By Steve Mickey
The Sprint Cup schedule is divided into a regular season consisting of the first 26 points paying races of the season followed by the 10-race Chase portion that eventually crowns the series champion. The “win and you’re in” mentality of the regular season has given more teams the ability to dream of making it into the Chase and in the process has ratcheted up the competitiveness of what use to be a long 26-race stretch to get to the championship round.
The regular season is already more than half over with only twelve races remaining before the sixteen driver Chase field is set. Martin Truex Jr. took the checkered flag on Sunday making him the tenth driver to punch his ticket into the Chase field. Even though Truex Jr. was in the midst of a 69-race winless streak, he was the one driver that everyone in the garage area pointed to week after week as the driver that was going to be the next first time winner this season. His consistency to start this season has enabled him to register 12 top-10 finishes in the season’s first 13 races going into Pocono.
Truex Jr. who drives for Furniture Row Racing that is a one-car team based Denver, Colorado has been one of the hottest drivers in the series this season that had not visited victory lane. He led 97 of the 160 laps at Pocono but that came as no surprise as it marked the third consecutive week that the Chevrolet driver had led the most laps as he also led a race high 131 laps at both Charlotte and Dover the prior two weeks.
Truex Jr.’s win now leaves six spots left to be filled before the Chase begins on September 20th at Chicagoland Speedway. The rules for filling out the field is very specific and it definitely rewards winning as the top 15 drivers with the most wins over the first 26 races will earn a spot in the Chase provided they have finished in the top-30 in points. The rule also states that ever winning driver had to attempt to qualify for ever race. Often times over look in how the Chase field is set is that should there be 16 or more different winners during the first 26 races that the only winless driver who can earn a Chase spot would be the points leader after 26 races.
NASCAR has had to revisit the last stipulation of Chase eligibility as both Kyle and Kurt Busch have not attempted to qualify for every race this season. Kurt was suspended just before the season started at Daytona and sat out three races while his legal problems played out in the court. When he was reinstated, the sanctioning body said that Kurt would be eligible for the Chase but would still have to meet the top-30 in points rule. He has already won a race this season and is solidly in the top-30 which secures his opportunity to run for the title.
Kurt’s brother Kyle also was forced to miss races after breaking his leg in an accident at Daytona during the Xfinity race the day before the 500. NASCAR awarded Kyle a wavier that covered the races he had to sit out while his leg healed but he will still be required to win a race and finish in the top-30.
The win on Sunday by Truex Jr. shortens what is a very talented list of drivers that are still looking for their first win of the season. Tops on the list has to be Jeff Gordon who has already announced that he would be retiring after this season. He will have to win to make the Chase as he is now 148 out of the points lead in the 13th spot.
Joining Gordon as drivers desperately needing a win are Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray who are both in the top-10 in points but on the outside looking in as far as making the Chase. Also looking for a win is last year’s series runner-up Ryan Newman. Newman beat all of the odds last year as he entered the last race of the season as one of four drivers with the opportunity to run for the championship. He lost the title to Kevin Harvick by one point even though he went the entire season without every visiting victory lane.
Event: Quicken Loans 400
Track: Michigan International Speedway (2-mile D-shaped oval, 18o of banking in the turns)
Date: June 14, 1:00 PM
TV: FOX Sports 1
Defending Champion: Jimmie Johnson