If misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows, so can the Chase hopes of the so-called “Bubble Boys,” as the cutoff for eligibility draws near.
With nine races left before the field for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is set at Richmond, it might behoove some of the competitors on the borderline to look at the ramifications of the performances of other drivers.
Why? Because the field of drivers just inside or just outside the top 10 is so tightly bunched and so fluid that those hopeful of qualifying for NASCAR’s playoff can’t necessarily control their own Chase destinies, even with consistently strong runs.
Take Tony Stewart as an example. In a wildly inconsistent season so far, Stewart has gone from outside the top 20 and winless to inside the top 10 with a victory to his current standing of 16th with one win. Having fallen six spots in the last two weekends, Stewart is back in a precarious position where the Chase is concerned.
And what some of his rivals do over the next nine races may have more to do with whether Stewart makes the Chase than the three-time champion himself does.
Right now, Stewart is in line for the second wild-card berth in the Chase, but there are threats galore to his tenuous grasp on that position. The biggest is Kyle Busch, who has won two races. Busch, who is seventh in the standings but only 22 points ahead of 11th place, mirrors Stewart’s inconsistency. Should the driver of the No. 18 Toyota fall out of the top 10, he could knock Stewart out of a wild-card spot.
So could either eighth-place Martin Truex Jr. or ninth-place Greg Biffle by dropping out of the top 10 and finishing ahead of Stewart in the standings.
From Stewart’s point of view, it would be helpful if 11th-place Kasey Kahne could work his way back into the top 10 to provide a safety against another driver in positions 11-20 in the standings picking up a breakthrough win and challenging for a wild card.
The bottom line for Stewart is that the more drivers with victories who finish in a guaranteed Chase spot inside the top 10, the better his chances.
That puts Stewart in the unusual position of wishing well for rivals he normally would prefer to bury. It also puts him in an awkward position relative to his own teammate, Ryan Newman.
If Newman should happen to collect his first win of the season during the next nine races, what would be good for Stewart-Haas Racing as an organization might be bad for Stewart personally. Newman could knock his teammate/boss out of the Chase.
As close as the Race for the Chase is, there’s plenty of room for mixed feelings and divided loyalties. Does that mean that Stewart will cut Busch, Biffle or Truex more slack than usual on the race track?
Does it mean that he’ll race the intensely competitive Newman harder than he normally would?
Maybe not, but if Stewart is still on the bubble when the Cup series arrives at Richmond, it might be something to think about.
After all, extreme circumstances sometimes call for extreme measures.