The 2016 race to the chase will be altered greatly depending on when Dale Earnhardt Jr. returns to the track.
So it’s time to get down to it for the Sprint Cup Series in the race for the Chase. With only seven races remaining, we’ve essentially reached the stretch run and the wildcard race is on. And thanks to some massive storylines regarding the Hendrick Motorsports cars of Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr, the race for the Chase has some perhaps unexpected spice.
Elliott’s tumble in the standings thanks to four bad finishes in a row (though three of them were not of his making) and Earnhardt’s absence from at least one, and possibly more, races has injected some drama into the chase run and welcomed some new players to the party that otherwise might not be there.
As of New Hampshire, and the 19th race run, there are 11 drivers who have scored victories, leaving five spots up for grabs. Obviously, the easiest way to wrap up one of those spots will be to win a race, but here we are over halfway through the season and to this point only Elliott, Earnhardt and Larson have shown to have the ability to pull that off.
But that’s the thing with Sprint Cup racing, you never know who might steal one. So while I’m going to focus on those who can still have at least a puncher’s chance of pointing their way in, drivers like Paul Menard, Danica Patrick or Aric Almirola could still steal a victory through fuel mileage or perhaps even a well timed rainstorm. So they aren’t completely out of the picture, but let’s face it, the odds are very much against them.
So as we head to the final six races of Indianapolis, Pocono, Watkins Glen, Bristol, Michigan, Darlington and Richmond, how do we handicap the race for these final five spots? Which of these contenders is most likely to get a victory and put the points talk to bed, which will need to rely on points, and who can spoil the party with a victory somewhere and leap frog the competition?
Chase Elliott +52 – Elliott looked like a lock a month ago, but despite having top ten runs going at Daytona, Kentucky, and Loudon, Elliott hasn’t finished better than 31st over the past three races.
This accident between rookies Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott at Kentucky while the two were both in the top ten had major chase implications.
The good news is he still is over a full race and then some to the good, and they return to Pocono and Michigan where Elliott led laps and contended for a win, as well as Bristol, another place he contended for a victory. The bad news is that should someone off the chase grid win, theoretically that lead would dwindle about a third of the way down. However, the Dale Earnhardt Jr. situation could very well offset that somewhat. Additional bad news comes in the fact that Richmond and Sears Point were two of the most uncompetitive races Elliott has run in the first half, and with a return trip to Richmond being the finale before the chase and another road course looming, there’s cause for concern. While historically drivers who run well at Michigan and especially Pocono typically do well at Indy, Elliott’s Xfinity Series history suggests it’s not a track he’s incredibly comfortable with. Throw in Darlington which is, well, despite his victory in his first Xfinity Series start back in 2014, no small task for rookies, and the potential landmines are everywhere. Elliott’s bad luck at some point you think will end and the team will get back to finishing where they run. But with potential pitfalls ahead, they’ve lost their margin for error and must capitalize on the tracks that are their strengths. Should they run into misfortune at Pocono, Bristol, or Michigan, the pressure will really mount at Darlington and Richmond. The best thing Elliott can do is get the pressure off with a win over the next month, which of all the drivers without a win, he’s the one most likely to score one.
Chances of making the chase- 85%
Ryan Newman +50 – While Chase Elliott has led laps and contended for wins, he’s only two points ahead of Ryan Newman for highest in points without a win. And the reason for that is Newman only has one finish outside of the top 30, while Elliott has five. Newman is doing what Newman always does. He rides around in mediocre equipment, running mid pack, and then survives the carnage of late race restarts (or causes some) to wind up finishing around the top 15. Over the last 15 races Newman only has one finish of worse than 18th and has 10 finishes inside the top 15. It’s a formula that has worked for Newman in the past, and is on track to work this year. While there is little reason to think Newman is going to win a race (just a single lap led and one top five finish to date), there’s arguably even less to think he’s not going to make the chase. The key at this point as much as anything is avoid really bad finishes, and that’s the M.O. of this Luke Lambert led 31 team.
