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Unpredicable 2011 regular season down to the final three

Editor’s Note: We are pleased to present our NASCAR commentary by Pete Barber. He has recovered from his recent illness and is back at work. We trust our NASCAR readers will pick up with him where they left off - waiting for his column each week!
Three races remain in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series “Regular Season.”  These final three events will decide which twelve drivers will race for the championship over the

final ten races.

Up next on Saturday night is the coliseum feel of Bristol Motor Speedway,  a fast .533 mile oval most recently conquered by Kyle Busch.  Second up will be the 1.54 mile Atlanta Motor Speedway, often called the fastest track on the circuit. And finally, the traditional cut-off race for the chase, the .75 mile Richmond International Raceway.

After Richmond, the top ten drivers are locked into the Chase.  Spots eleven and twelve go to the drivers outside the top ten with the most wins,  provided they are in the top 20.

Heading into last Sunday’s race at Michigan, four drivers had mathematical chances of locking up Chase berths.  Traditionally, Michigan has been the scene of the first driver to clinch a berth in the Chase. Every year since the chase format began in 2004, except 2005 and 2006, has seen a driver clinch a spot at Michigan.

The real interest is how the new wild card format for the eleventh and twelfth spots will shake out. Just when a hobbled Brad Keselowski improbably won at Pocono for his second win of the season and put a strong hold on a wild card spot, Marcos Ambrose won his first-ever Cup Race at Watkins Glen.  His 47-point day moved him into 22nd place,  a single point out of the top twenty. 

The Current Wild Card holders are Keselowski and Denny Hamlin.  Hamlin dipped to twelfth in the points after his thirty-sixth place finish at Watkins Glen, but maintains the edge over fifteenth-place Paul Menard, who notched his first career win at Indianapolis.

Fifteen different drivers have won races so far this season, including five first-time winners,  That’s the most first-time winners since 2002.  The modern era record for winners is nineteen, back in the 2001 season.  With thirteen races yet to go, there is a good possibility that record will fall by the end of this season.  There are still six drivers who won last season that have yet to notch a win in 2011.

For Dale Earnhardt Jr., the last couple of weeks have been a case of two down and three to go.  Earnhardt, by his own definition a less than skilled road racer, “escaped” Watkins Glen with a 15th place finish.  It not only solidified his hold on a qualifying berth for the Chase, but boosted him to ninth in the standings.  Earnhardt’s fourteenth place finish at Michigan last Sunday was enough to keep him in ninth place heading to Bristol with a six-point advantage over Tony Stewart in tenth. 

Asked by one of the ESPN reporters about his chances of making the chase following Sunday’s race, a very candid  and very frustrated Tony Stewart said, “The way we have been running, it really doesn’t matter.  We would just be taking up a slot.  They should give the position to someone who has a chance to win it.”   If Stewart does not pull out a win in the final thirteen races, this would be the first time since joining the Sprint Cup Circuit in 1999 that “Smoke “ goes winless for an entire season.
Kyle Busch’s win last Sunday at Michigan, his fourth of the season, made him the first driver to lock up a Chase slot.  It was not a dramatic day for drivers on the bubble for wild car slots in the chase.  Brad Keselowski in twelfth, with two wins, seems a lock  for one wild card spot.  I believe when the dust settles Denny Hamlin will be the other wild card entry.

Talk about being snake bit - Hamlin can’t seem to buy a break.  With his multiple engine failures, much was made of Joe Gibbs Racing switching to Toyota Racing Development for Hamlin’s engines beginning with last weekend’s race.  So what happens in his first race with a factory built engine?  Hamlin hits the wall and loses many laps while in the garage for repairs and ends up with a thirty-fifth place finish.

You may reach Pete Barber at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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