Is it too early for drivers outside the top 10 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings to take a more aggressive approach and gamble for victories?
The answer to that question is an emphatic “No.”
For drivers currently outside the top 10, qualifying as a wild card likely is their only viable way to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
After Sunday’s STP 400 at Kansas Speedway, we’re nearly a third of the way through the 26-race regular season that will determine those who get to race for the Cup championship and those who don’t.
Look at last year’s standings after eight races. The top eight drivers all went on to finish in the top 10 after 26 events and qualify for the Chase. The only two drivers in the top 10 after eight races who failed to make the Chase were Juan Pablo Montoya and Clint Bowyer. Ultimately, they were supplanted by Jeff Gordon and eventual series champion Tony Stewart.
Accordingly, the odds heavily favor those who have already established themselves as top-10 drivers.
So does the distribution of points, as it stands now. A margin of 63 points separates 10th-place Ryan Newman from series leader Greg Biffle. The spread from Newman to Bowyer in 11th is a whopping 22 points.
It’s not too early for Bowyer and those behind him to start thinking about the other path to the Chase — as a wild card.
Here’s a quick refresher. The top 10 drivers after 26 races qualify for the Chase and receive three bonus points for every race won during the regular season. A driver with three victories, for instance, would start the Chase with 2,009 points — a base of 2,000 plus nine bonus points for the three wins.
The final two wild card positions go to drivers in the top 20 in points with the most victories. Wild card drivers, however, get no bonus points for their wins in the first 26 races and start the Chase with 2,000 points.
Brad Keselowski made the most of the wild card provision NASCAR introduced last year with a late charge that included two victories and a dramatic climb from 23rd to 11th in the standings in the final seven races of the regular season.
Here are five drivers — four of whom made the Chase last year — who should start thinking “wild card,” given that there likely won’t be much room in the top 10 when the Chase field is set in September.
— Kyle Busch (13th, 31 points out of 10th): What Busch does best is win races. So far this season, his No. 18 Joe Gibbs hasn’t had the consistent speed necessary to qualify for the Chase on points. Saturday’s race at Richmond, where Busch has won the last three spring events, is a golden opportunity.
— Brad Keselowski (15th, 32 points out of 10th): Keselowski is the only driver in positions 11-20 with a victory so far this year. Another would all but guarantee him a Chase spot. Fuel pickup glitches have cost him dearly this year, and there’s no guarantee those gremlins won’t reappear.
— Jeff Gordon (18th, 49 points out of 10th): An engine issue at Kansas cost Gordon a top-10 result. He also blew up at Daytona. Gordon has had excellent speed on several occasions this season and has but two top-10s to show for it. A victory would go a long way toward overcoming Gordon’s streak of bad luck.
— Kurt Busch (25th, 75 points out of 10th): Busch and his new team, Phoenix Racing, have experienced understandable growing pains, but the No. 51 Chevy had excellent speed at Kansas. Realistically, Busch must win a race to have any chance to make the Chase. Doubtless the team has May 6 at Talladega circled on the calendar.
— Kasey Kahne (26th, 83 points out of 10th): A disastrous, star-crossed start to his first season with Hendrick Motorsports has left Kahne, the only driver in this group of five who didn’t make the Chase last year, in a different zip code from the series leaders. Two straight top-10s have helped, but it’s still doubtful Kahne can race his way into the top 10 on points. As with Kurt Busch, it would behoove Kahne to focus on racing his way into the top 20 and winning a race or two.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author