With eighteen races remaining, eight of them in the regular season, we’re just past the halfway point in the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. The Championship picture is beginning to focus a bit, however the end result is anything but clear.
Brad Keselowski’s fourth win of the season last Saturday night at Kentucky only solidified his place in the Chase for the Championship. Locked in along with him are Kyle Busch with three wins, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson with two each, and then topping off the win list with a single victory per are Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Martin Truex, Jr., Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart.
That leaves those on the verge based on points. Chase Elliott, leads that crew with 492 points, 63 points above Trevor Bayne in the 17th spot. Ryan Newman is 34 points ahead of Bayne, while Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Austin Dillon, and Jamie McMurray are 32, 31, and 10 points ahead, respectively.
So, what does all of this say about the Championship picture?
In all likelihood, these sixteen drivers will not be the sixteen which go to Chicago and have yellow highlights all over their race cars.
Consider the following:
There is still Watkins Glen left on the Schedule. This could throw a big wrench into everything as there are several drivers capable of winning that race who are not in the top sixteen already. Drivers such as A.J. Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, and yes, even Danica Patrick could seriously put a damper on the hopes of a non-winning driver sitting in the 16th position. A Win by a driver outside of the top 16 put that driver in, and the No. 16 seed out.
Also remaining on the schedule is Pocono. Long known as often a fuel mileage race, someone in a desperate spot could be willing to roll the dice and take the risk of running out of fuel as they take the white flag versus the reward of running out as they take the checkered flag, first.
You can go ahead and throw Indianapolis and Michigan into that same stew pot, as far as fuel mileage is concerned, but to win there, you must also have the horses to keep up before you can make that risky call.
There’s New Hampshire this weekend, which has offered some surprise winners in the past, such as Ward Burton, Robby Gordon and Joe Nemechek, but lately it has been very much a track for the contenders.
Then of course, there are the short tracks, Richmond and Bristol, which, unfortunately for the fans, do not seem to offer the same excitement they used to, but when you consider how close they are to the end of the regular season, and how desperate one might be to make the Chase, you might have to think that the fuse is there; the question left is if someone will choose to ignite it.
Add into that the nostalgic night at Darlington as an opportunity for a hungry tiger to pounce, mix in the recent strong performances by Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, and a few others, and you’re looking at the potential for two, maybe three drivers outside of the current “if the Chase started today” field to work their way in, and crowbar some other unfortunate soul out.
But, such is the way that NASCAR has set up its method of determining a Champion. Drivers have been eliminated from contention of Championships since they were first awarded based on points in arrears versus possible points remaining, but now it’s an official hard line exit.
So, come back in a few months once the 2016 Sprint Cup Series Championship field is set and we’ll see if this crystal ball is accurate or just a useless paperweight.