Wild Card Watch: Seven chances remain
July 25, 2013, George Winkler, NASCAR.com
The Sprint Cup Series was off last weekend, but one wonders how much rest and relaxation the drivers and teams in our Wild Card Watch were able to achieve. Because starting with Indianapolis this weekend, trying to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup figures to get hot and heavy.
There are just seven races between now and the Chase, so our combatants in places Nos. 11-20 in the Cup standings cannot afford a slip-up. The tracks they will try to tame include Indianapolis, Pocono, Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond.
Given the road ahead, who has the best chance to make it? Let's take a look at the remaining schedule and break down where each driver could make his move, up the standings or otherwise.
11. Martin Truex Jr., Michael Waltrip Racing.
Green Flag: Truex Jr. got the second win of his Cup career earlier this season at Sonoma, so he could make a move in the positive direction at another road course in Watkins Glen. He has an average finish of 13.7 there for his best mark among the remaining tracks.
Caution: Truex Jr. needs to watch out for trips to Indy and Atlanta, where his average finish is 21.5, his worst number in this stretch of tracks. In 14 starts at Atlanta, he has just three top-10 finishes. In eight starts at Indy, he has one top-10 finish.
12. Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports.
Green Flag: Gordon is tied with Jimmie Johnson for the most wins at Indy at four, so he has a chance to make a statement as early as this weekend. Gordon also has good numbers at Pocono, where he has won six times, Atlanta (five wins), Bristol (five) and Watkins Glen (four). He also has multiple victories at Michigan and Richmond for good measure.
Caution: Although the schedule sets up nicely for Gordon, the potential pothole is the old adage: "What have you done for me lately?" A strong history bodes well for the No. 24, but it hasn't been the best season for him, with no victories to date. He has to prove he can still get it done.
13. Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing.
Green Flag: Like Gordon, Stewart has made a career of eating up these stretch-run tracks. Watkins Glen and Indy are his best bets to make a move, though, as he has average finishes of 7.9 and 8.2, respectively. He has won five times in 14 starts at Watkins Glen and has 10 top-10s in 14 starts at the Brickyard.
Caution: Bristol is a place that could test Tony's patience. The short track has not been kind to him as he has eight top-10 finishes in 29 starts there. He won at Bristol in the late race in 2001, but there haven't been many highlights since. In his past six races there, his best finish was 14th.
14. Kurt Busch, Furniture Row Racing.
Green Flag: Busch can make a move at Bristol, where he has won five times and has 14 top-10 finishes in 25 starts. His average finishing position there is 13.4 for his best mark in the stretch-run tracks. But he better do well there, because ...
Caution: The rest of the tracks have all been at least somewhat troublesome for Busch. Although he has multiple wins at Atlanta (three), Pocono (two) and Michigan (two), he's been up-and-down. Despite the two victories at Michigan, he has an average finish of 22.0 there, his worst mark for these tracks. He also has a plus-20 average finish at Watkins Glen.
15. Jamie McMurray, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
Green Flag: Indianapolis is the big opportunity for McMurray, who won there in 2011. He has an average finish of 14.0 at the Brickyard, his best mark among the finishing tracks. McMurray also does relatively well at Bristol, where he has nine top-10 finishes in 21 races.
Caution: McMurray can't wait till the last minute to make his move, because he has struggled at Richmond. In 21 starts there, he has just three top-10s and an average finish of 23.3.
16. Aric Almirola, Richard Petty Motorsports.
Green Flag: Almirola has only 22 Cup starts on the remaining tracks, and in that span he has posted just two top-10s, those coming at Bristol and Richmond. It's a small sampling, and even if you go back to his Nationwide starts, there isn't definitive evidence. He is a true wild card in this bunch.
Caution: Almirola crashed out of his last two races at Bristol and finished 35th and 37th in those contests. Another performance like those ones could really crush his chances.
17. Jeff Burton, Richard Childress Racing.
Green Flag: Let's save the best for last for Burton, whose best success has come at Richmond, the final chance to get in the Chase. He has an average finish of 14.8 there, which is his best mark in this span of tracks. He has 17 top-10 finishes, including one win, in 38 starts. You have to go back to 1998 to find that win, though.
Caution: Burton has a history of struggling on the road courses, so the trip to Watkins Glen could be pivotal for him. He has just five top-10 finishes in 19 races there and sports an average finish of 21.1, which is his worst mark on these tracks.
18. Joey Logano, Penske Racing.
Green Flag: Logano hasn't enjoyed overwhelming success on any of the remaining tracks. His best average finish is 16.6 at Pocono. In nine races there, he has two poles and two top-10 finishes, including a win last year. He finished 10th at the Tricky Triangle earlier this season.
Caution: Atlanta has been a bugaboo for Logano, with no top-10 finishes in six races. He has an average finish of 26th with his best showing 18th place last year.
19. Ryan Newman, Stewart-Haas Racing.
Green Flag: Both Pocono and Richmond have been good to Newman, who has average finishes of 12.0 and 11.8, respectively, at those tracks. He has a combined 24 top-10s and three poles in 46 races at the venues.
Caution: Despite being from Indiana, Indianapolis has not provided a home-field advantage for Newman. His average finish of 19.1 is his worst among these tracks, and he has just two top-10 finishes in 12 races there.
20. Paul Menard, Richard Childress Racing.
Green Flag: Despite winning in 2011 at Indianapolis, Menard has not been overly strong at any of the remaining tracks. His best average finish is at Bristol (18.7), where he has four top-10s and one top-five in 12 career Cup races there.
Caution: You could almost say the rest are potential potholes for him, but Watkins Glen has been particularly troublesome. He has an average finish of 23.4 there with no top-10 finishes in nine appearances.
It's going to be fun to watch these drivers try to keep the good times going at their favorite tracks while attempting to reverse the trends at others. Enjoy the stretch run starting this weekend at Indy.