Let’s start with two assumptions.
First, anyone with two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victories this season is going to make the Chase.
Yes, I know there are theoretical scenarios that could knock Kasey Kahne, Sunday’s winner at Pocono, out of the top 12. But those prospects are so remote that they won’t stop Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis from taking risks in the next five races to try to accumulate victories before the Chase starts September 15 at Chicagoland Speedway.
The other two-win drivers, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, are even more firmly ensconced in their provisional Chase positions.
Second, no driver without a win is a lock to make the Chase, not even Clint Bowyer, who’s currently second in the standings. A victory is the NASCAR Sprint Cup equivalent to a golden parachute. If you don’t have one, and you go into free-fall with a couple of DNFs, there’s nothing to prevent you from landing in non-Chase territory with a resounding splat.
For argument’s sake, we’re going to say that any driver in the top 15 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings with fewer than two victories is one the Chase bubble. Here’s how I handicap their respective chances of qualifying for NASCAR’s 10-race playoff:
Clint Bowyer. Points position: second. Points behind leader: 77. Points ahead of 11th place: 101. Victories: 0. Best chance for a win before the Chase: Richmond. Probability of making the Chase: 98 percent. The chances that Bowyer will miss the Chase are slim and none, but as long as Slim is still in town, the possibility has to be acknowledged. The Michael Waltrip Racing cars aren’t as fast relative to the competition as they were last year, but that doesn’t mean MWR can’t find what Mark Martin calls “the missing piece” to the setup of the Gen-6 cars that’s already well known in the Chevy camp. Bowyer can post mediocre finishes and still make the Chase. What he has to avoid are disasters. Accordingly, he and savvy crew chief Brian Pattie are likely to play things very close to the vest over the next five races. Task No. 1 is making the Chase. Afterwards, you can ramp up your program and try to win the title.
Carl Edwards. Points position: third. Points behind leader: 84. Points ahead of 13th place: 100. Victories: 1. Best chance for a win before the Chase: Bristol, Atlanta. Probability of making the Chase: 96 percent. No, Edwards is not shoo-in, despite his lofty position in the standings and the early-season victory he notched at Phoenix. Only an unmitigated catastrophe, however, could drop Edwards below 12th place and out of at least a Wild Card spot. The Ford camp is still searching for the complete package with the new Gen-6 car, but Edwards has shown speed in qualifying, even if he hasn’t converted excellent starting spots into quality finishes of late. But he’s running fast enough to qualify for the Chase.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Points position: fifth. Points behind leader: 116. Points ahead of 11th place: 62. Victories: 0. Best chance for a win before the Chase: Michigan, Atlanta. Probability of making the Chase: 88 percent. Junior is one win away from solidifying his claim to a Chase spot, but he’s also one really bad finish away from nail-biting time. The most encouraging sign for the No. 88 team came Sunday, when Earnhardt was grousing about a fifth-place finish. All he really needs to grab a Chase spot is a respectable finish next Sunday on the road course at Watkins Glen and the sort of steady, consistent performances in the final four races that have become commonplace for Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte this year.
Jeff Gordon. Points position: ninth. Points behind leader: 170. Points ahead of 11th place: 8. Victories: 0. Best chance for a win before the Chase: Watkins Glen, Bristol. Probability of making the Chase: 75 percent. Gordon made a statement Sunday at Pocono, where he got his runner-up finish the old fashioned way — he earned it. Clearly, the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champ was delighted with the speed in his car, and that bodes well for the final five races before the Chase field is set at Richmond. Last year, Gordon dealt with the pressure of having to come from behind to clinch a Chase spot at Richmond, and that experience should help him again this season. The X factor for Gordon is the miserable luck that has prevented him from stringing good finishes together this season. As precarious as his position is, Gordon can’t afford any more calamities.
Greg Biffle. Points position: 10th. Points behind leader: 173. Points ahead of 13th place: 11. Victories: 1. Best chance for a win before the Chase: Michigan. Probability of making the Chase: 60 percent. After a strong start to the season, Biffle’s NASCAR Sprint Cup program has drifted into mediocrity. Despite a 10th-place run Sunday at Pocono, his average finish over the last five races is 20.0, and his career average at next Sunday’s venue, Watkins Glen, is 23.8 — even factoring in last year’s sixth-place result. Biffle is on the cusp between a top-10 guaranteed Chase spot and a Wild Card, but he and crew chief Matt Puccia need to steady the ship to avoid the continued erosion of the Biff’s points position.
Tony Stewart. Points Position: 11th. Points behind 10th place: 5. Points ahead of 13th place: 6. Victories: 1. Best chance of a win before the Chase: Watkins Glen, Richmond. Probability of making the Chase: 80 percent. Stewart has no weak tracks in the mix before the Chase field is set, and he thrives on the high stress of performing under intense pressure, as he proved so dramatically in winning the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup title. The Stewart-Haas cars have improved their handling and balance in recent weeks, and Stewart heads next Sunday to Watkins Glen, where he’s a five-time winner. Don’t let recent glitches at the Glen fool you — Stewart is up to the challenge.
Brad Keselowski. Points position: 12th. Points behind 10th place: 7. Points ahead of 13th place: 4. Victories: 0. Best chance of a win before the Chase: Watkins Glen, Bristol. Probability of making the Chase: 40 percent. To qualify for the Chase on points, the defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion likely will have to pass Biffle, Gordon or Kahne over the next five races, as well as jump ahead of Stewart. Keselowski is 46 points behind Matt Kenseth in seventh place, and finishing ahead of Kenseth by an average of more than nine points a race hardly seems likely. Therefore, Biffle, Gordon and Kahne are the only realistic targets. Another option for Brad is a win, which could come at any of the next five tracks. We like Keselowski at the Glen, where he’s finished second in the last two races, giving us one of the highlights of the 2012 season with his last-lap battle against Marcos Ambrose.
Kurt Busch. Points position: 13th. Points behind 10th place: 11. Victories: 0. Best chance of a win before the Chase: Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta. Probability of making the Chase: 60 percent. But for an impatient moment at New Hampshire, Busch would be comfortably in the top 10. Crew chief Todd Berrier has provided speedy cars just about everywhere, and Busch has exhibited no qualms about driving them to the limit of their performance capacity. Collectively, 11 of Busch’s 24 NASCAR Sprint Cup wins have come at the last four tracks in NASCAR’s regular season — Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond. The Chase is his oyster, if Busch can stay patient enough to find the pearl.
Martin Truex Jr. Points position: 14th. Points behind 10th place: 15. Points ahead of 15th place: 9. Victories: 1. Best chance of a win before the Chase: Watkins Glen, Atlanta. Probability of making the Chase: 50 percent. The MWR cars haven’t had the speed of the Hendrick or Stewart-Haas cars of late, and that should concern Truex, whose closest pursuer for a provisional Wild Card spot, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Ryan Newman, is only nine points back with five races left. Truex, however, got through his problem track — Pocono — with a respectable 15th-place finish, and he’s optimistic about his chances at the five remaining tracks before the Chase field is set.
Ryan Newman. Points position: 15th. Points behind 10th place: 24. Points behind second provisional wild card: 9. Victories: 1. Best chance of a win before the Chase: Michigan, Richmond. Probability of making the Chase: 60 percent. The collaboration between Newman and crew chief Matt Borland has achieved critical mass, as Rocket Man’s win at the Brickyard might suggest. Driving the same chassis he used at Indy, Newman charged to a fourth-place result at Pocono, establishing himself as a man on the move. Statistically, Richmond is Newman’s best track among the five remaining before the Chase. He has 13 top 10s in 23 starts there and may need another to secure a berth in the Chase.