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Wild Card Watch: Chase hunt too close for comfort

July 11, 2013, George Winkler,

Midway through the season, the Chase is shaping up to be one of the closest in years

Related: Sprint Cup Series standings

The next eight races leading up to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup are almost certain to produce plenty of drama for those of us watching, as well as the drivers and teams competing for their playoff lives. One or two good or bad finishes down the stretch could make a big difference, more so than in recent memory.

That’s because from Kurt Busch, who is in ninth place, to Jamie McMurray, who is in 17th, the gap is only 26 points. With drivers bunched so closely, we could see more shakeups in the standings like we saw coming out of Daytona last week when Tony Stewart and Busch improved six and five places, respectively, and Joey Logano and Paul Menard both dropped five spots.

To use a racing analogy, this Wild Card race figures to be similar to drivers going four-wide at Daytona. How long can it last before someone makes a slight bobble and sends themselves, along with maybe a few others, careening into the wall? And who will emerge when the dust settles?

McMurray is the perfect example of how fortunes can change quickly. Two consecutive top-10 finishes have moved him up from 21st place to 17th, but the gap between him and the contenders has shrunk from 58 points to the aforementioned 26. However, it could be tough for McMurray to continue the upward trend during this week's Camping World RV Sales 301 (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, TNT) in New Hampshire, where in 20 career Sprint Cup starts he has just four top-10s.

It also could be tough because of the sheer unpredictability of the sport. McMurray summed up the swings of fortune after finishing second two weeks ago at Kentucky.

“It's just the last 10 percent of the race, something has happened each week.  Michigan, blew a tire; Dover, something fell off a car and went through our radiator; Charlotte, the radiator broke; last weekend, had a flat tire with, I don't know, 30 laps to go or whatever.

“It's just every week it's been something. So it's nice to have some good luck, yeah, feel good about it.”

Will McMurray have better luck this week? Well, when it comes to closing at New Hampshire, McMurray hasn’t exactly been Craig Kimbrel-esque. According to NASCAR Loop Data, in the past eight years at New Hampshire, the No. 1 car is only tied for 47th in positions improved in the last 10 percent of laps. He will have to buck the trend in order to finish strong this week.

While McMurray has experienced plenty of ups and downs, Stewart might be the poster boy for this wildest of Wild Card races. A month ago Stewart was in 10th place after a fifth-place finish at Michigan. He dropped to 15th after Sonoma and to 16th following Kentucky before rebounding to 10th with a second-place showing at Daytona.

Said Stewart of the wreck-filled finish at Daytona, “Just glad we were ahead of the carnage.”

This week could be Stewart’s chance to stay ahead of the carnage for good. His history in Loudon, N.H., provides a decent indicator: In 28 starts, he has 17 top-10s, including three wins with his last ‘W’ coming in the second race at the track in 2011. He also holds the highest average driver rating in the last 16 races in New Hampshire at 111.7.

In other words, we might finally get to see the No. 14 solidify his spot among the Chase contenders.

Ready to pounce: After four straight weeks hanging out in 18th place, Ryan Newman moved up to 16th last week with a 10th-place showing at Daytona. It was his seventh top-10 finish this season and second of the year at Daytona.

But for a guy who has crashed out of three races this year and suffered an engine failure in another to be just eight points behind Kasey Kahne, the final Wild Card contender, isn’t bad. And when you examine Nemwan’s history at New Hampshire, one can see how it could go from not bad to better.

In 22 starts at the 1.06-mile track, Newman has 15 top-10s, including three victories with his last win there coming from the early race in 2011. He also has won six Coors Light Poles at New Hampshire and holds a 94.9 average driver rating there in the past 16 races, which is seventh among active drivers.

In danger of dropping out: Aric Almirola was a nice sleeper pick early in the season when he posted four straight top-10 finishes from Texas to Talladega. But after placing 20th at Darlington, he went on to finish no better than 15th in his next seven races, including two crashes.

After the second of those crashed-out races last week at Daytona, he dropped three spots in the standings to 19th and is teetering on the brink of Chase extinction. Can he get back on an Almi-roll-a?

It’s not looking too good. Although it’s a small sample size, Almirola has zero top-10 finishes in his five Cup races in Loudon. However, he did finish in the top-five there in 2011 as a NASCAR Nationwide Series driver, so there is that glimmer of hope for fans of the No. 43 car.


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