Will past success at next four tracks help still-winless drivers make Chase?
While the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series enjoys its final in-season off-weekend, it seems everyone from drivers to crew chiefs to team owners and fans are breaking out their calculators.
They’re all trying to figure out who has the best chance of still making the upcoming 10 race Chase for the Sprint Cup – particularly those drivers who have yet to win a race thus far in 2016.
A total of 16 drivers will qualify for the Chase. As it stands now, 11 drivers are already qualified by virtue of winning at least one race already this season, plus they’re above 30th place, which is the cutoff for Chase eligibility.
A 12th winning driver, Chris Buescher, is not yet qualified for the Chase because he remains three points shy of the 30th place cutoff. If Buescher can leave Richmond in the top-30, he will make the Chase.
One of the most interesting stats is that of the four races remaining before the Chase, several drivers that remain winless this season have enjoyed past victories at those same tracks, particularly Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who both have won in the past at three of the next four tracks.
Can lightning strike again for them?
Here’s how it breaks down:
Bristol: Earnhardt, Kahne
Michigan: Greg Biffle, Earnhardt, Ryan Newman, Kahne
Darlington: Biffle, Regan Smith
Richmond: Earnhardt, Clint Bowyer, Kahne, Newman
For each of those past winners that might triumph again at those tracks, or for other first-time winners in 2016, it would further reduce the number of drivers who make the Chase solely on points.
It remains uncertain whether Earnhardt will be able to make the Chase after having missed the last several races due to a concussion – and remains sidelined.
Given that Earnhardt is ranked 21st in the standings, 51 points behind 16th ranked Trevor Bayne, it would appear the only way he would make the Chase is to win one of the last four – provided he’s cleared to even race at some point during that period.
Right now, drivers who have yet to win a race this year that appear the safest to make the Chase are Newman (50 points ahead of Bayne on the cutoff line), Chase Elliott (+49), Austin Dillon (+47) and Jamie McMurray (+38).
Kyle Larson is also above the cutoff line, but with only an eight-point edge over Bayne, is the driver in the riskiest position.
Larson is still simmering at how AJ Allmendinger wrecked him on the final lap of Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen. It cost Larson what appeared to be a likely top-five finish and left him with a disappointing 29th-place result – which greatly impacted his Chase chances and ranking.
“Pretty dumb move right there,” Larson said of Allmendinger. “I was the smarter one racing for points, lifted, could have wrecked him, but didn’t.”
Instead, it was Larson who was wrecked by Allmendinger.
“He has run me hard, but we always race pretty well, but today was flat out stupid,” Larson said.
The drivers outside the top 16 with the best chance of still sneaking into the Chase on points are Kahne (three points behind Bayne), Ryan Blaney (-8), Allmendinger (-26), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-37) and Earnhardt (-51).