Chances of making the chase- 90%
Austin Dillon +41 – Newman’s teammate at Richard Childress Racing is in a slightly less comfortable boat than Newman, as Dillon, while comfortably in as of now, is one bad race away from fighting for his chase life, or, he’s one win away from a guy like A.J. Allmendinger (more on that later) from having to sweat it all the way to Richmond to secure his place in NASCAR’s chase. Dillon has been less consistent than Newman, posting more strong runs where he looked like a potential contender while also having a few more finishes out of the top 20. At times, especially early in the year, it looked like Dillon was knocking on the door of getting that first win and securing his spot in the chase. However, he hasn’t qualified better than 8th at a non plate track since his pole at California and he has only led four laps all season. It’s difficult to look at that and think he’s going to have a shot to win a race in the next seven, which can make for some high pressure, especially if they have a bad race in the next couple of weeks. Dillon, like Elliott, struggled at Sears Point, so you have to wonder if they’re already peeking ahead at Watkins Glen with a little bit of dread. On the other hand, they do go to Michigan, and at California and Michigan earlier this year they’ve shown some decent speed. They might need to circle their trip to the Irish Hills as one to try to create a buffer before the back to back night races to end the regular season. Dillon only has four top ten finishes in his last dozen starts, and two of those came on the plate tracks. Dillon may wind up one driver who benefits greatly from Earnhardt’s misfortune as Dillon may need that buffer in case a guy like Allmendinger or Kyle Larson grab a win over the next two months.
Chances of making the chase – 65%
Jamie McMurray +27 – Jamie McMurray’s average finish the last three years has been 16.5, 16.2 and 14.9. Thus far in 2016 it’s 16.1. In other words, Jamie McMurray is being Jamie McMurray. He hasn’t led a lap all year and the only top five finish he has came at Talladega. The speed to contend for wins simply hasn’t been there, which is par for the course. But McMurray is a heady veteran who gets his equipment home and finds a way to salvage something decent most race weekends. A couple of positive things pointing his direction are the fact that the team seems to be trending upwards as of late with three top five finishes in the last five races, and one of those that was not was at Daytona where he was involved in an accident while contending for a solid finish, and maybe more. This couldn’t come at a better time as McMurray will return to Indianapolis where he has been victorious before. With Earnhardt likely to sit out at Indy, McMurray looks at the situation like his lead is 29 points over Ryan Blaney, with Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson, along with Earnhardt, still nipping at his heels. McMurray is in a good spot, and if he just soldiers along the next seven races, he should make the chase. However, seven straight races without a bad finish under the spotlight and pressure of racing for the chase is a tall order, even for the most accomplished of teams. McMurray’s nightmare would be for Allmendinger to win at Watkins Glen and then someone like Earnhardt, Larson or Kahne to win one of the other six races. Would McMurray be able to chase down the RCR duo and rookie phenom ahead of him? Have they shown the speed to be able to make up points? I’m not so sure. And even if they avoid trouble, they are just a couple of top five runs from Larson or Kahne away from having those two breathing down McMurray’s neck coming down the stretch. It’s going to be serious nail biting time for the Missouri native as we head towards Richmond, and much of his chase future may depend more on what those around him are or are not able to get done over the next two months.
Chances of making the chase – 55%
Dale Earnhardt Jr +14 – There is no murkier chase future than that of the sport’s most popular driver, and perhaps some clarity will come this week when we find out for sure if he’s going to miss Indianapolis, and also perhaps how much more time he will be out of the 88 car, if any. If Earnhardt is a go for Indianapolis, then you probably have to feel good about their chances. While they have been anything but a picture of consistency, one can point to the plate tracks as the reason they are in chase peril in the first place. Three races where top fives were expected and instead Earnhardt only accumulated 27 points, opposed to the 138 he gained in those three events last year. That’s a massive difference, such a difference that were he to have even gained 100 points in plate races this year, Earnhardt would be sitting 8th in points and firmly entrenched in the field of 16. As it is, he may have to sweat it out. The good news is that Pocono and Bristol are left in the regular season and Earnhardt finished 2nd at each earlier this season. Finishes like that can make up a lot of points in a hurry against the group of drivers he’s competing for a chase spot with. So even if he does not race at Indy, which I don’t believe he will, if he’s able to get back in the car at Pocono, you still have to feel pretty good about his chances. He has shown the speed on more than a couple of occasions, especially early in the year, to be considered a contender to win, though aside from Pocono, he really hasn’t shown much of it since early spring. Until we know what his status is going forward, it’s very difficult to handicap his chances. For the sake of argument we will assume he’s back after Indianapolis, because if he isn’t and misses two races, including a Pocono track that might be his best chance for a win and massive points accumulation, then that will probably be all she wrote.
