SONOMA, Calif. — Welcome, Martin Truex Jr., to the Chase conversation.
By winning Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway, Truex wrote his name boldly on the list of likely participants in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
With 10 races left before the Chase field is set at Richmond, Truex is 10th in the Cup standings, having gained three spots on Sunday. He also has a win in his back pocket, should he slip out of the top 10 and need one of two wild card berths to make the Chase — an opportunity available to the drivers in positions 11-20 with the most victories.
Last week, Truex was an afterthought where the Chase was concerned. This week, he’s solidly in the mix.
But just as Truex’s win on Sunday shows how dramatically a driver’s fortunes can change with a win — as with Tony Stewart’s victory early this month at Dover — it also highlights the unprecedented volatility of the standings this year.
Usually, by the time the Cup series leaves wine country, we have a relatively clear picture of who will make the Chase and who won’t.
A year ago, eventual Cup champion Brad Keselowski was 10th in the standings — right where Truex is. Keselowski trailed Matt Kenseth, then the series leader, by 106 points. Truex’s 120-point deficit to current leader Jimmie Johnson isn’t radically different from Keselowski’s last year.
When you look at positions 11-20, however, the picture changes drastically. Last year, after 16 races, Keselowski in 10th had a 31-point lead over 12th-place Kyle Busch, a 65-point advantage over 16th-place Marcos Ambrose and a whopping 88-point cushion over 20th-place Jamie McMurray.
In other words, the first 16 races already had produced significant gaps in the standings particularly as they applied to positions 11-20.
This year, positions 11-20 are far more compressed and consequently much more volatile. Yes, Truex is 10th, but he’s only 20 points ahead of 15th-place Tony Stewart, who dropped five positions in the standings after a disappointing 28th-place run on Sunday.
A scant margin of 28 points separates Truex from 17th-place Kurt Busch, who overcame a pair of pit road speeding penalties on Sunday to salvage a fourth-place finish. Between Truex and 20th-place Jeff Burton there’s a 50-point edge, barely more than one race in points value.
Truex was able to make a significant move at Sonoma precisely because of the compression of the standings in positions 11-20. But what Truex did, any other driver in the group can do. Sunday’s runner-up, Jeff Gordon, is winless through 16 races and in 13th place — on the outside looking in.
A Gordon victory in the next 10 races could change that dramatically. With Gordon only 12 points behind Truex, a string of top fives could accomplish the same thing. Ditto for Joey Logano in 14th. Logano, though winless, is a mere 14 points out of 10th place.
The bottom line is that Truex can enjoy the victory that broke a 218-race drought, but he can’t relax. The 10 drivers in the compact group immediately behind him have the same opportunity to make the same sort of move.
Yes, Truex can feel justifiably proud of joining the Chase discussion, but at this point, there are still too many voices arguing for their own Chase eligibility to provide any degree of comfort.
For those currently on the Chase bubble, security isn’t likely to come until the series arrives at Richmond, 10 races down the road.