Two weeks ago I looked at the drivers not yet locked into the chase field with a victory and gave my appraisal of their chances at the time to manage to make NASCAR’s sixteen team playoff field. The world of NASCAR is a strange place, because a lot has changed in those two weeks.
Dale Earnhardt Jr seems no closer to coming back from concussion related symptoms, so the chances of him pointing his way have disappeared. Chase Elliott’s tumble has continued to where it’s bordering on epic collapse, and Jamie McMurray’s bad decision at Indianapolis has left him vulnerable.
Oh yeah, then there’s Chris Buescher raining on everyone’s parade at Pocono and throwing a very unforeseen monkey wrench into things. Though, if you recall, two weeks ago I mentioned the possibility of a well timed rainstorm getting someone buried deep in the standings an upset victory and an invitation to the party.
While Buescher still has some work to do to get in the top 30, for the sake of prognostication purpose, we’ll assume he gets there, so more on him in a moment. Obviously, if Buescher does not make the top 30, then that changes things a great deal, but for his sake, I hope he does, and for the sake of discussion, we’ll assume so.
Austin Dillon +41 (65% two weeks ago at +41)
Dillon had a car that seemed capable of winning on Monday at Pocono and teammate Paul Menard was fast all weekend. That’s got to give the entire Richard Childress team some confidence. What also has to give them confidence is that Dillon is in the exact same place he was two weeks ago, and there now even fewer races in which to see his lead evaporate. Of some concern to Dillon might be that they finished 20th or worse at Sonoma, Bristol, and Richmond earlier this year, and a repeat of that performance would leave the team little room for error at Darlington and Michigan. At this point, it would probably take two bad races or another surprise winner to keep Dillon out of the chase, but as we’ve seen, anything is possible. The upcoming schedule is the only thing keeping Dillon from really being a slam dunk at this point.
Ryan Newman +29 (50% two weeks ago at +50)
While the speed at RCR is promising for Newman, an average finish of 21.5 over the last two races is not. Newman should be in position to be on cruise control into the chase, but instead he’s left to sweat it out. It’s a bit difficult to put too much stock into his performance at Richmond because RCR as a whole is better, but it’s notable how much the entire team struggled at the track that will wrap up the regular season. If Newman gets to Richmond needing to fight his way in, you have to wonder how confident they’ll be. Then again, if you “need” to accomplish something like that, there are definitely worse drivers than Ryan Newman to have wheeling the racecar.
Chase Elliott +25 (85% two weeks ago at +52)
Speaking of going the wrong direction… Elliott suddenly finds himself in real trouble, especially if someone outside of the top 16 wins a race in the next month *cough A.J. Allmendinger cough*. The problem isn’t the speed of the racecar, aside from Indy and Sonoma. The problem is finishing races. It seems pretty simple, based on the speed that’s been in the 24, just stay out of trouble and you’ll be fine. Elliott made a serious rookie mistake Monday that cost him big time. Instead of being 50 points to the good fresh of a top ten run getting some momentum back, the team heads to a road course with zero margin for error the rest of the way. Another bad finish and Elliott is likely to find himself on the outside looking in. And that’s regardless of whether someone behind him in points snares a victory. With a road course, Bristol, Darlington looming, finishing these next five races in one piece and on the lead lap is a daunting enough task. Putting together enough good finishes to hang on to his spot in the chase might be a bit much. If no more than one driver on the outside looking in steals a victory, Elliott would have like his chances if he can string together four top 15 finishes and a top 20. If he can post some top eight finishes like he was doing the first half of the year, he could be in a much more comfortable position when they arrive to Richmond. The pressure is on right now, and so far Elliott and the team aren’t handling it well. A bad weekend at Watkins Glen and the wheels might fall off.
Jamie McMurray +9 (55% two weeks ago at +27)
An average finish of 19.5 over the last two weeks compared to a 5.5 for his teammate Kyle Larson, and Jamie McMurray suddenly finds himself in major trouble as the regular season winds down. While Larson has five top ten finishes and three top fives in his last ten races, McMurray only has three non plate top ten finishes, and zero top fives at a non plate track all season. While consistency and staying out of trouble have him in contention for a chase birth, the inability to run up front and post strong finishes may very well keep him out. McMurray’s saving grace may wind up being the free falling Elliott who, despite out running McMurray on a weekly basis, has fallen back into McMurray’s clutches by not doing the one thing McMurray manages to do as well as anyone, finish the race. I don’t expect McMurray to hold off his teammate, and if Allmendinger wins this week, or someone else nabs an upset later on, I don’t think McMurray possesses the speed to race his way back in. His hope will be that Chase Elliott continues to struggle.
Kyle Larson -9 (43% two weeks ago at -25)
Even facing a pretty sizable gap two weeks ago, I liked the chances for Larson based on the speed shown in his Target Chevy. Larson certainly has done anything to make me reconsider that confidence. While he’s currently on the outside looking in, and doesn’t need to see Allmendinger get a victory this weekend, few competing for a spot have to feel as confident as Larson and his team does right now. Not only that, Darlington and Bristol are both tracks that he himself could snatch a victory and lock himself into the chase by means of a win. On the flip side, because he’s doing the chasing, he can ill-afford a bad race, certainly in the next couple because he needs to keep the pressure on McMurray and Elliott. So the question will be, how hard does he push it to win a race, and where is the line where he takes what he can get and settles for the points?
