Card Sharks: Wild Battle For Chase Spot As Playoffs Loom
You could say Marcos Ambrose did himself – and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series fans – a big favor by winning at Watkins Glen International for the second consecutive season. Ambrose’s Aug. 11 victory gives him a shot at his first Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ appearance.
He also became the sixth different winner among drivers ranked 11th through 20th in the points standings, adding yet another dimension to the pursuit of two “Wild Card” berths in this year’s Chase.
The Australian still has work remaining. His second career victory pushed him to 17th in points and fifth among “Wild Card” eligible winners. Ambrose likely needs at least one more victory but should be among favorites this week at Michigan International Speedway.
Ambrose won the Coors Light Pole for the repaved track’s June race at 203.241 mph and finished ninth.
Kasey Kahne, twice a winner this year and 11th in points, remains the holder of the first Chase “Wild Card.” Ryan Newman (13th) provisionally holds the second and final spot, which was previously held by Pocono winner Jeff Gordon (15th). Kyle Busch (14th) was poised to match Kahne’s victory total until spinning from the lead on The Glen’s final lap. Ambrose and Joey Logano (18th) are the remaining eligible winners.
Here’s how the “Wild Card” derby shapes up in Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400:
Kahne has won once at Michigan (2006) but finished 33rd in June
Newman counts two victories at MIS (2003-04) and finished 15th in the track’s first race
Busch is the defending winner of the Pure Michigan 400 but was 32nd in June
Gordon, a two-time Michigan winner, finished sixth in June
Ambrose’s top-10 finish in June was his first at Michigan
Logano’s best Michigan finish is seventh. He was 35th in the year’s first trip to MIS
The “Wild Card” picture may be clarified this week but nothing will be decided. No “at-large” driver can clinch a Chase berth. And it’s possible another driver will toss his helmet into the “Wild Card” ring.
Carl Edwards, in 12th, remains a viable candidate – especially at MIS. He was a “quiet” 11th in June but has a pair of wins, most recently the ’08 Pure Michigan 400. With nine top fives and 12 top 10s, Edwards has an average Michigan finish of 8.4. He also is solid in many Loop Data categories: series-high 723 Quality Passes, second-most laps in the top 15 (2,391, 81.4%), third-most Fastest Laps Run (178) and fourth-best Driver Rating (104.7).
An Edwards victory would give Roush Fenway Racing 12 wins at Michigan, breaking a tie with the Wood Brothers for most all-time at the two-mile track.
Johnson Regains Top Spot For Ninth Consecutive Season
One lesson learned from Jimmie Johnson’s and Chad Knaus’ five consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championships: The No. 48 Hendrick motorsports Chevrolet team is relentless.
So it’s no surprise that Johnson and Knaus have finished digging themselves out of their post-Daytona 500 hole – 37th following a 43rd-place finish in February’s Great American Race.
A third-place finish in Sunday’s Finger Lakes 355 at The Glen finally pushed Johnson into the series points lead. Johnson, who last appeared in the No. 1 position after last September’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, has now been the points leader in a modern record (1975 forward) extending nine consecutive seasons.
Johnson stood eighth in points entering May’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. After giving owner Rick Hendrick his 200th NASCAR Sprint Cup victory, Johnson and Knaus have gone on a tear winning again at Dover and Indianapolis among eight top 10s in 11 starts.
While first place in the regular season amounts to significant bragging rights, it doesn’t guarantee seeding when points are reset for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™. Bonus points are awarded for wins – three for each. Johnson has that aspect covered, as well. He is one of three drivers with three wins apiece battling for the No. 1 Chase seed. Three-time and reigning champion Tony Stewart (eighth in points) and Brad Keselowski (fifth) also have three victories.
Johnson can also lock up Chase berth with a win on Sunday – which could prove a tall task (see Chase clinch scenarios on page 2). Michigan is one of five active NSCS tracks at which Johnson has yet to win (Watkins Glen, Chicagoland, Homestead and Kentucky are the others). He finished fifth at the Irish Hills in June.
Junior Promises More Aggressive Approach In Michigan Return
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s reign at the top of the points standings is over for now, lasting just two races.
