With 11 different winners in the first 21 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races this season and only five races left before the new-format 16-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field is set it is apparent that at least a few Chase places will be given out based on points and not wins. The battle for those last few Chase berths will be heated over the final five races and for some Sunday's 13-car crash at Pocono Raceway could have put them out of reach to earn a berth based on points.
To set the clear Chase picture you first need to know that Dale Eanhardt Jr, Brad Keselowski, and Jimmie Johnson are locked in by having won three times. Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Carl Edwards, and Kevin Harvick are also locked in by having won two times. Even though they are not officially locked in yet, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola, and Kurt Busch are sitting pretty with their one trip to victory lane so far.
Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman even seem pretty comfortable with their standing right now even though they are winless. Kenseth is fourth in points and 79 points clear of the current cut off. Ryan Newman is fifth in points and 53 points clear of the cut off. Staying out of trouble over the next five races should land both in the Chase. Of course that might be easier said than done.
Take Sunday's GoBowling.com 400 as an example. Matt Kenseth found trouble on lap 117 when he was caught up in a spectacular 13-car accident. The aftermath of the wreck did damage not only to a lot of cars but also some Chase chances.
The accident occurred off of Turn 1 right after a restart. Denny Hamlin got loose in the middle of a three-wide situation between Jamie McMurray and Clint Bowyer and he got sideways in front of the oncoming pack of two-by-two cars. Brian Vickers then got loose when he tried to avoid Hamlin's car which was directly in his path exiting Turn 1. Vickers moved high quickly but Matt Kenseth's car was there and the two slammed the outside wall violently. From there the track was entirely blocked and nine more cars ended up barreling into the mess. Included among those drivers were Paul Menard and Tony Stewart.
Menard finished 32nd, Stewart 36th, and Vickers 37th. Those finishes as opposed to possible top 10's that all three were capable of could be the difference between making and not making the Chase.
As it sits now Clint Bowyer has Chase position 14 with 617 points. Kyle Larson holds Chase position 15 with 595 points, and Greg Biffle holds Chase position 16 with 590 points. Biffle was the big winner after coming home with a fifth place finish after Sunday's field was cut down by the accident.
Kasey Kahne is only one point behind Biffle and Austin Dillon is only two points behind. They are in good shape leaving Pocono to contend for a Chase position based on points still.
Paul Menard is now 28 points behind Biffle and not in as good of shape largely because of the crash. A win might be his only way in now. Marcos Ambrose was able to escape the crash without major damage and he is 49 points behind Biffle. Ambrose though is headed to Watkins Glen International next week, a track he has scored his two Sprint Cup Series wins at. That race is his hope to make the Chase.
Brian Vickers is now 51 points behind Biffle and Tony Stewart is 53 points behind. Those two drivers saw their Chase chances crumple with their fenders at Pocono. The only way in for them now is to win one of the next five races.
Watkins Glen International, Michigan International Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway, and Richmond International Raceway will provide Menard, Vickers, and Stewart their opportunities to still get in the Chase along with the other drivers like Kenseth, Newman, Bowyer, Larson, Biffle, Kahne, Dillon, Ambrose, Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears, AJ Allmendinger, Martin Truex Jr, Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Danica Patrick, and Michael Annett that are in the top 30 in points and winless.
Let the stretch run to the Chase begin.
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