By Steve Mickey
It took seven months and 26 races to finally set the field of sixteen drivers that now have the chance to run for the title but beginning this Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway the schedule becomes nothing more than a 10-race sprint to crown this season’s champion. Winning is the easiest way to advance in the elimination-style playoff but Ryan Newman proved last season that the Chase also rewards drivers for showing consistency during this stretch run of the schedule. `
Richmond was supposed to be the last opportunity for a driver to punch his ticket into the Chase as there was still a spot available to any driver that captured their first win of the season or for a driver to move into the top-16 in points. As it turned out the race had very little suspense as Aric Almirola was the only non-winner in the field to mount any kind of threat for the win and as he was also the closest driver to moving into the top-16. His fourth place finish left him 17 points shy of bumping Clint Bowyer from the last transfer spot.
Eleven drivers made the Chase by capturing at least one checkered flag and they will be rewarded with three bonus points for each win to start the first three-race elimination round. Every driver that made the Chase will have their points reset to 2000 but Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth will start on top with 2012 as each driver has four wins. Joey Logan earned nine bonus points for his three wins followed by Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnardt Jr, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards with six points for winning two races. Bread Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr and Denny Hamlin will start with three bonus points by posting one win on the season.
The rest of the field was set by the highest drivers in the points without a win which includes Jamie McMurray, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer. All of these drivers will start with the minimum 2000 points but Newman took the same path last season and ended up finishing one point behind the champion Harvick after the final race at Homestead-Miami.
The sixteen Chase drivers now will try to advance through the 10-race Chase that is divided into three rounds of elimination racing with each round consisting of three races. The first three races at Chicagoland, New Hampshire and Dover will comprise the Challenger Round that will see only twelve drivers advancing to the three-race Contender Round. A win by any of the sixteen during the first round automatically advances a driver to the next round with the remaining field moving on according to their position in the points.
This same procedure will be repeated in the Contender Round of races at Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega with the results cutting the size of the field to eight. Those drivers then move into the Eliminator round of races at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix that will eventually produce the four drivers that will go to the final race on the schedule at Homestead-Miami with the opportunity to run for the championship.
Bonus points will not be awarded to drivers that advance their way through the rounds for winning a race. The Contender Round will start with all twelve drives having their point totals reset to 3000. The Eliminator round of eight drivers will start with 4000 points. Drivers can earn a bonus point in each of the three rounds for leading a lap or leading the most laps just like during the 26-race regular season but for the final race of the season there will be no bonus points awarded.
By the time the series rolls into the season ending race at Homestead-Miami only four drivers will take that green flag with a chance to become the champion. The rules for this one are simple, be the highest finishing driver and you will become the 2015 Sprint Cup Champion.
Event: myAFibRisk.com 400
Track: Chicagoland Speedway (1.5 mile tri-oval, 18o of banking in the turns)
Date: Sept. 20, 3:00 PM
Defending Champion: Brad Keselowski