NASCAR Chase For The Cup Starts Sunday In Chicago

The NASCAR Chase For The Cup is on. The playoff qualification talk that has dominated this space in recent weeks is all settled. The standings have been re-calibrated with an emphasis on wins, rather than point accumulation and the field is narrowed to twelve drivers who have a chance to win it all over the next ten weeks. The races will have their customary full fields, but only the following dozen are eligible to win the championship in November…

Leader: Denny Hamlin
3 points back: Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart
6 points back: Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer
9 points back: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth
12 points back: Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon

Hamlin leads the circuit with four wins right now, hence his holding the top spot, and each ensuing tier has one fewer win. On the lowest rung, those 12 points behind, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex were automatic qualifiers—they both finished in the Top 10 of the points standings, but neither has won a race. Thus, they could not separate themselves from wild-card qualifiers Kahne & Gordon, in spite of the advantage given to those that finished in the top ten.

But the biggest thing to note is that the point standings are packed closely together, so any of the twelve can win the Cup with a strong closing push. TheSportsNotebook has emphasized the need for those who were comfortably in the top ten to win races and better their position—something Hamlin did with two wins in the last three weeks—given that last year’s Cup ended up settled on a tiebreaker (Tony Stewart winning over Carl Edwards). But any of the drivers are close enough to win the Chase.

Thus we come to Sunday afternoon at the Chicagoland Speedway where the GEICO 400 will kickstart the final push at 1 PM ET on ESPN. Stewart is the only driver among the twelve with recent success here, winning last year, along with victories in 2007 and 2004. Jeff Gordon won in ’06, Earnhardt Junior in ’05 and it’s been a while since Harvick owned the Windy City, taking consecutive races in 2001-02. Because other recent winners are no-names (like David Reutiman in ’10) or non-qualifiers (Kyle Busch in ’08).

In talking to TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill, he emphasized that Chicagoland is one of the “cookie-cutter” tracks that a lot of racing fans hate, in the same way baseball fans hated the artificial turf baseball stadiums that appeared in the 1970s. A cookie-cutter track is marked by banality and lacks any of the difficult maneuvering situations that can add a lot of variables into the race. Passing should be relatively easy, so drivers don’t have to panic if they fall behind early.

But drivers will have to manage their fuel well. Bill, who despise Kyle Busch, noted with glee that bad fuel management cost Busch last week and enabled Gordon to pass him and take what appeared to be Busch’s wild-card spot in the Chase. Which pit crews ensure their drivers have the gas in the tank—literally in this case—can determine who wins.

The pressure of each race is magnified. “A driver can afford one bad race, but he can’t afford two,” Bill said, allowing that the exception to that would be if all twelve finalists suddenly stub their toe a few times down the stretch. But given the quality of the drivers that’s not likely and no one wants to give away their margin of error Sunday afternoon in Chicago.