NASCAR Sprint Cup: Chase heat increases for winless drivers

dscott@charlotteobserver.comJuly 10, 2014 

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Matt Kenseth finished second in points last year with a series-high seven victories. He’s fifth in the 2014 standings but winless.

CHRISTIAN PETERSEN — Getty Images

As NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series heads into the second half of the season, the time’s right to see how the new format to determine the Chase field is shaking out.

Eight races remain in the regular season, culminating Sept. 6 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. The 10-race Chase will begin the next weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.

Victories are the No. 1 criteria for making the 16-driver Chase. Eleven drivers have won, most recently Aric Almirola at Daytona, assuring themselves a spot in the playoffs. Once the Chase begins, four drivers will be eliminated after every third race, with a final four eligible to win the title in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Thinking big

The top four drivers in the standings – Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski – have combined for eight victories in the 18 races. Johnson (three wins in past seven races) and Keselowski (a victory and three other top-five finishes in the past six races) are in the midst of hot streaks. They’re not concerned with making the Chase, only with winning it.

At risk

Seven drivers among the top 16 in points have no victories. With 11 drivers posting victories, that means only five winless drivers could make the Chase at this point.

So nothing is guaranteed for these seven – Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard, Clint Bowyer, rookie Austin Dillon, Greg Biffle and Brian Vickers – because winners like Almirola (21st) and Kurt Busch (24th) also would make the Chase if it began this week. But as long as the top 16 can’t be filled with race winners, the “winless seven” have a chance and their odds only improve if other drivers repeat as winners during the regular season.

And because of their low points totals, Almirola and Busch could drop out if there are more first-time winners or if they fall outside of the top 30 in points.

Who’s next to win?

Kenseth, coming off a series-best seven-victory 2013, is fifth in the standings but hasn’t cemented a spot in the Chase because he somehow hasn’t won yet. Kenseth last went winless during 2010. And he’s probably a safe bet for the Chase whether he wins or not, as long as there aren’t new winners in each of the next eight races.

Banging on the door

Rookie Kyle Larson is 17th, but he also is on the outside looking in because he’s winless. He still could make the Chase without a victory, but as of now he would need to be at least ahead of No. 13 Austin Dillon. Larson is 12 points behind Dillon.

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