He’s no doubt glad the season’s two road races – in which he finished 23rd and 28th – are in the past. And that the Chase doesn’t contain a race with left and right turns. Success wasn’t kind to Junior. His two worst finishes of the season came after ascending to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series lead. He also failed to finish on the lead lap at Pocono and Watkins Glen after completing every serial through the season’s first 20 races.
The return to Michigan should erase much of the past weeks’ frustration. Earnhardt won at MIS in June snapping a four-year, 143-race victory drought.
“The track has always been fun for me. Even had I not won any races there, it’s just a really fun track,” said Earnhardt, a two-time Michigan winner. “That’s the kind of race track you hope and pray to build. I think over time the surface will age and we’ll get back to widening up the surface quite a bit.”
A solid fourth in points, Earnhardt has his sights set on winning at least one more race to gain bonus points for the Chase standings reset.
“On the way to getting that done, you want to win more races and we were really conservative all year long,” he said. “We feel like that in the position we are in now, we can gamble a lot more.”
Time Running Out For JGR To End Season’s Skid
Momentum, momentum, who’s got some momentum?
That could be the primary question being asked at Joe Gibbs Racing on the eve of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™.
It’s unthinkable but possible that JGR could be shut out of this year’s post season. Although the team scored three wins in the past five trips to Michigan – Hamlin twice, Busch once – each of the JGR cars finished outside the top 30 at MIS in June.
Only one of its drivers – Denny Hamlin – has a provisional Chase spot. And Hamlin, who opened the season looking like the competitor who nearly won the 2010 championship, has been fading of late.
Hamlin is vulnerable, having dropped to 10th place in the standings just 40 points ahead of Kasey Kahne. Since finishing 34th at Michigan in June, the Virginia driver has finished 25th or worse in five of eight races. He was 29th at Pocono; 34th at The Glen. Accidents and mechanical problems have dogged the No. 11 Toyota, whose next win will be record-extending No. 200 for the No. 11 machine.
Kyle Busch came within a lap of virtually locking up a “Wild Card” spot at The Glen, only to spin from the lead on the final lap.
And Joey Logano, following Marcos Ambrose’s Glen victory, was bumped down to sixth and last among “Wild Card” hopefuls.
Champagne’s On Ice: Some Drivers Nearing Playoff Clinch
Though seemingly a formality, five drivers can mathematically clinch a spot in the 2013 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup this weekend at Michigan International Speedway. Here are the candidates, and the necessary facts and figures for a clinch:
Jimmie Johnson: The magic number for this weekend is 145. Any driver 145 points ahead of 11th place leaving Michigan will clinch a top 10 spot, which is of special importance to Johnson. After race No. 26 at Richmond, all 12 Chase drivers will have their points reset to 2,000. But only the top 10 will earn three bonus points for each win during the regular season. Currently Johnson has three wins, equaling nine potential Chase bonus points. Johnson currently sits 124 points ahead of 11th (a maximum of 47 points can be made up in a given race). He could also clinch at least a Wild Card spot by winning on Sunday, regardless of his stature ahead of 11th.
Greg Biffle: Biffle can lock up a top-10 spot. Currently owning a 123-point cushion over 11th, Biffle needs to reach the magic number of 145 leaving Michigan.
Matt Kenseth: Like his Roush Fenway Racing teammate, Kenseth can clinch a top-10 spot by leaving Michigan with a 145-point lead over 11th. He currently sits 122 points ahead of 11th.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Earnhardt has a tougher task than the aforementioned drivers. His current cushion over 11th is 107 points. He can lock up a top-10 spot by reaching the 145-point magic number.
Brad Keselowski: Keselowski has a remote chance of clinching at least a Wild Card spot with a win on Sunday, depending on the finishes of a number of other drivers.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.
Marcos Ambrose’s victory last Sunday pushed the “winners” total to 14 different winners in 22 races. The full-season record is 19, most recently set in 2001. Seven drivers who won last year remain winless in 2012: Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, David Ragan, Paul Menard, Regan Smith and Trevor Bayne. … Scott Speed finished 17th last Sunday at Watkins Glen, giving Leavine Family Racing its best NASCAR Sprint Cup finish since joining the series last season. … Milestone Watch: Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s next lap led will be No. 7,000 in his NASCAR Sprint Cup career. … Ryan Newman continues to chase Coors Light Pole No. 50. He has one Michigan pole, in 2005.