The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is headed for Michigan International Raceway on Sunday for the Quicken Loans 400 (1 PM ET, TNT). There are 12 races between now and the beginning of the postseason, so TheSportsNotebook is going to step back and take a bigger-picture look at how the season is shaping up.
HOW THE CHASE FOR THE CUP WORKS
The tenor of this column is geared toward fans that choose to casually follow NASCAR, and may not be aware of how the postseason rules functions, and why the points standings are not necessarily the best gauge of who’s in position to win the championship. Thus, let’s begin our overview with a brief primer on how the NASCAR “Chase For The Cup” playoffs function…
*The postseason begins September 15 in Chicagoland, and twelve drivers qualify. Unlike other sports, this does not mean they are the only drivers who are in action. Each individual race has its usual full field, and every driver can win the purses on a race-by-race basis. But the scoring is structured so that only the 12 playoff qualifiers can win the championship in November.
*The top ten drivers in points automatically qualify for the postseason and are awarded 2,000 points apiece. Furthermore, they get a bonus three points for each race won during the regular season.
*Two additional drivers, drawn from those who place 11 thru 20, also qualify and get 2,000 points. The first criteria for the two “wild-cards” is number of outright wins. The next tiebreaker down is total points. Unlike the automatic qualifiers, wild-card entrants do not receive bonus points for regular season races won.
The implications of this for looking at the regular season standings should be clear, and it’s to focus on whose winning races. Jimmie Johnson might have 521 points and be in first, while Matt Kenseth has 418 points in sixth, but if they’ve each won three races (which is the case) then they are, for all practical purposes, tied. Because that’s what will happen if this same landscape exists come mid-September in Chicago.
This is not to say the points standings are irrelevant. With twelve races between now and Chicago, any driver can have a bad stretch of 2-3 weeks. By virtue of his big lead, Johnson has a huge cushion in the event of any shortfalls. Whereas Kyle Busch might have two wins, but he’s one bad week from slipping into the wild-card standings, and thus losing the opportunity to get credit for his victories when the standings are restructured for the postseason.
THE REAL STANDINGS
So let’s move beyond the superficial points standings and look at how they shape up for what really matters, and that’s positioning for the playoffs. There are six drivers whose points position is strong enough to allow some cushion, and they range from no wins to three wins…
3 Wins: Johnson, Kenseth
2 Wins: Kevin Harvick
1 Win: Carl Edwards
0 Wins: Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Junior
Bowyer and Junior are each running very consistently, and are third and fourth overall. But as you can see here, they’re going to slip in September if they don’t add some wins. And when you look at Harvick, I have to remind readers that TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill, recommended Harvick as a good longshot bet to win the Cup when the season started in February.
Now let’s move to the four drivers who would be automatic qualifiers if the season ended today, but can’t be cavalier about the points, because they’re still in tough fights.
2 Wins: Kyle Busch
1 Win: Kasey Kahne
0 Wins: Brad Keselowski, Greg Biffle
Biffle is trending upward, so for the time being, he can happy with just nudging into 10th place. Keselowski keeps dealing with penalties by the NASCAR establishment, some justified, some not, and has an uphill climb to win a second straight Cup.
Finally we come to the wild-card possibilities…
1 Win: Tony Stewart
0 Wins: Jeff Gordon, Paul Menard, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, Joey Logano
Gordon would join Stewart as a postseason qualifier if the season ended today. David Ragan has also won a race, but he’s in 29th place and in recent weeks has gotten further, rather than closer, to the 20th position he’d need to become eligible. And even if he did, that still presumes no one else ranked 11th or lower would win even one race the rest of the year.
The standings and the system illustrate how significant Johnson’s win at the Poconos last week was, as it pulled him even with Kenseth in outright wins. And why Harvick is slowly moving from longshot to genuine contender.
SUNDAY IN MICHIGAN
We’ve talked a lot about the big picture, but there’s still racing on Sunday. The track in Michigan is a generic “cookie-cutter” that lacks the uniqueness or quirkiness that create unconventional racing. “It comes down to fuel management,” Bill said, regarding the Quicken Loans 400. Fuel management is racing’s equivalent of running the ball off-tackle in football. It isn’t necessarily exciting, but it’s a core fundamental and we’re on a track where fundamentals produce wins.
Johnson is the 4-1 favorite, with Kahne and Kenseth at 7-1. Junior comes at an 8-1 price, with Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin sliding in at 10-1. Hamlin’s early season injury and several missed races have put him in an almost impossible spot for the postseason, but week-to-week, he’s as good as anyone.