Cool-Down Lap: For Chase hopefuls, time is running out
By: By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service, Superior Telegram
That's the number of events left for NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers on the cusp of the postseason playoff to establish their Chase credentials.
But it may be difficult for a driver who's not already poised to qualify for the Chase to crack the top 10 in points -- or even to snag one of the wild-card spots available to the two drivers in positions 11-20 with the most victories.
Why? Because this is the time of year that the front-runners tend to consolidate their positions, as Brad Keselowski did with his third win of the season last week at Kentucky, or as Tony Stewart did with his third victory Saturday night at Daytona.
Eight races, on eight racetracks that bear little resemblance to the circuits Cup drivers will visit during the Chase. A look at those tracks should reveal why it might be difficult for Jeff Gordon or Carl Edwards, both of whom are winless this year, to make the Chase.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway -- This one-mile flat track is a bastion for Clint Bowyer, who is the driver most likely to solidify his Chase credentials with a victory at the Magic Mile. Two of Bowyer's six career victories have come at New Hampshire. After slipping to 10th in points after Daytona, Bowyer will have his sights set on Victory Lane.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- When you think of Indy, you think of Hendrick Motorsports. In recent years, Jimmie Johnson has been a three-time winner. Gordon has conquered the fabled track four times, but not since 2004. It's also a quirk of the 2.5-mile track that drivers who win the Cup race there often go on to win the championship in the same year. That's happened eight times in 18 seasons. It would be difficult to discount Juan Pablo Montoya at Indianapolis, were it not for the lackluster season the Earnhardt Ganassi teams have been having.
Pocono Raceway -- If you're good in the June race, you're likely to be good in August, which should suit June winner Joey Logano just fine. Logano did a lot to advance his Chase hopes at Daytona, where he finished fourth despite catching pieces of two wrecks. The Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have Pocono figured out, even with a new coat of asphalt. If Logano doesn't back up his victory, Denny Hamlin, a lock for the Chase, is a likely winner.
Watkins Glen International -- Marcos Ambrose is the odds-on favorite to win at Watkins Glen, where he notched his only Cup victory last year. After winning the pole at Sonoma, Ambrose's No. 9 crew missed the setup for the race, but don't count on that happening at the Glen, where Ambrose also has won three Nationwide races. If not Ambrose, Kurt Busch deserves a look after his superb third-place drive at Sonoma. Busch also has a Nationwide victory at WGI.
Michigan International Speedway -- As dominant as he was in June, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a good bet to double up at the ultra-fast repaved two-mile track, as is Jimmie Johnson, another lock for the Chase. Michigan is one of five current Cup venues where Johnson hasn't been to Victory Lane. The Roush Fenway cars of points leader Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle also have shown great strength in the back yard of the American auto industry.
Bristol Motor Speedway -- Keselowski won the spring race at the world's fastest half-mile to double up on his victory from last August. He and crew chief Paul Wolfe have established mastery of the .533-mile short track and show no signs of letting up. Kyle Busch, currently holding the first wild card spot, is a threat, too. Bristol also is a good track for Edwards, but he may need more than one win to make the Chase at that point.
Atlanta Motor Speedway -- The only intermediate speedway in the final eight races before the Chase, Atlanta is an opportunity for Stewart, who showed blistering speed at the 1.5-mile tracks in last year's Chase. AMS also may be a do-or-die track for Edwards, who also is fond of the loose, rough surface.
Richmond International Raceway -- With Chase positions on the line at RIR, three names rise to the top: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer, all of whom will be looking to rack up three extra bonus points for the playoffs. If a Hendrick car wins, likely the driver will be Johnson or Earnhardt.
The above scenarios leave little margin for error for Edwards and almost none for Gordon, who needs at least two wins to qualify for the postseason.