Kasey Kahne -29 (32% two weeks ago at -22)
On the positive side, Kahne opens this five race stretch at a road course, where he finished 9th at in Sonoma earlier this year, and he closes it out at Richmond, a place he’s won before and posted his best finish of the year at with a 4th place earlier this season. On a less positive note, Kahne is 29 points out, and stands 45 points behind Elliott, meaning a winner coming out of the top 16 could effectively doom his chances. Kahne has pulled his own rabbit out of a hat before, winning at Atlanta in 2014 in what was a must win situation, so if the situation calls for it, and Kahne is in contention, he’s shown he has what it takes to go and get it. The question will be if this team can find the speed to put him that situation. Nothing would seem to suggest that they can, and with the team sharing a shop with them struggling in their own right to salvage their chase spot, there may not be much teamwork between the two going forward. Kahne doesn’t have the speed to just catch McMurray, and McMurray doesn’t finish poorly enough for Kasey to feel confident he’ll fall back to him. And even if he did, there’s still the matter of Kyle Larson to deal with.
Ryan Blaney -37 (40% two weeks ago at -16)
Perhaps no one has suffered as much in the past two weeks as Blaney. At Indianapolis Blaney was looking at a possible top ten finish, and certainly a top fifteen, before being taken out in a wreck that wasn’t his doing and relegated to a crushing 36th place finish. While they rebounded Monday with a solid 11th place, that’s not going to be good enough, and they know it. Based on McMurray’s average finish, Blaney is in a difficult spot of basically needing to finish inside the top ten in each of the next five races to be able to chase McMurray down, and that’s not even considering that he also finds himself 28 points behind Larson. In other words, Blaney needs the Ganassi cars to suffer problems over the next five races, and he can’t afford any himself. Or, he can go win a race, which isn’t out of the question. Blaney was very strong at Bristol in the spring and the Wood Brothers have a knack for that track. They might be circling that one as their hail mary shot to make the chase.
Trevor Bayne -37 (20% two weeks ago at -14)
Let’s face it, Bayne was fortunate to be as close as he was at that point. Nobody that’s listed as contender runs worse than Bayne on a week to week basis and Bayne’s only real shot was for there to be no more surprise winners, and for those in front of him to continue to have trouble. There is nothing in the way this team has run anywhere besides the restrictor plates to make you think they’re going to suddenly start running in the top ten, much less contending for victories. While a lot can still happen over the next five races to those they’re chasing, let’s be real here, Bayne doesn’t run well enough to really even take advantage of that. Progress has been made at Roush, but not enough has been made with the 6 team.
Ricky Stenhouse -45 (3% two weeks ago at -41)
Stenhouse is further back with fewer races to go than he was two weeks ago. In other words, his chances were slim, and slim has headed for the door. Bristol is a track that’s been good to him in his career, and depending on what happens at the half mile, a top five run while misfortune striking those in front of him could at least put him in the mix over the final three races of the regular season. Or something really wild could happen and he could win at Thunder Valley. For Stenhouse, they need to get through Watkins Glen without losing any more points, and hope they can make some serious ground at Bristol. If not, their playoff dreams will be vanquished.
From here down, getting in on points isn’t happening. Earnhardt is 56 points out and won’t race this week, so he’ll be even further behind, and let’s face it, at this point, a 56 point deficit with this many drivers to leap frog as well is too much to ask for. So it’s all about getting a win.
Dale Earnhardt Jr’s immediate future is cloudy, and really, perhaps his long term future is. The priority is getting Junior healthy, and this season may be one they’ve already decided to put on the shelf to get ready for 2017. If Junior does come back, Richmond is a place he’s been victorious before. And you know NASCAR loves a good story. He also has stopped long losing streaks at Michigan before as well, so if he waits until after Bristol to return, those are two tracks where a victory is still a possibility.
A.J. Allmendinger circles two races each year and those are his chances to make the chase, and he knows it. He missed at Sonoma and now comes to Watkins Glen with one last swing at things. The unfortunate thing is that Allmendinger has run well enough and with enough speed that he should be in contention to get in on points. But it’s been a year from hell in terms of the luck and misfortune for Allmendinger and its lead to immense frustration at the racetrack. Nothing would erase all of that like a win this week at Watkins Glen. Not only would it propel Allmendinger into the chase, it would create a bigger mess and more pressure for a slew of others.
Greg Biffle and his Roush car have been showing more and more speed each week. Enough to win? Doubtful. But don’t count him out at Darlington, a track he experienced great success at back in the mid 2000s, or at Michigan, where fuel mileage and strategy could certainly factor in. Is it likely? Of course not. But hey, neither was Chris Buescher winning.
Others. Okay, I put this at like 0.5% two weeks ago, and low behold an “other” won. So maybe I’ll bump it up this time around. The great thing about NASCAR is that truly, anything can happen.
As for Chris Buescher, he’s still six points out of the top 30, and it would be an awful shame to win a race and miss the chase because of that. Six points is barely over one position a race, something that can be done if he simply stays out of trouble. Also assisting him is the fact that he is able to concentrate on two tasks each race, beating Regan Smith and David Ragan, as no two other cars out there matter for this team until they get thru Richmond. Is he a slam dunk to do it? No, and if he doesn’t, it obviously greatly increases the chances for guys like Kahne or Blaney to get back into the chase.