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Who's set to take up the Chase in 2011?

31 August 2011

Only two races remain - Atlanta and Richmond - before NASCAR Sprint Cup arrives at the crucial Chase cut-off, which sees 12 drivers separated out for the final battle of the 2011 Cup championship title. For the top drivers in the series, this is the first big moment they've been waiting for: making the cut is a huge affirmation of their performance to date.

Missing out, on the other hand, can be a huge blow - the kind of disappointment that causes people in teams to be ousted from their jobs. Even drivers.

Making the Chase involves finishing the 'regular season' of the first 26 races of the year in the top ten on points. Added to that are two wildcard entries for the top two drivers in positions 11 through 20 based on the number of wins so far in 2011, a new innovation introduced only this year which has certainly enlivened the Race for the Chase.

Kyle Busch was the first to be confirmed through to the Chase, being a lock after his win at Michigan last week. This week's 14th place at Bristol - a disappointment for Kyle on his favourite track - was enough to confirm that his Chase place would be based on points and not have to rely on a wins wildcard (his four wins the best tally of any driver so far this year.) He's currently tied for the lead in the Cup points with Jimmie Johnson and looking like one of the strongest contenders for the championship - although he's been in that position before, in 2008, only to then collapse in the Chase itself and never feature in the title battle.

Joining Busch in clinching a Chase place after Bristol are Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, who now cannot be knocked out of the top ten points positions before the cut-off. Kevin Harvick is also through to the Chase, one way or the other, and Jeff Gordon was also belatedly confirmed as a lock after NASCAR confirmed there was no way he could miss out on either points or wins wildcard.

Jimmie Johnson's inclusion won't surprise anyone: the five-times Cup champion has made the Chase every year since the post-result season format was introduced. He's got it down to a fine art, as well: never particularly dazzling through the main part of the season, he nonetheless is a model of consistency which is exactly what works best in the Chase's ten-race shootout. Still, onlookers have noticed that Johnson seems more rattled by the closer competition this year than in the past - his recent post-race blow-up with Kurt Busch being one example - and doesn't seem to have things to his liking this year as he has in the past.

Matt Kenseth locks into the Chase after a strong showing at Bristol. He's another driver who rarely seems to attract much attention during the regular season, but he's won two races (Texas and Dover in the first half of the year) and seems to be growing in confidence and consistency as the Chase approaches. In other words, as far as Chase preparations go, Kenseth is playing it pretty much perfectly.

Carl Edwards is also through, but his season is going in the wrong direction compared with the likes of Busch and Kenseth. He led the Cup points for a long time going into the summer, but his form has trailed off somewhat as the year has gone on. Some put that down to the distraction of uncertainty around his re-signing with Roush Fenway Racing, but now the deal is done it doesn't seem to have rebooted his fortunes and the team as a whole seem to have gone off the boil. Like Johnson, Edwards has only one win this season.

At least Edwards and Roush Fenway are having a better time of it than Kevin Harvick at Richard Childress Racing, which seems a bit of an unhappy camp at the moment. Last week the team fired their popular pit crew coach Matt Clark after problems in pit lane, while last month the well-respected crew chief of Jeff Burton's #31 car, Todd Berrier, was also shown the door.

Despite the shuffling of deckchairs, Harvick finished Bristol in an alarming 22nd place and a lap off the lead, clearly not happy at the crucial point of the season. But his three wins of the year to date (back-to-back wins at California and Martinsville followed by success at Charlotte in May) means that he has nonetheless also clinched a place in the Chase by virtue of the wildcard if not quite absolutely by the mathematics of the raw points.

Jeff Gordon had a strong run at Bristol, leading the most laps until thwarted at the final restart and finding himself held back by Martin Truex Jr. from challenging Brad Keselowski for the win. He has two wins this season and his momentum is going in the right direction. Already locked in by virtue of the wildcard scenario, he'll clinch a Chase spot on points with a finish anywhere in the top 40 (out of 43!) at Atlanta. Few would be surprised if the #24 turned out to be one of the strongest contenders for the title.

Although not mathematically locked in yet, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman would be shocked to miss out on the Chase now. Kurt Busch's season has been a rollercoaster since winning the pre-season Budweiser Shootout. A severe slump in form at Penske saw Kurt Busch deliver some harsh tirades over the team radio - with even owner Roger Penske in his crosshairs - which triggered a major shake-up within the organisation. That seemed to completely rejuvenate Penske and Kurt went on to win at Sonoma, but since then he's slipped back again while all the attention has gone to his young team mate - more of whom in a minute. Even so, a top seven finish at Atlanta will put Kurt safely into the Chase in his own right.

