With eight races remaining before the cut-off, who will fill the final five spots in the 2014 Chase lineup?
Aric Almirola’s Daytona win was the first this year by a driver who has never previously made the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. His first career win has undoubtedly incentivised other underdogs to aim for checkers in the coming weeks.
With Almirola’s win, 11 drivers have all but secured spots in the Chase, leaving five spots to be determined by wins or points position. The trend thus far in 2014 suggests that five additional drivers won’t fill the remaining spots in the Chase group via race victories. This year’s first 18 checkered flags have been gathered by five drivers with two wins each and Jimmie Johnson with three, while another five drivers have one win each. Dominant drivers have proven their capability to win multiple times, and it is likely that some of them will win again before the Chase.
If six more drivers win races before the Chase, then the winner with the fewest points would get bumped from the 16-car Chase group. The possibility, however, of six currently winless drivers taking six of the next eight races would represent a dramatic shift in the rhythm of this season. More likely than not, the final few Chase berths will be awarded to winless drivers based on points.
While racking up points is the most realistic way for the currently winless drivers to join the Chase group, the thought of getting a win and relieving late-summer pressure manifested itself for one underdog last weekend, and it has hopefully inspired the rest of those on-the-cusp drivers to do the same.
First among them is Brian Vickers, who may have gone to Victory Lane at Daytona if the rain held off another half lap and drafting worked in his favor. Instead, he was forced to look helplessly at the back of the #43 Ford as rain picked up late in the day of an over 50 percent-complete race. Despite the misfortune of falling just short of a win, Vickers heads into Loudon this weekend with a head full of steam, coming off his best finish of the season (second) and going to the only track he won at in 2013.
The heated rookie battle between Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon flip-flopped at Daytona, with Dillon moving into Chase contention based on points and Larson dropping five points positions and out of the Chase group. Larson stole the spotlight in the first half of the season, but a few bad finishes have dragged down his otherwise stellar record and allowed the recently consistent Dillon to eclipse him in the championship standings.
Sitting 13th in the points, Dillon’s mid-pack runs have proven successful, but Larson is more adept at finding his way to the front of the field each weekend, and running up front is the first step to winning. Of the four upcoming pre-Chase tracks that the Sprint Cup has already visited this year (Pocono, Michigan, Bristol and Richmond), Larson has finishes of fifth, eighth, 10th and 16th, respectively. Dillon’s finishes on those same four tracks are 27th, 30th, 11th and 17th.
For teams with less funding, the season’s second right-turn anomaly, Watkins Glen, is the track they will set their sights on. The complexities of road course racing and difficulty to perfect car setups can give underdogs like A.J. Allmendinger a chance to prove that driving ability can outweigh the privilege of having a big team’s R&D department. It is worth noting that Allmendinger, who ran well at Sonoma until a late-race wreck, also scored two wins on road courses last year in the Nationwide series.
Marcos Ambrose, currently 19th in standings, will probably place all his focus on Watkins Glen. He won the 2011 Watkins Glen race and beat Brad Keselowski in a last lap battle there in 2012, but he has spent almost two years since then waiting on his follow-up series win.
Paul Menard is sitting somewhat comfortably at tenth in the standings, but without the crutch of a win, he will need to maintain consistent finishes to avoid dropping positions. He will undoubtedly roll into Indianapolis, where he captured his only career win in 2011, hoping to recapture that success.
A slim 12-point margin separates 13th and 18th places, meaning the Chase cut-off area of the standings could scramble in the coming weeks. And with every additional driver that grabs checkers, another points-determined Chase slot will disappear.