Chase Tracker – The Contenders after Watkins Glen

Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen was a game changer for several Chase contenders with a wild finish in the Finger Lakes 355.  The competition continues to get more intense as the Sprint Cup teams head to the “Irish Hills” of Michigan for the upcoming weekend. 

The Pure Michigan 400 is seventh of the ten races to the Chase to determine who’s in and who’s out to compete for the 2012 Sprint Cup title. Using the previous six races for analysis, this discussion will review who is fizzling on the backstretch, which drivers’ bubble is about to burst and who is cranking it up with their game on. 

Fizzling on the Backstretch
Although Denny Hamlin has secured his spot in the Chase with two wins so far this season, his performance in the Race to the Chase’s first six events present plenty of room for improvement. His 34th-place finish at Watkins Glen drops his points position down two spots to 10th-place. In the last six races, Hamlin has two top-fives and one top-ten finish, but also includes a 25th-place finish and two finishes outside the top-25, giving him the worst average finish of the top-ten contenders at 17th. Wins will improve his Chase starting position, but he’ll need to find consistent top-three/top-five performances to compete for the championship.

Dale Earnhardt Jr’s 28th-place finish gives him two consecutive races outside the top-25 and lowers his average finish to 15th along with fellow top-ten contender Matt Kenseth. Dale Jr also lost the points lead and three spots placing him currently 4th in the standings. Kenseth actually finished 8th at Watkins Glen and is moving in a positive direction. However, both Dale Jr and Kenseth will need to improve their performances, and another win would be the boost they need going into the Chase. Dale Jr. won the June Michigan race and Kenseth has two previous wins at the “Irish Hills” track.

In the wild card chase, his average finish, now at 20th, continues to haunt Joey Logano, along with a current points position of 18th, the lowest – on both counts – of all wild card contenders. What Logano has in his favor is one win; another win would give him a wild card spot, but he also needs to improve his performance to truly be a contender for a title. 

Bubbles about to Burst
The most obvious stat to plague top-ten contender Kevin Harvick is the goose egg  that sits in his win column. That along with his current points position of ninth currently puts him at the bottom of the top-ten list for the start of the Chase races in September. Harvick has only one top-ten result in the last six races and his average finish is 14th. Although his average finish is one position better than Kenseth and Dale Jr, and three positions better than Denny Hamlin’s, Harvick’s lack of wins and continued top-15 average will keep him out of real contention for the championship.

In the same boat with Harvick is his RCR teammate Paul Menard, with a slightly better average finish of 13th. Menard is performing respectably as a wild card contender – ahead of top-ten contenders Hamlin, Kenseth, Earnhardt Jr and Harvick – but also without any wins to his credit. Right now, wild card contenders need at least two wins to gain the final wild card spot for the Chase. For Menard, that means he needs to win two of the next four races to have any shot at contending for a title in the Chase. 

Count Carl Edwards in the same boat with Menard when it comes to needing two wins to contend as a wild card. Along with no wins for the season, hurting Edwards is his average finish of 16th in the past six races. His current performance is only slightly better than Hamlin’s and four positions better than Logano’s. But Logano can win the wild card with one win in the next four races versus Edwards need for two wins to earn a spot in the Chase. Edwards best shot at a win is at Michigan where he currently has two career wins. But one win will not be enough to get the wild card or contend for a championship. 

Cranking it up – Game on 
Proving that finishing outside the top-ten any given week will have an impact, Kasey Kahne’s 13th place finish at Watkins Glen, puts Brad Keselowski at the top of the championship contenders list this week. Keselowski’s wild finish, second to Ambrose, is an image to keep in mind of his intensity in competing for his first Sprint Cup title. Also, known as, Bad Brad, he is the only contender with a top-five average finish in the last six races.  

Make no mistake, Kasey Kahne’s performance has been stellar in the Race to the Chase and with two wins and 11th-place in the point standings, he securely holds the #1 wild card spot. With the exception of Keselowski, Kahne is out performing all other top-ten contenders.  

Although Jeff Gordon lost the wild card spot this week with a 21st place finish, his performance up to that point, has been exactly what he needs to build team confidence to contend for his fifth title. In the last six races, Gordon has the third best performance with an average finish of 8th, but sits 15th in the point standings and only another win will keep him in Chase contention.

Current #2 wild card holder, Ryan Newman sits 13th in the points race, and along with Kyle Busch at 14th they along with Gordon all have one win to their credit. Also stepping up with a win this past weekend is Marcos Ambrose, sitting at 16th in the point standings.  Another win from any of these wild card contenders – along with Logano – puts them ahead of the rest and maintains the pressure for more wins to keep the final wild card spot in the Chase. 

Jimmie Johnson currently holds the number one position in points and with three wins, he’ll keep that spot when the Chase begins. But he’ll need to step up his performance to contend for his sixth championship once the Chase begins. Currently out-performing the five-time champion in the last six races are Keselowski, Kahne, Gordon and Martin Truex Jr who is currently 6th in points. But in the last six races, Johnson’s average finish is at 11th behind Truex Jr at 10th. Truex’s performance is impressive, considering he has yet to win this season. But Johnson is coming on strong with his Watkins Glen finish of 3rd versus Truex’s finish of 10th. To continue to compete head to head with the champ, Truex will need to step up his game with wins and top-three/top-five finishes – top-tens will not be enough.  

Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle both stepped up this week with 4th and 6th place finishes, respectively at Watkins Glen.  Bowyer moved up three positions to 7th-place in the points and Biffle now sits in second.  Continuing to build momentum going into the Chase will only help them – of course, wins will help the most. 

Checkered Flag – Week Six in the Race to the Chase at Watkins Glen
Not mentioned yet this week is Tony Stewart, who finished 19th at Watkins Glen and sits 8th in the points.  With highs and lows over the last six races, only time will tell if Tony will repeat his historic championship performance of 2011. 

Building momentum over the next four Race to the Chase events will be important for every team. Fans can expect lots of action as teams race for their Chase position and championship contention. 

Next up is the fast track of Michigan International Speedway. What shake ups will fans see this week? 

Sound off and give us your analysis and predictions in the comment section below.