Chances of making the chase (if he only misses one more race) – 40%
Trevor Bayne -14 – Trevor Bayne hasn’t finished worse than 28th all season, and only twice has he finished worse than 25th. Should Bayne finish 25th this weekend and Earnhardt not compete, Bayne would surpass Earnhardt in the standings and into the chase grid, depending of course on what those immediately behind him do this weekend. This is where things get interesting. The gap between Bayne and A.J. Allmendinger (with Ryan Blaney, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse all in between) is only 29 points, which is barely above four positions a race. More importantly though, for a collection of drivers with average finishes in the 15-18 range, any one finish in the top five can make up a large chunk of ground in a hurry, meaning if one of these teams can just hit the right combination once, especially twice, over the next seven races, it could be the difference in being a chase participant, and being a chase observer. For Bayne, he has to be looking towards Bristol to try to create some separation, where he finished 5th in the spring after qualifying 10th. The problem for a guy like Bayne, or any of these is that if another member of this group wins a race and locks themself in, or worse, two of them do so, do they have enough speed and ability to string together enough top five type runs to make up the ground they trail McMurray and Dillon by? It doesn’t seem particularly likely, so much of their chase hopes rest on either being the one to steal a win, or having no one in this group accomplish the feat. While 2016 has been a vast improvement for Roush, one has to wonder about the pressure of the chase race, something Bayne and his team have not dealt with in the past, and how that will impact them coming down the stretch. The good news is inexperience in this situation is high among a couple of their competitors. But you have to think there might be a big edge for Kasey Kahne in this regard, and a slight one for Allmendinger and Larson as well. It’s major strides for the program and Bayne that they are even in this conversation. Are they going to be able to nail down a playoff spot? My gut says likely not, but, if they keep riding around staying out of trouble knocking off top 25s, they won’t eliminate themselves, and will leave themselves a chance heading to Darlington and Richmond.
Chances of making the chase – 20%
Ryan Blaney -16 – No one on this list besides Chase Elliott has shown the consistent speed that Ryan Blaney is, and that makes him a really interesting wildcard in all of this. As of today, he would miss the chase. But if the Brickyard 400 starts and Dale Earnhardt isn’t in it, Blaney essentially finds himself two points out of the final chase spot, and with the speed to threaten to catch guys like McMurray and Dillon. The key for Blaney will be to quit making the costly mistakes this team and driver have made that have resulted in finishes that don’t represent the way they team ran. Blaney’s recovery for an 11th place last week might be looked at as a season saver if this team goes on to make the chase. Despite as well as they have run, and the speed in the car, they’ve only finished better than 10th on four occasions this year, but the potential is there, and everyone knows it. Bristol in particular was an example of bad fortune as getting caught in the wrong restart line relegated him to a finish outside of the top ten, despite a car that some thought might have a shot to win. With finishes outside of the top 15 in over half the races run thus far this year, the 21 team knows it needs to tighten up over the next seven races. Having not run a full season in years, even being basically a Penske organization now, you wonder if that inexperience might have been a bit of the culprit in their inconsistencies and you wonder if it will rear its ugly head over the next two months. What we do know is the Penske cars have speed, and Blaney has had it too, even if on pit road a bit too often. If Earnhardt can’t go on Sunday, Blaney finds himself in a good spot. If he can finish the deal a couple of times down the stretch and knock out three or four top tens with a couple of top fives, he should be able to join fellow rookie Chase Elliott in the chase, and should be able to get in even if a couple of the guys behind him grab a win. If he can’t, and execution continues to be a problem, then he’s going to have to hope nobody pulls an upset and steals a victory, and he might need a little help from his competitors struggling to get in the field of 16.
