Wild Card Watch: Look for Smoke signals
June 19, 2013, George Winkler, NASCAR.com
Related: Sprint Cup Series Standings
Anyone who thinks his Wild Card chances are going up in smoke can look to Smoke, Tony Stewart that is, for inspiration. Before Stewart went on his current run of four straight top-10 finishes, he was languishing at 21st in the Sprint Cup standings with only a top-10 finish in March at Phoenix to hang his hat on.
Now, after rolling out a fifth-place finish this weekend in the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway, Stewart is in 10th place, two points ahead of Paul Menard, but with that all-important victory he grabbed at Dover in his back pocket. As Stewart indicated in a post-race interview in Michigan, it has been a battle to get back into contention.
“We weren't very good all weekend,” Stewart said. “I made a mistake on Friday and crashed the primary car, so this team had to work hard and do a lot to get us where we are today."
For Stewart, the news could get even better after Michigan, because he has an opportunity to show off his versatility on the 1.99-mile road course at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, TNT). In 14 career starts at Sonoma, Stewart has nine top-10s and two victories, and he could make the Wild Card a moot point for himself by solidifying his position within the top 10.
That’s hard to believe, considering where he was a month ago. But in that short time, as we said, Stewart has jumped 11 spots in the standings. Maybe that’s something Kurt Busch, who fell five spots to 20th this week, can take solace in knowing. After all, there are just 23 points separating Busch from Kasey Kahne, who currently sits in the final Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup position, and Busch did win at Sonoma two years ago and finished third last year.
A lot can change in a month, but a month from now, there will only be about a half dozen races left before the Chase. Quickly, it is becoming crunch time for a lot of drivers, so in response to that we will chart all the twists and turns here every week, highlighting a couple of drivers whose stock is moving up or down.
Ready to pounce: Joey Logano, Penske Racing. If you count the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, perhaps the only driver hotter than Stewart right now is Logano, who has posted five straight top-10s since the rain-delayed classic in Charlotte four weeks ago. And since the Bojangles’ Southern 500, when Logano dropped into 19th in the standings, he has risen to 14th, just two points behind Kahne for the final Chase spot.
Logano has two top-10s and a pole in four career Sprint Cup Series races at Sonoma. It’s a small sample size, but when one mixes in four top-10s in nine races (including Nationwide) at Watkins Glen, there’s more evidence that he can get the job done on a road course. That gives him a shot to be in the Wild Card spot by the end of the weekend.
In danger of falling out: Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports. If ever Gordon needed to see his native Northern California, it’s now, coming off a weekend when an accident with Bobby Labonte knocked him down five slots to 16th in the standings. Gordon needs another classic performance at the road course to get him back in the thick of things.
His history at Sonoma is beyond impressive. In 20 races there, Gordon has 16 top-10s, five victories and five poles. That means he has finished in the top 10 in 80 percent of his races in Sonoma, slightly better (90 percent) in his past 10 races there. Let that sink in for a moment.
Gordon still doesn’t have an all-important win this season to help his Wild Card hopes, but he has come close with third-place finishes at Martinsville, Darlington and Dover. Maybe he’ll finally break through this week to try to narrow the nine-point gap between him and teammate Kahne.