With automobiles parting the seas and laden skies giving assent, Jeff Gordon took his sixth Pocono win last week. In doing so, he also brought another very intriguing statistic onto the armchair analyst's table. All four Hendrick teams now sit unofficially in the Chase.
A few weeks ago, that would've been considered a bit of a funny proposition. Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were all but mathematically locked in, but Kasey Kahne was just inside the door and Jeff Gordon seemed all but a failed conclusion.
What a difference a few weeks have made. Kahne looks terrifically solid in leading the wild card race with his two wins, and Jeff and Team #24 have suddenly found new life and a bunch of potent energy to put forth, leading to the now-valid question: Will all four teams make it to the postseason?
That’s the issue at stake in this episode of Bonus Points, a weekly feature in which Sports-at-Work writers Sam Salo and Luke Krmpotich debate a current issue in NASCAR, giving their takes on the way things ought to be. Sometimes, Sam and Luke will agree; other times, they may have slightly differing opinions; and on occasion, they'll be at each other's throats.
Each writer will also assign a "flag" value to his opinion on the question: checkered flag if it's a slam dunk, green flag if he's mostly convinced, yellow flag if it's a toss-up, red flag if he's pessimistic or black flag if he's dead set against the idea.
Luke: First things first; Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are safely in the Chase. I'm ready to award Kasey Kahne near-lock status as well. Thus, the question of whether or not Jeff Gordon will do his part and make Hendrick Motorsports the second team to ever put four teams into the Chase (following Roush Fenway's impressive five-for-five performance in 2005).
I touched on this question tangentially earlier this week by predicting that Kyle Busch will miss the Chase, arguing that Jeff Gordon has the best shot at earning the second Wild Card Chase berth. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that I think Jeff Gordon will make the Chase.
There are plenty of drivers competing with Gordon for that final postseason spot, including Busch, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano. Any one of those four could claim the second Wild Card entry with a single victory over the next five races. So while Gordon might have the best shot at making the Chase among that group, his odds still might be under 50/50.
And indeed, much as I am impressed by the way Gordon has been running over the last couple of months, I'm not ready to punch his ticket into the Chase. Over the last few races, the second Wild Card spot has been held by Busch, Kahne, Newman and Gordon at various times. The likelihood of it changing hands again is high, in my estimation. Who will be sitting in the lucky seat when the music ends at Richmond on September 8 is anybody's guess.
Much as I like the arguments for Gordon's chances of making the Chase, there are simply too many variables at stake for me to have any sort of confidence in his ultimately reaching that destination. Lady Luck has been fleeting and fickle this season, as undependable as the golden horseshoe that the winless-this-season Kevin Harvick allegedly stole from Jimmie Johnson last year. It's a yellow flag of caution for the odds of the Hendrick boys making it an all-inclusive Chase party in 2012.
Sam: In short, it's looking rather promising for team Hendrick. The main bulk of the argument rests, of course, on Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon's ability to stick it out over the remaining five weeks.
Kasey needs to cruise around top-10 for another month, and Jeff needs to do likewise. With the emphasis that is put on wins in the current Chase format, such performance will likely bag each a wild card berth. Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, and Joey Logano form the gist of the competition to both Kahne and Gordon. While Kahne has his second win to rely on, Gordon has his one victory and his current (and mounting) strength to fall back on.
In contrast, Kyle Busch has been inconsistent both mechanically and performance-wise; Ryan Newman has been largely mediocre in speed, with a lucky Martinsville win keeping him in the discussion; Carl Edwards remains winless; and Joey Logano appears to be faltering down the regular season stretch.
It would be, of course, not totally surprising to see a fellow like Kyle nab a win over the coming five races, considering that there are a number of tracks remaining in the regular season that are candidates for a season-saving win (such as Richmond, where Kyle took the win in the spring).
However, based on current momentum, past savvy, veteran smarts, and rising stock in the 2012 season, the skies are looking cloudy for the competition yet sunny for the rainmakers at camp Hendrick. It might not look great on a weather map, but this here weatherman gives the green to the four fine fellows of Hendrick Motorsports.
Final analysis: Thanks to the inherently uncertain state of affairs on the Chase bubble, HMS gets a yellow flag of caution for their chances of putting all four drivers in the Chase. There are shades of green on the horizon, however, growing ever brighter with each passing race that doesn't see a fellow answering to the name of Busch/Newman/Edwards/Logano in Victory Lane.