Dean McNulty sizes up the remaining Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship contenders and also-rans:
Down and almost Out
There comes a time when even the most diehard fans must come to the realization that their favourite driver is toast in this season’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.
That means Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 Toyota team should be concentrating on next year because at 61 points back of the leaders this one is done for them.
And to a lesser extent Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Newman are in a similar bind and need near miraculous finishes from here on out to stave off elimination.
Okay Junior Nation, put down the pitch forks, put out those torches and listen.
You say your boy is only 34 points out of first place with seven races left so that should be lots of time for his No. 88 Chevrolet squad to dig themselves out of the hole.
But even with top five finishes in all seven races — an unlikely scenario — he would also need all nine drivers in front of him to stumble badly and, folks, that ain’t going to happen. Better to be happy that Earnhardt had a great comeback season and is poised to make another run in 2012.
As for Newman, at 41 points back he is in worse shape than Earnhardt. The No. 39 Chevrolet team is teetering on joining Hamlin on the sidelines if he doesn’t win on Sunday at Kansas Speedway.
The Muddled Middle
Five drivers make-up the space between the also rans and the front runners.
And all that gets them is a reprieve, not a pass to the top.
Take Jeff Gordon and the No, 24 Chevrolet gang. This is a four-time champion who is currently 19 points out but heading to Kansas where he has the best record of any Chase driver.
But with eight drivers in front of him he really needs to win on Sunday to remain a contender.
Kyle Busch, at 15 points back in the No. 18 Toyota, appears to be in better shape but since the start of the Chase he has been going backwards and that is not a good trend. Another slip in points at Kansas and his nickname changes from Rowdy to Chokey.
Matt Kenseth has had an ordinary record — a sixth, a fifth and a 21st place finish — after three Chase races where he is 14 points in arrears. But consistent finishes out of the Top 5 only lengthens the distance between the No. 17 Ford team and the top contenders. He must get to Victory Lane soon or risk being too far back to be a factor.
Brad Keselowski came into the Chase as everyone’s favourite dark horse. But after dropping three positions with a 20th place finish at Dover last week the No. 2 Dodge outfit is also 14 points back and has to get a big rebound at Kansas or face the fact it might not belong in this season’s Chase.
Five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson is at the top of the middle — not a space the No. 48 Chevrolet team is accustomed to occupying.
Yet at 13 points back he is close enough — with some of his best tracks in front of him — to still be considered a threat to get trophy No. 6.
He can’t be counted out yet.
Room at the Top
Not many in the Sprint Cup garage would have picked Kurt Busch and the No. 22 Dodge team to be among the top four in the Chase after three races.
But here he is nine points back of the top spot with a win already in his back pocket.
If he can keep his head on straight there is a real chance he could get team owner Roger Penske his first Sprint Cup championship to go with all that IndyCar silverware he already owns.
Tony Stewart is the surprise among those at the top of the standings.
The No. 14 Chevrolet team was counted out — even by its owner/driver — before the Chase started. But with a pair of wins Stewart now looks like a serious contender to claim his third Cup.
His 25th place finish at Dover is worrisome, however, and it dropped him into a tie with the elder Busch. He needs to re-establish his dominance at Kansas.
Carl Edwards has been on just about everyone’s list of drivers to succeed Johnson as champion this season.
The No. 99 Ford group started the season with a bang but somewhere around mid season they seem to have lost their focus.
But solid results at Chicagoland, New Hampshire and Dover has put Edwards in a tie for first place, back as a favourite to win his first championship.
Kevin Harvick has been considered championship material almost from the moment he inherited the No. 29 Chevrolet team from the late, great Dale Earnhardt.
Last season he knocked on the door, finishing third behind Johnson and Hamlin.
This season he is poised to take the next step and as the only Richard Childress car in the Chase he has all the resources and no excuses to fail.