Five races remain before NASCAR enters the 10-race Chase to determine its champion. Of the 12 spots available, I am of the opinion that drivers positioned one through six are locked in, while drivers seven through 10 are secure. But those currently positioned 11 through 16 have reason for concern.
Because none of the six have demonstrated they can string together five consecutive solid performances, and at this point in the year, it may, in fact, take just that to make the cut.
Let's take a look:
No. 11 Matt Kenseth (2,564 points): He won the first two races of 2009 and has since cooled off, his last top-five finish coming at Dover nine races ago.
In spite of this, Matt has dropped only three spots in the standings, mostly because he is a finisher and an outstanding points racer.
As a former series champion, Matt has a decided advantage in the experience category and is one of the more intelligent racers I’ve ever competed against.
The question is, where will the speed come from, as he simply has not shown the muscle generated at the beginning of the year?
With a 102-point advantage over the 13th-place driver, Kyle Busch, I believe Matt Kenseth’s chances of making the Chase are GOOD
No. 12 Greg Biffle (2,563): Greg is having, well, a 12th-place kind of year.
What’s interesting is his numbers this year are very similar to his numbers at this point last year. It wasn't until the Chase began in 2008 that we saw Biffle at his very best, winning the first two events and eventually finishing third in the standings.
He has proven if he gets in the Chase he is a title contender. It's getting there that could be a problem.
Biffle has never won on a road course or at a short track in his Sprint Cup Series career. Those represent three of the next five races.
He has a solid 101-point cushion on Kyle Busch in 13th, but I'm afraid he may need all of it. His chances at this point are FAIR.
No. 13 Kyle Busch (2,462): Kyle finds himself with a reasonable deficit with the races winding down, but good news is coming.
First off, he has previously won at four of the five remaining tracks. Second, Kyle has the advantage of being fast, regardless of being positioned behind 12 other drivers. Of the dozen drivers in front of him in the standings, only two have more bonus points for leading events. This speaks to is his ability to go fast on nearly every discipline of track.
Kyle is under a lot of pressure to conform to be more of a points racer, which I believe he did a good job of last week in Pocono. However, in my opinion, his best chance to make the Chase is to be himself and say to heck with all the advice. It's not a good time of year to be messing with a driver's head and driving style.
Kyle Busch has proven he can go on a run, perhaps win two or three of these remaining five races. I believe his chances are VERY GOOD.
No. 14 Brian Vickers (2,459): Brian has had an outstanding season and has probably not received the attention he deserves for doing so. He has been going it alone against multi-car teams, matching most of them all year long.
His five pole positions are a reflection of his speed and his potential.
Unfortunately, he has only one teammate, a rookie with little to draw on for support.
Vickers is clearly an over achiever in 2009 when you compare him to the depth of the teams he is battling for a spot in the Chase. I feel Vickers will continue to fight an uphill battle for the next five weeks.
Add to this the distraction of his car owners not delivering on a much-deserved contract extension, and Vickers is a driver already carrying quite a load. I believe his chances of making the Chase are POOR.
No. 15 Clint Bowyer (2,448): Clint had me convinced early in the year he was destined to make the Chase. The combination of Bowyer, crew chief Shane Wilson and the new team seemed perfect as they spent the first couple of months solidly in the top five in standings.
Two things seemed to catch up with this new team as the season wound on – poor qualifying and lack of speed.
Bowyer has fewer bonus points (only 15) than any of the 16 drivers I consider in Chase contention. Bonus points are a reflection of pure speed, and speed has influence on much more than how well you do or do not qualify. If you're not among the fastest cars in practice, then you are constantly searching for big gains, which means you oftentimes end practice frustrated with a deficit, and you start the race with a deficit.
Bowyer deserves a lot of credit for being the highest-ranking Childress team, especially considering this is a new team at RCR. But it is small consolation for a driver capable of winning a title. I believe Clint's chances of making the Chase are POOR.
Like being the last car on the lead lap on the final restart, his approach at this point should be go for broke – race every lap as though it were his last. This might be quite an advantage over the drivers positioned ahead of him, who perhaps might be taking more of a preservation approach.
David, his cars and team have shown the ability to compete all year long. This weekend's road course may serve as their Achilles heel, but a solid finish would go a long way in feeling some redemption for the tough break last week. Either way, I think he makes it interesting. I believe his chances of making the Chase are Fair.
- Kyle Busch