The playoff hopefuls are on two weeks’ notice in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, as the circuit goes to Atlanta for the penultimate race of the regular season and an increasingly chaotic picture for the final automatic berths in the postseason and the two wild-card spots. And last year’s champion, Brad Keselowski, is on the clock.
Keselowski finished 30th last week at Bristol, and is now in 11th place, one spot outside of automatic qualification. The rules for making the postseason (click here for a layman’s explanation) now work against the champ, because he has yet to win a race this season. And if you don’t make the Top 10, a wild-card berth won’t be forthcoming to a driver without an outright win.
This year’s struggles are something new to Keselowski. He’s a young driver, only 29-years-old, and has lived a charmed life as he climbed his way to the top. Making his full-time debut in 2009, Keselowski improved his final standings finish every year, culminating with last year’s championship. But 2013 has been fraught with near-misses, point penalties and now the danger of missing the playoffs.
Keselowski had four Top 4 finishes to open the season and it looked like all would continue to be well. But now, the fact none of those were Top 1 finishes is standing out like a sore thumb, as is a near-miss second-place finish at Watkins Glen on August 11. The champ has two choices—the most realistic being to run two solid races and move past Joey Logano for second. Or win Sunday night (7:30 PM ET, ESPN) or next Saturday night in Richmond.
MORE WILD-CARD CHAOS
The plight of Keselowski is the same one shared by Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon. They rank 12th and 13th in points, but are also without a win. This current landscape means we have to dip all the way down to the 14 and 15 spots, for Martin Truex and Ryan Newman, to find drivers with both a win and enough points to qualify for a wild-card (you have to finish 20th or higher to be eligible for one of the two wild-cards).
Truex and Newman have their own sets of concerns though. Given how fluid the standings have been from 8 through 12, it’s more than possible that Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle or Logano—all of whom have victories—could slip outside the Top 10, thus negating Truex and Newman’s current edge and exposing their points deficiency.
Indeed, in a conversation with TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill, we both felt it highly unlikely that both Truex and Newman could make it without moving up in the standings. Therefore, they are jousting first with each other, and then to try and at least get up to 12th.
Finally, continue to keep an eye on Dale Earnhardt Junior. Currently in seventh place, he’s a little safer than the Biffle-Logano-Kahne trio for the Top 10, but Junior does not have a win, and he’s one bad race from right on the bubble of the Top 10 and into the same trouble as Keselowski, Gordon and Kurt Busch.
The current landscape, I think, vindicates the rule changes NASCAR put in place two years ago to place more emphasis on outright wins. The value of consistency is still there—just ask Clint Bowyer, who runs a quiet second place overall and is in no danger whatsoever of missing the postseason even though he hasn’t won a race—but if you don’t get one or two wins, and combine it with a few bad races, you end up on the playoff bubble. Which is as it should be.
It may be the way it’s supposed to be, but I’m still pulling for “Bad Brad” to either get his win, or at least get to the Top 10 sometime in the next two weeks. Preferably Sunday night in Atlanta.
THE ADVOCARE 500
Atlanta Motor Speedway is a cookie-cutter track, which is to say it lacks any unique characteristics that really make it interesting. I asked Bill whether night racing is any different from the daytime events that mostly dominate this circuit’s schedule.
He told me it is different for the drivers—similar to twilight baseball, the glare of the sun can be tough to handle when a race begins, and the cooler temperatures tend to mean faster races. But it’s difficult to say which specific drivers would have an edge, and any edge would be minor.
We can say that Kurt Busch has liked Atlanta in the past. He won races here in 2009 and 2010, and Gordon won here back in 2011. A win by either driver fundamentally alters the landscape discussed above. Jimmie Johnson, per usual, is the betting line favorite at 5-1, while Matt Kenseth—whose five wins lead the circuit—is 6-1. And the desperate champion? Bad Brad is a 10-1 bet to solve his problems in one fell swoop on this holiday Sunday night in Atlanta.