinched a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, assuming they attempt to qualify for the remaining five races.
A number of scenarios can play out this weekend at Watkins Glen in terms of future clinches.
If there is a repeat 2014 winner this weekend, any driver with one win and a locked-up top-30 spot will clinch a spot in the Chase. Potentials: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch.
Why? Well, there would be 11 different winners with four races to go. The greatest number of winners could then be 15. No matter what, a winner would lock up a spot – even in the unlikely event the points leader enters the Chase without a win. Keep in mind, the closest potential candidate without a win that could lead the points is Matt Kenseth, now fourth in the points and 89 points away from the lead.
If there is a new winner, all bets are off. Kyle Busch, the highest ranked of the one-win drivers, could potentially lock up a spot with only one win – though it would be difficult. It is possible that Matt Kenseth, who now has no wins, could be high enough in points to clinch a spot, even though it would be his first win. Same applies to Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer. For Kenseth, Newman and Bowyer, a win would clinch them if they have enough points to guarantee a points spot ahead of the lowest ranked winner after Richmond.
Watch the Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International on Sunday, August 10th at 1 pm ET. Television coverage begins at 12 pm ET on ESPN with their pre-race show.