NASCAR Sprint Cup Drivers Rev Up For Second Half

The NASCAR Sprint Cup series takes a break this weekend, but with just seven more races for drivers to qualify for the final Sprint For The Cup, TheSportsNotebook takes a step back and evaluates the big picture before racing action resumes next week…

Before going further, let’s lay out how The Sprint For The Cup works. It’s the final ten races of the season and only 12 drivers are eligible to win the Cup—though the entire field still lines up drives like normal, though they can only win the purses for individual races, not the overall Cup. The Top 10 drivers in the point standings automatically qualify. The points for each driver is re-set to the same amount, with bonus points then tacked on for each race won. The purpose is to ensure that while consistency and regular top five and top ten finishes can get you to the postseason, only winning races can actually bring home a championship. After these ten spots are filled, two more wild-cards go. They go to the drivers who have won the most races, with points serving as a tiebreaker.

The emphasis on wins has big consequences as we close in on the re-set in the standings. Last year’s champion, Tony Stewart, has had a 2012 marked by inconsistency, but he’s managed to be seventh in the standings and with three wins he would be tied for first when the final Sprint begins. The other co-leader would be Brad Keselowski, currently in 10th place and barely earning automatic qualification, but with three wins to credit. “Stewart and Keselowski have done a great job closing races and knowing how to win,” said TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill, who went on to add that NASCAR has consistently tweaked the rules over the past several years for its playoffs, trying to ensure both an exciting finish and an emphasis on drivers getting outright wins.

So even though Matt Kenseth has been atop the standings for several weeks and holds a 26-point lead over Dale Earnhardt Junior, we’re getting to the point on the schedule where that is a superficial lead. With only one win apiece—trailing not only Stewart and Keselowski, but Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle and Denny Hamlin, all with two victories—Kenseth and Junior need to get wins.

Kenseth’s potential sharp drop in the standings if he doesn’t win at least one of the next seven races is just the second-biggest news he’s been involved in. The driver’s announcement a few weeks ago that he’s leaving the Roush Fenway racing team is perhaps the biggest news of the first half even if it’s impact won’t be felt on the track until 2013. And I find it hard to separate Kenseth’s leaving the Fenway racing team from the chaos going on with the Red Sox—can we blame his unhappiness and desire to get out of town on Bobby Valentine?

One driver who’s going to need a miracle over the next seven races is Jeff Gordon. He’s yet to win a race and even if he does there’s so many points to make up, even a wild-card is a longshot. If Gordon doesn’t win at least twice in seven weeks, he’s going to need something like a top five finish each time out if he wants to be relevant in late September. “His struggle is the biggest surprise,” Bill said. “Also that Carl Edwards isn’t doing better.” Edwards has struggled, but at 11th in the point standings, he can change the dynamic of his entire season with one simple win.

Kasey Kahne has put himself in firm command for a wild-card slot. He’s 12th in the point standings, and is the only contender outside the Top 10 with two wins. “It looks like he’s turned his season around,” Bill said regarding his favorite driver.  “He’s turned the corner.” Now the entire NASCAR world turns the corner into the last desperate seven races as drivers look to both qualify for the postseason and give themselves a real shot to win when they get there.