In a season of accumulating tension, it’s time for a number of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers to get worried—really worried.
Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway established two important facts. First, Jeff Gordon’s third victory of the season ensured that there will be no more than 15 different winners in the first 26 races this year.
That in turn guarantees that at least one driver will qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup based on position in the standings.
Second, as of the Michigan race, all 12 drivers who have victories so far this season are now locked into the Chase, provided they attempt to qualify for the next three events.
That leaves four Chase spots available in what is certain to be a mad scramble for playoff eligibility over the next three weeks. If Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond all give us repeat winners, four drivers will qualify for the Chase on points.
Position in the standings, however, is far from a guarantee. In the bifurcated system for determining Chase eligibility, race wins trump points position, and each new different winner eliminates a position available on points to a winless driver.
Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle are the top four drivers in the standings without a victory this year, but those four drivers have a right to be nervous entering the final three races of the regular season.
On the one hand, they can lock up Chase spots with race wins. On the other hand, if they don’t get to Victory Lane, they leave their fate in the hands of others.
Hypothetically, Marcos Ambrose could win at Bristol, arguably his best track other than the road courses. Ambrose has two fifth-place finishes and three top 10s in his last four starts at Thunder Valley. Should he win there—or should 2013 Bristol winner Kasey Kahne take the checkered flag—a Chase spot available on points vanishes.
The worst nightmare for Kenseth, Newman, Bowyer and Biffle would be for three drivers currently outside the Chase Grid to win the next three races and eliminate all but one spot available on points.
Before Michigan, Kenseth seemed relatively secure as the top driver in the standings without a victory, but the No. 20 Toyota fell victim to a nine-car accident on Lap 25 and finished 38th, cutting Kenseth’s margin over Ryan Newman (the next driver in the standings without a win) to 30 points.
Accordingly, the No. 20 team faces a ticklish situation and two divergent goals heading to Bristol on Saturday night. A victory would be by far the best outcome, because it would lock Kenseth into the Chase. But with one spot guaranteed to the highest points finisher without a win, Kenseth also needs to preserve his position in the standings.
One of the crowning achievements of this year’s new Chase qualification system is the layer of complexity it has added to the process. We won’t know until the checkered flag in the final regular-season race at Richmond how many different winners we’ll have in the first 26 races and how many drivers will qualify on points.
The permutations are almost endless. If Greg Biffle can’t win one of the next three races, for example, he’ll be cheering for drivers who already have race wins—the rivals he would face in the Chase—to sweep Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond.
And there’s certain to be intense racing between the four winless drivers currently inside the Chase Grid and those immediately behind them: Kahne, Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson and Ambrose.
During a three-week period rife with unknowns, however, there is one certainty. We won’t know the identities of all 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title contenders until the final lap at Richmond.
And that’s as it should be.