by M Roberts
With only four races remaining until the Chase for the Championship, there are only six drivers who are firmly entrenched at being one of the final 12 drivers eligible for NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.
Although no one has clinched, for the sake of making odds on who will make the Chase let’s start with the drivers currently positioned seventh thru 12th in the points because the driver in seventh, Juan Pablo Montoya, is only 154 points ahead of the 13th place driver, who is outside looking in, Kyle Busch.
Montoya’s point position is very unsafe at this juncture and by no means a guarantee that he will get in. In a very unlikely, but possible situation, if Montoya were to finish last this week at Michigan and Kyle Busch won the race, Busch would move past Montoya with more points.
Multiply those possible scenarios, extreme as they may be, with the reality of what may happen based on their current runs, how they ran on the next four races earlier in the year, a little bit of the past track history, and there should be plenty of data to make quality educated guesses for those ten drivers vying for the final six positions in the Chase.
1) 7th 2781 pts - Juan Pablo Montoya (1/15): He has steadily climbed up the charts on the basis of his nine straight top-12 finishes coming into Michigan and doesn‘t look to be see a drop in performance any time soon as he‘s made it clear his team is in a conservative mode in an attempt make the chase.
Looking at his runs earlier this season on the four tracks remaining in the chase, Montoya should be in good shape. His worst run of the four was in Atlanta with a 27th, but settled nicely at Richmond with a 10th, a ninth at Bristol, and sixth at Michigan.
His past history while driving a Dodge in his first two years can be thrown out because they aren’t relative to his current situation. Even more unrelated are his second and first place wins at Michigan while driving Champ Cars.
You won’t make much money betting on Montoya to get in because he s the clear cut favorite to win among the ten.
2) 8th 2754 pts - Kasey Kahne (9/2): Despite Kahne’s point position thus far, his past history down the stretch is what makes him a good candidate to NOT make the chase among the current top-12.
Who can forget Kahne’s melt down last season when he was in almost the identical situation sitting in eighth with four races to go and went Michigan and Bristol and finished 40th in each.
He was all but doomed at that point despite running eighth at California and a lackluster 19th at Richmond.
What Kahne does have going for him right now is quality consistent runs of late finishing in the top-10 over five of his last seven races. Kahne also finished in the top-10 earlier this year in three of the four coming up with his worst run coming at Richmond with a 29th.
If it weren’t for his history of meltdowns, his current state of the team would merit lower odds, but making the Chase only once in his five years coupled with his massive lay-downs in 2004 and 2008 make that history more true than what he is currently doing now.
3) 9th 2727 pts - Ryan Newman (6/5): It’s been over three years since Newman has made the chase and the way he‘s sliding, he may make it four. After a disastrous first four races of the 2009 campaign, Newman’s team put it all together over the next ten races compiling five top-5’s and another three top 10’s.
However, over the last seven races, Newman has struggled and has finished 14th or worse in seven of his last eight races - not the kind of streak a driver wants heading into their most pivotal stretch of the season. The silver lining through the streak is that Newman has been able to avoid the awful finishes and has taken what the car has given.
Newman ran very well at Richmond and Bristol with mediocre runs in Atlanta and Michigan. He should be in good enough shape to accumulate enough points and make the chase.
4) 10th 2718 pts - Greg Biffle (1/6): He was in the exact same position last season and took the bull by the horns and sealed the deal with great runs at Michigan and Fontana. Biffle didn’t have any wins at this junction on 2008 either, but went charging into the Chase full of steam and won the first two Chase races and eventually finished third overall.
Michigan and Atlanta are traditionally good tracks for Biffle and the Roush-Fenway set-up. If he can avoid trouble like he had at Bristol this year and run just a little better at Richmond he should make it with no problem.
5) 11th - 2716 pts - Mark Martin (1/5): It’s an absolute mystery how Martin is even in this position to be fighting for a spot with four races to go. He leads the series with four wins, but his point position lies with his feast or famine finishes in the other 18 races where he’s had six finishes of 31st or worse.
