After Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has completed half of the season's points paying races. There are 18 races down and 18 to go. The next eight races will lead up to the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. NASCAR's version of the playoffs.
To win the championship a driver has to be in the top 10 in points after race 26 at Richmond International Raceway on September 7th. Two other drivers between 11th and 20th in the points will also make the 12-driver Chase by earning Wild Cards by having the most wins of those 10 drivers outside the top 10 and in the top 20.
The Wild Card picture is a mess right now as there are seven drivers in 11th through 17th in points that are only 24 points out of being inside the top 10 to earn a shot at the championship. It is going to be a wild eight races as everything shuffles race-to-race on who is in the top 10 and who needs to rely on wins for a Wild Card spot.
As far as what drivers look like they are in championship form right now there are only really two drivers. Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth. We have seen the past two seasons that in order to win the championship a team must win races in the Chase. Tony Stewart won five races in 2011 and Brad Keselowski won two last year. Johnson and Kenseth both have four wins so far this season and are in championship form in that respect.
Johnson has been dominant, leading a series high 1,020 laps and his 49 point lead in the standings right now has to have fans excited that there is a Chase to reset the points and give other drivers a second chance.
Kenseth meanwhile has had the speed, leading 961 laps so far, and is right there with Johnson. He has just had some bad luck with blown engines at the Daytona 500 and Dover and crashes at Bristol and the Coke Zero 400. He is currently sixth in the standings 118 points behind Johnson. No worries for Kenseth though as he will be in the Chase.
There are a few other names that are right on the cusp of being in the discussion for a championship right now. Kyle Busch has led 984 laps, has two wins, and is tied with Johnson with a series leading eight top five finishes. Kevin Harvick has two wins, five top fives, and 10 top 10's in his last ride season for Richard Childress Racing. Clint Bowyer has yet to win but has seven top fives and 11 top 10's which is second to only Johnson's 12.
Last year's Champion Brad Keselowski is not on that list. His Penske Racing No. 2 Ford team has been sputtering and is currently 13th in points. He is only 11 points behind 10th but is in the heart of the fiery battle to either get in the top 10 or win races to get a Wild Card.
Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr have to feel comfortable with their Chase chances but as far as a championship goes they do not look like contenders at this time.
Of course a champion could come from out of the blue. In 2011 no one thought Tony Stewart was championship caliber in early summer or even late summer for that matter. He ended up squeaking in the Chase and then reeled off an amazing stretch of races with five wins to win the championship over Carl Edwards.
Could Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart himself, Martin Truex Jr, Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, or Jamie McMurray find their way into the Chase and then perform at a high level? They could.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Aric Almirola, Paul Menard, Jeff Burton, Marcos Ambrose, and Juan Pablo Montoya have a shot at making the Chase still even though they are slim chances. A championship for any of them would be a very long stretch though.
At the halfway point in the season the money should be on Jimmie Johnson with Matt Kenseth right on his heels. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer are in the draft and the rest of the field is just going to be excited if they can come out of the next eight heavyweight races standing as one of the 12 drivers with a chance.
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