Ryan Newman has quietly been having a terrific season, with a win at Loudon adding to a solid set of 12 top ten finishes that should see him clinch a Chase place after Atlanta provided he gets a top 20 finish. But the same cannot be said for his team mate and team owner Tony Stewart, who - despite still running in the top ten - is deeply out of sorts and unhappy with his team's performance. He qualified dead last at Bristol and went on to finish in 28th position on one of his best tracks. At this rate he is at risk of dropping out of the top ten, and with no wins this year, he wouldn't scrape in via a wildcard, either. But then on this form, he wouldn't want to.

"We're wasting one of those top-12 spots right now," Stewart said glumly at the weekend. "At this point of the deal, if we are going to run this bad, it really doesn't matter whether we make the Chase or not because we are going to be occupying a spot in the Chase that somebody else that actually can run for a championship [could fill.]"

The other driver at risk of dropping out of the top ten points positions and who is similarly without any wins to squeak in on a wildcard is Dale Earnhardt Jr.. Dale was running third in the championship earlier in the season but since then it's been a long, slow decline as the frustrations have set back in. He finished in 16th place at Bristol - not bad, but really not where he needs to be to be assured of getting through and certainly not the sort of performance to see him making any sort of impact in the Chase should he actually do so.

The big talking point of the summer season has undoubtedly been the stellar rise of Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch's Penske team mate. He was down in 23rd place in the middle of July and looking distinctly unlikely to play any part in the Chase, and then had his major crash at Road Atlanta during testing that threatened to put him out of the seat for a time altogether. Instead he gritted his teeth through the pain, and stunningly hadn't been out of the top three since - including two wins at Pocono and Bristol to add to his earlier victory at Kansas meaning that he's all-but assured a Chase place from his three wins via a wildcard (some feasible but highly unlikely scenarios involving him falling out of the top 20 again mean that he's not quite yet officially a lock.)

While still just outside the top ten, the way Keselowski's steaming up the positions means that no one would be surprised if he didn't break through and displace either Earnhardt Jr. or Stewart by the Chase cut-off. And whether Keselowski goes through in the top ten or fills one of the wildcard slots makes a huge difference as to which of the other drivers with wins in the top 20 may or may not be eligible for the remaining wildcard(s).

As things stand, Denny Hamlin would take the second wildcard if Keselowski took the first, thanks to his single win at Michigan. But no one is denying that it's far from a classic season for Hamlin, who last year pushed Johnson all the way to the final race for the 2010 title only to fall short: he almost seems to be struggling with the disappointment and deflation inevitable after such a near-miss, and has spoken about how it may even be better not to get into the Chase as that would allow him and the #11 team to use the remaining ten races of the year to go out, have some fun, experiment, rebuild and maybe win a few races by being daring instead of having to put championship considerations first and foremost.

Right now, Hamlin looks set to get in via that wildcard - it would require one of the other 'one-time' winners to take another victory at either Atlanta or Richmond to jump them ahead of him for the Chase; or alternatively, for one of those drivers ahead or close to him on points but who currently are without a win - Clint Bowyer, AJ Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano or Mark Martin - to win a race and then pip Hamlin in the points.

If Keselowski does get into the top ten on points, then that opens up a second wildcard spot. That's the hope for a clutch of current 'one-time' winners Paul Menard, David Ragan and Marcos Ambrose, but they're right on the verge of eligibility - only Menard is in the top 20, although just four points cover all three drivers so that could easily change. With Ambrose finishing 10th at Bristol compared with 20th for Ragan and 30th for Menard, it's impossible to know who will end up top in that mini-battle.

But it does show how uncertain and wide open that final position or two is in the Chase. We might have six drivers locked in (Kyle Busch, Johnson, Kenseth, Edwards, Harvick and Gordon) and three more all-but clinched (Newman, Kurt Busch and Keselowski), but the remaining three positions are wide open - even if Earnhardt Jr., Stewart and Hamlin are the prime candidates at this point.

As for who is the favourite for the title, the betting seems to be with Kyle Busch, Johnson, Gordon and Keselowski right now. But the Chase reset changes everything, and ten races constitute a lifetime in motor sports.


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