Should he make the Chase, his four wins at this juncture would start the Chase with him in first place. NASCAR Nation, and the entire sports world for that matter, would be the sentimental choice to win his first Championship and do so as a 50 year old. You just can’t make up fairy tales like that.
Martin runs well on all the tracks, and might even be one of the best cars this season at Michigan and Richmond. He ran well at Bristol this year as well, but struggled in Atlanta despite sitting on the pole there. Look for Martin to make it and grab another win either at Michigan or Richmond to increase his lead to start the Chase.
6) 12th 2685 pts - Matt Kenseth (8/1): If there is one driver coming in the Race to the Chase that looks the ugliest, it’s Kenseth. Take away his first two wins to start the season and Kenseth has an awful record of two top-5’s and another four top-10 finishes since.
He is limping down the stretch and looks like a wounded gazelle in the Serengeti, and we know what happens to them. His last few weeks have looked similar to Newman’s, nothing too bad, but nothing too good. Unlike Newman, Kenseth doesn’t have those great runs on the tracks coming up that will require him to perform well in order to get in.
He’s always been good on most of these tracks in the past, and has never missed a Chase, but something has definitely gone south with the team since week three. He is the longest shot of the current drivers in to make it.
7) 13th 2627 pts (-58 behind) Kye Busch (8/5): What a difference a year makes. In 2008, Busch led in points for the final 17 weeks just before the Chase started. This season, Busch has to make a run just to get in. Last week, Busch got his first top-5 finish since winning at Richmond the first week of May. It’s amazing that he’s not further back.
The positive note for Busch is that the few places he did run well at this year are coming up in the next four races which includes wins at Bristol and Richmond. If Busch can swallow his pride a little and points race at Michigan and Atlanta with the goal of finishing well and not running all out, which has gotten him in trouble all season, he should make the Chase.
The likeliest driver that Busch could prey on would be Kenseth. He needs to take it one race at a time, but that is easier said than done for Busch who does things his way once the helmet goes on.
8) 14th - 2589 pts (-96 behind) Brian Vickers (25/1): Considered a long shot, but an outside chance based on his team’s ability to run like one of the best at Michigan and the 1.5 mile track of Atlanta where his horsepower is matched with anyone.
Vickers biggest issue will be Bristol and Richmond where collective over the last two seasons he has had some rough times. The one positive from those two tracks for Vickers may be how well they ran in May at Richmond where Vickers 15th place finish was his best there since his rookie season.
He has to run well, maybe a top-5, at Michigan this week to have a legitimate shot at making it. He has a lot of ground to make up and has to be better than most of the drivers ahead of him.
Tall task, improbable, yes, but not impossible.
9) 15th 2586 pts (-99 behind) - Clint Bowyer (8/1): He’s played this game before and knows how to win. Last season he was 20 points behind at the same juncture and calmly raced himself into the Chase by points racing. Bowyer wasn’t spectacular anywhere, but averaged a finish of 12th over those final four races and made it.
Over his last four races this season, Bowyer has been playing the same game and has averaged a ninth place finish. In the four races remaining that he needs to get in, Bowyer has an average finish of 11th. To make it, Bowyer may have to step it up a little and can do so at the tracks he has traditionally done well at like Richmond and Bristol.
If someone like Kahne falters down the stretch, just like he did last year, Bowyer will be there to scoop up the position, just he did last year.
10) 16th 2530 pts (-155 behind) David Reutimann (500/1): There isn’t much confidence in him getting in, but does have a chance on paper. His chances are severely diminished because of his past performances on the tracks coming up. He would have to have a succession of top-5’s, lead some laps, and get help from the other current contenders. Based on what he’s done this season, it’s not likely to happen.
The way the odds are stacked with all expected scenarios and probabilities, It looks like Kyle Busch is in and Kenseth is out. A longer shot, but highly possible, would have Bowyer making it with Kahne out.