Chances of making the chase – 40%
Kasey Kahne -22 – No one, besides possibly Chase Elliott following the giant cushion he once had, has near the pressure on them that Kasey Kahne does as we enter the stretch run. Kahne was in position for a solid points day at Loudon until Ryan Newman’s impatience turned a top 12 finish into a 25th place. That finish is the difference in being knocking on the door and the next in line after Earnhardt, to being on the outside looking in. Also hurting Kahne is a 15 point penalty assessed for failed post race inspection. It will be interesting to see how he feels about this should Matt Kenseth suffer no consequences for failing after winning this past weekend. Granted, Kahne is only 8 points behind Trevor Bayne, and 22 behind Earnhardt. So if he can finish 17th or better at Indianapolis, he should at least jump ahead of Earnhardt. Kahne has been awfully similar to Bayne in that, aside from a couple of plate finishes, he’s avoid finishes in the 30s. The problem is, he’s also avoided finishes in the top half dozen as well. With just eight top five showings over the past 92 races, speculation over Kahne’s future with Hendrick Motorsports has gone from whispers to conversation, and missing the chase would put the driver in a very precarious situation going into 2017, which would be a contract year, should he even make it that far. Kahne needs to figure it out, and fast. Fortunately for him, he’s won at four of the seven tracks left in the regular season, and has a road course victory to his credit. Indianapolis has been a place that Kahne has run well at in the past, and his team needs a boost and some momentum. If they can run like many think they still are capable of this Sunday, they can firmly reinsert themselves into the race for a chase spot. The problem is that success Kahne should be able to fall back on seems so long ago. There are two things they have going in their favor that give them a definitive advantage over their direct competition. One, they’re still a Hendrick Motorsports team, and two, they have a huge edge in experience. In 2014 Kahne went to Atlanta in a must win situation and delivered a clutch win to advance into the chase. It may take something like that again this time around, and despite their struggles, there is too much talent and potential with this team to dismiss it as not possible.
Chances of making the chase – 32%
Kyle Larson -25 – Larson is another very interesting wildcard, and difficult to gauge, while also being one who benefits greatly from Earnhardt’s absence. On one hand, outside of Elliott and Earnhardt, he’s the only one to legitimately contend for a victory this season, and if you take away the points penalty incurred to failing post race inspection earlier this year, he’d be within 10 points of Earnhardt, regardless of whether he missed another race or not. But on the other, Larson’s seven finishes off the lead lap are the most of any viable contender for the chase. Larson hasn’t finished worse than 19th over the last eight races, and that has been what’s enabled him to creep back into the points picture and still have a chance to advance without a win. The upcoming schedule also would seem to favor Larson. While he didn’t finish well at Bristol, he had a very fast racecar and spoke gleefully about returning in August and has shown to be fast on concrete. He’s finished in the top ten in each of his two starts at both Indianapolis and Darlington, and was third behind Elliott and Joey Logano at Michigan earlier this year. The trick for Larson will be to figure out how to balance between going aggressively for a win to lock himself in, and being smart and taking care of his car and consistently gaining points to get in that way. Where he stands in the points will dictate his approach, but I expect him to get to Richmond needing just to survive with a top ten finish and hope someone behind him doesn’t pull a Jeremy Mayfield and win and get in. However, his margin for error is small, he can’t afford to crash out of another race, and if he has a top five finish, he can’t afford to fade late to 15th from driving too hard trying to win the race. The speed is there at times for this team, and if Larson just takes care of things the rest of the way, he should be able to overcome the deficit he faces in the points standings.
