Will one win be good enough to make the Chase?
April 03, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
NASCAR brought its fans "knockout" qualifying for 2014, but has the sanctioning body also brought a "knockout" Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format?
As the list of different winners continues to grow, the possibility begins to take root.
The Sprint Cup Series has now seen six different winners in the first six races, something of an unusual, unlikely and unexpected occurrence. But there you have it, signed, sealed and delivered with Kurt Busch’s win in Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
A 16-driver field, consisting of winners and possibly others depending on how it all shakes out, will make up this year’s Chase grid after 26 races.
Barring any last-minute chicanery, of course.
What happens if there are more than 16 different race winners after the completion of 26 races? Or, after only six races, is it premature to even start down that road?
Multiple race wins and a top-30 points position are guarantees. Single victories would suddenly become less so.
Points positions will determine who is in and who is out. That will be the case regardless of whether the series sees six or 26 different winners.
A driver with a single win on a restrictor-plate track or road course, for example, wouldn’t necessarily be locked in if there happened to be more than 16 different winners.
Six different winners in the first six races means that, barring some sort of catastrophic incident, it appears that only 10 positions remain available for this year’s Chase. And 20 races remain until the cutoff.
The likelihood that there will be more than 16 seems to grow each week, but the reality of the situation is that it’s not a lot different than what has taken place in previous years.
Five different drivers won the first five races of 2013 before familiar faces started reappearing in victory lane.
The 2012 season opened with four different winners; the 2011 season saw five again.
The wide variety of tracks to begin the season lends itself to multiple winners. A restrictor-plate race followed by a one-mile venue followed by a 1.5-miler. No two are quite the same. Just as some types of tracks play into a particular team’s current strengths, some exploit their weaknesses.
Even the series’ short tracks call for vastly different setups and approaches. Martinsville fell only two weeks after Bristol. Both are roughly half mile tracks. Yet the two are so different – Bristol featuring towering high banks and lots of speed, while Martinsville is tight and pancake flat, requiring more finesse than flash.
NASCAR Sprint Cup competition isn’t a marathon and it isn’t a 100-meter sprint. It’s more of a decathlon, where excellence in a variety of endeavors (or in this instance, venues) is required.
Eventually, however, the preponderance of intermediate-sized tracks will no doubt begin to sort and shift the field, separating the haves from the have-nots. Weeks from now, 16 different winners might seem more fairytale than fact.
Still, such a list, one made up of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards and brothers Kyle and Kurt Busch, this early in the season doesn’t go unnoticed. Especially when one looks at those that have yet to join the 2014 winners’ club.
It’s an impressive list, and somewhat surprising. Its current members include six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson; four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon; three-time Cup champ Tony Stewart.
Matt Kenseth, winner of a series-best seven races a year ago, and Kasey Kahne, twice a winner in each of the two most recently completed seasons, are also seeking that first win of the year.
Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman, drivers NASCAR fans are used to seeing winning and contending for wins, are in the group as well.
Joey Logano and Jamie McMurray were race winners a year ago, and the expectations are that they will win again.
If they all do, the list of winners will have reached 16. Toss in a few others very capable of visiting victory lane and the "win and you’re in" format appears to be less of a guarantee.
Two months ago, winners exceeding the number of available grid spots for the Chase didn’t seem likely.
With 20 more opportunities ahead, that may no longer be the case.
The positions are filling up quickly. And there are plenty of capable teams still waiting in the wings.