The Inside Line: Ten races to go before the Chase begins

 

The Sports Network

(SportsNetwork.com) - Win and you're in. That's what it takes to virtually assure a driver in making the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

But time is beginning to run out for many drivers who have yet to win this season, as 10 races remain before the start of the Chase.

In previous years, the 10-race stretch that precedes the playoffs for NASCAR's premier series was known as the "Race to the Chase." Under the old format for the Chase, the top-10 drivers in points after the fall race at Richmond qualified for the playoffs. The 11th and 12th spots in the Chase were the "wild cards," which went to those drivers between 11th-20th in points that had the most wins.

Now, it's more important to win races than it is to earn points to make it into the Chase.

In January, NASCAR revealed sweeping changes to the format, expanding the field of drivers to 16 and including a series of elimination rounds to determine its Sprint Cup Series champion. A driver who wins during the 26-race regular season is all but guaranteed a berth in the Chase. The regular season concludes on Sept. 6 at Richmond.

Positions 1-15 in the Chase will be determined by the drivers with the greatest number of wins after the regular season ends. The 16th position is reserved for the points leader if he/she does not have a victory. However, a driver with at least one win must be in the top-30 in points after Richmond and must have attempted to qualify for all of the first 26 races. For rare instances such as a valid medical reason, NASCAR can waive the requirement of qualifying for all of the regular-season races, as long as that driver is in the top-30 in points.

With 16 of 26 races competed in this year's regular season, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick are those drivers who have multiple victories. Johnson, the six-time and defending series champion, was winless in the first 11 events but has scored three victories in the past five races. Earnhardt, Edwards, Logano and Harvick have been to victory lane two times each.

"To be locked into the Chase is huge," Edwards said after he scored his second win of the season this past Sunday at Sonoma. "Now we can focus really hard on our program for the final 10 races."

Those drivers who have scored one win this season include: Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch. Gordon is the current points leader (20 points ahead of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson). Kurt Busch is presently 26th in the rankings but has 98 points between him and 30th-place Michael Annett.

As of now, six positions remain open in the Chase field.

Surprisingly, Matt Kenseth has yet to win a race in 2014 after posting a series-season-high seven victories last year. Currently sitting in the fourth spot, Kenseth is the highest-ranked driver in points that does not have a win. He held the points lead following the June 1 race at Dover but has finished 25th, 14th, and 42nd in the past three events.

"You'd rather have a win, because being in the top whatever it is in points - top-30 in points - really shouldn't be a problem, so of course you'd rather have a win at this time of year," Kenseth said.

The next race is on Saturday night at Kentucky, where Kenseth won last year.

Kenseth, Ryan Newman (8th in the point standings), rookie Kyle Larson (10th), Paul Menard (13th), Clint Bowyer (14th) and Greg Biffle (15th) have positions 11-16 on the "Chase Grid" right now.

Larson is trying to become just the second driver to qualify for the Chase in his rookie season. Denny Hamlin first did it in 2006, finishing third in points that year. Larson has finished in the top-five three times this season, including a second-place run in March in Fontana, California.

"We have been close a few times," Larson said. "We have been pretty competitive every week, so I think just keep knocking on the door and the wins will come. Just have to stay consistent and put yourself in contention each week to try and sneak out a win."

Logano is the most recent rookie-of-the-year contender to win a Sprint Cup race, doing so in the rain-shortened event at New Hampshire in June 2009.

Kasey Kahne is not too far behind in the Chase Grid, as he holds the 16th spot in points. Kahne, who is the only driver at Hendrick that has yet to win a race this year, has shown signs of improvement, finishing fifth at Michigan and then seventh at Sonoma. He has moved up five positions in the standings since Pocono.

"Really where we are at right now, as a team, we need to show up each weekend and put full weekends together, from myself to [crew chief] Kenny [Francis] to everybody on our team," Kahne said. "We just need to step up, and if we do that, I feel like yes, there is going to be pressure, we want to be in the Chase.

"We have fast enough cars, and we have all the equipment, everything there to do it. We just need to put those weekends together and put ourselves in position. There is still plenty of time to win races."

Other drivers who are not too far away from the Chase Grid include: Tony Stewart (17th in points), rookie Austin Dillon (18th), Jamie McMurray (19th) and Brian Vickers (20th). All four of those drivers are within 20 points of Biffle.

Stewart missed last year's Chase due to a leg injury that sidelined him for the final 15 races of the season. The three-time series champion has not been to victory lane since June 2013 at Dover (39 races ago).

McMurray won the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race (non-points event) at Charlotte last month. He started on the pole and finished a season-best fourth at Sonoma.

"I really feel like each race between now and Richmond, we'll have the chance to win if we make all the right decisions," McMurray said.

Drivers who have their work cut out for them, needing a win to get into the Chase, include: Marcos Ambrose (21st in points), Aric Almirola (22nd), A.J. Allmendinger (23rd), Casey Mears (24th) and Martin Truex Jr. (25th).

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (27th), Danica Patrick (28th) and rookies Justin Allgaier (29th) and Annett (30th) also need a lot of help within the next 10 races if they want to make it into the Chase.

Read more Sprint Cup stories from the Miami Herald

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    After winning the regular season finale at Richmond and then the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup at Chicagoland, Brad Keselowski is proving he's the championship favorite.

  • Keselowski wins Chase-opener at Chicagoland

    Brad Keselowski clinched a spot in the second round of NASCAR's new Chase for the Sprint Cup championship by winning Sunday's MyAFibStory.com 400 -- the first round in the 10-race postseason -- at Chicagoland Speedway.

  • Keselowski wins Chase-opener at Chicagoland

    Kevin Harvick claimed his fourth victory in the Nationwide Series this season by taking Saturday's Jimmy John's Freaky Fast 300 at Chicagoland Speedway.

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