Chances of making the chase – 43%
Ricky Stenhouse -41 Even with his top ten finish at Loudon on Sunday, the 40th place showing at Kentucky after an early crash might have been the nail in the coffin to Stenhouse’s chase hopes. As with Bayne, the improvement at Roush is very evident, but a day like that when you don’t post enough top tens and fives to make up for it is difficult to overcome this late in the game. Stenhouse has 11 finishes of 16th or better, the only problem is 8 of those are in the 12th-16th range, and that just won’t get it done when you’ve got three finishes of 25th or worse over the last five races. While he benefits if Earnhardt can’t go at Darlington, it’s still not going to be enough to give one confidence that he can run down and out perform the likes of Larson, Blaney and Kahne over the next seven races. His best hopes are to hope the pressure forces some of his competitors into some mistakes over the next few weeks to give him a window, but at this point, there are just too many teams to jump without winning a race, and despite all the improvements at Roush, this team just isn’t there yet.
Chances of making the chase – 3%
A.J. Allmendinger -43 – This pretty much all comes down to one race, and one race alone. And this one particular race will have huge ramifications across the board. Since failing to win at Sonoma, Watkins Glen has been circled by this team. Allmendinger’s year started more promising with the team showing more speed on ovals at the beginning of the year, but the season has quickly spiraled out of control and confidence and momentum appear to be shot. The only way they’re getting in is to win at Watkins Glen. And truth be told, to a man, many might tell you they like having a track they’re that good at being their one shot deal, and like the odds of pulling that off more than pointing their way in. Considering the deficit he faces, and especially factoring in the way he’s run lately, Allmendinger and everyone in this chase battle knows it’s all or nothing at Watkins Glen. The pressure on him and his team will be immense, and recently they’ve succumbed to such pressures on road courses and have not handled it well. Can they get it together at Watkins Glen? My gut has told me yes, and it’s me told me yes for a couple of weeks now. There are a lot of drivers in this battle for the final chase spots that don’t want to see Allmendinger reduce the number of available spots from five to four, but it’s very possible he does that. If you wonder why I may seem a little less than confident in Dillon and McMurray getting into the chase despite healthy points leads, it’s because I think there is a really decent chance Allmendinger goes to victory lane in the Finger Lakes region of New York and takes away one of those spots. Assuming Elliott and Newman get in, which, they absolutely should, we’d essentially be down to two spots should Allmendinger win at Watkins Glen. I almost considered doing two different chase odds for each driver, one if Allmendinger wins, and one if he doesn’t, because it’s that big a game changer. If Allmendinger doesn’t win at Watkins Glen, his chances of making the chase drop to essentially less than 1%, even if he gets a second place finish and has a nice points day.
A repeat performance of 2014 for A.J. Allmendinger could flip the race to the chase on it’s ear and create havoc over the final races of the regular season
Chances of making the chase – 25%
Greg Biffle -51 – It’s the case of too little too late for Greg Biffle. The good news is the team has put together three top ten finishes in a row. The bad news is that 11 finishes of 18th or worse over the first 16 races dug a points hole that is more than likely going to be too difficult to climb out of. A lot can happen over seven races, and a couple bad races by some of the guys Biffle is pursuing, and potentially a longer absence by Earnhardt, Biffle could find himself still holding on to a chance as they near Darlington and Richmond. And much like Kasey Kahne and the 5 team, Biffle’s team holds a definitive advantage in experience. Do they have the speed to win a race and secure a spot that way? Likely not. And if anyone in front of them were to win a race, it would almost certainly spell the end of their quest. However, considering where this team was, that they’re even on the outskirts of the discussion is a testament to the fight and drive from both the driver and team. If Biffle can sniff the chase when they arrive to Michigan, don’t be surprised if he makes things very uncomfortable for the guys he’s chasing.
Chances of making the chase – 1.5%
Other (must win) – There really isn’t anyone here you think might be able to steal a win, but you simply never know, so we much acknowledge the possibility. One potential candidate would be Clint Bowyer perhaps getting a win at Watkins Glen or at Bristol. Aric Almirola has run better lately, but thinking a win is possible is still an extreme reach.
Chances of making the chase – 0.5%