The so-called Race to the Chase just got real.
With the final off-weekend of the season next, followed by 17 straight weeks of racing, the remaining seven races leading up to the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup could once again rival some of the most intense action we’ll see in the actual Chase itself.
The reason is simple: even with seven races remaining, only six drivers are essentially locked into the Chase after Sunday’s race at New Hampshire.
With Brad Keselowski winning Sunday, he’s at the top of the pack with Jimmie Johnson – who had a terrible day at New Hampshire, finishing 42nd due to an early-race wreck – both with three wins apiece.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is also officially in the Chase, with fellow two-time race winners Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick all but locked in, as well.
Single race winners Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch are all but confirmed for the 10-race playoffs.
But with seven races left to make the Chase and at least nine winless drivers still in the fray, we’re going to see a lot more risk-taking and heated driving from Indianapolis through Richmond.
If the Chase were to start today, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard and rookie Kyle Larson would be in.
And rookie Austin Dillon, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers would be left on the outside looking in.
That’s why it’s more crucial than it has been the last few weeks that winless drivers such as Kenseth, Bowyer, Biffle and Tony Stewart – among all the others – find a way to get to victory lane in the remaining seven races prior to the Chase.
In a sense, the race to the Chase will be seven races of desperation. And as the old saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures.
As a result, we’re likely to see significantly more beating and banging, more blocking and spinning out fellow competitors. With so much on the line, there’s really not much recourse but for those on the bubble or outside looking in to drive like men (and women) possessed.
Stewart could be one of the biggest keys in the next seven races. Not only has he failed to win yet this season, he also runs the risk of not making the Chase for the second consecutive season.
Sure, he missed last year’s Chase due to injuries sustained in a sprint car wreck early last August. But to miss a second Chase – which would mark the first time that’s ever happened to Stewart – would be unheard of.
Only if Stewart were to rally in these next seven races and earn enough points to qualify for the Chase, will he make it. This is not 2011, when he also failed to win any races prior to the Chase, only to still make the playoff on points and then ripped off five wins in the 10 marquee events to capture his third championship.
And then click here for the actual Sprint Cup point standings to see where the landscape rests heading into the final off-weekend of, what else, rest.
Because from here on out, there’ll be no rest for the wannabe’s who will do anything they need to do to make the show, regardless of the risk.
Follow me @JerryBonkowski