The Sprint Cup Series is two weeks from locking in the sixteen drivers that will go on to race for this year’s championship and twelve weeks from crowning that champion. This weekend the entire series will have one last chance to step back and take a big breath from the pressure of a title run as the schedule has one last open weekend before it concludes with a grueling stretch run.
The 36-race schedule also includes two weekends of non-points races with the season opening Sprint Unlimited at Daytona in February and the May All-Star event in Charlotte. That’s 38 weekends of racing that runs from February to late November with only three open weekends that for most teams can’t come soon enough.
NASCAR does a good job of placing the rare open weekend throughout the season as the first one came during the Easter weekend after a season opening seven consecutive races. The next stretch of ten races took the sport through the rest of spring before the series went back to the west coast for the road course at Sonoma the last weekend of June.
That race began what is known as the summer stretch of nine races that concluded Saturday night at Bristol. When Bristol’s checkered flag waved, only ten drivers had clinched their spot in the Chase and can actually use this open weekend to not only grab a little rest for the driver and crew but to also concentrate on preparing their cars for the final 10-race Chase stretch without having the added pressure of having to race their way into the playoff field in the final two regular races at Darlington and Richmond.
Kyle Busch has all but clinched his spot in the Chase as he has posted four wins and is inside the top-30 in the points that is one of the requirements for becoming Chase eligible. He will go to Darlington 29th in the points but has built a 46-point cushion ahead of Cole Whitt in 31st.
With eleven what you might say safely in the Chase, that leaves five spots and five drivers that either must win one of the next two races or hope that another driver outside of the top-16 in points doesn’t sneak in and grab one of the checkered flags in the next two races. Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard, Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer sit 12th-16th and with two more spots up for grab by a first time winner, only McMurray, Newman and Menard are assured of a Chase spot if they can maintain their position regardless of who makes it to victory lane. McMurray has a 25- point cushion over the fifteenth spot and seems safe unless he puts together back-to-back poor finishes.
Newman has a slim 9-point lead over the fifteenth spot but the real battle could be between Menard and Gordon if it came down to only four of the five drivers making the Chase based solely on their position in the points. Menard will enter Darlington with a two-point lead over Gordon but with the point system now in place that is only a two spot difference in the finishing order of a race.
Now for all of this drama to play out over the next two races, there has to be at least one first-time winner and the list of candidates to break through with a win contains those names that we have just mentioned fighting for a Chase spot because of their position in the points.
Although he is not in the top-16 at this time and has struggled the entire season, Kasey Kahne may be the favorite of all of the non-winners this season to notch a win before the Chase begins. Last season he became Chase eligible after leading the final two laps at Atlanta Motor Speedway which was the last race before the Chase. Pressure will not be a problem for him plus you just get the feeling that Hendrick Motorsports will pour all of their resources into that car to get him Chase eligible.
Event: Bojangles’ Southern 500
Track: Darlington Raceway (1.25 mile egg-shaped oval, Banking Turns 1/2 – 25o, Turns 3/4 – 23o)
Date: Sept. 6, 7 p.m.
Defending Champion: Kevin Harvick