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Thirteen down and thirteen to go to the finish line

Last Sunday’s  5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway officially kicked off the second half of NASCAR’s 26 race “regular season.”  From Daytona in February to Richmond in September, the first 26 races will determine the teams that will make up this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. 

Starting with race No. 27 at Chicagoland Speedway, the final 10 races of the season make up the Chase for the Sprint Cup.  Now in its eighth year the “Chase for the Cup” method of determining the season’s champion has been in effect long enough that the veteran teams have pretty much

got a handle on the strategy, tricks of the trade or whatever you call it, that they need to give their team the best shot at winning the Cup.
That is, except for a couple of kickers the sport’s brain trust has added to the mix this season.  First is the addition of the two so-called “Wild Card” slots that add the two teams with the most wins that failed to make the top 10 in points to the “Chase.”

The second is the new points system.  The old system had been in effect for so many years that as quirky as it was, the teams had a pretty good handle on where they stood and what they needed to do to get into the Chase.  If they were 40 points down, they knew instinctively what that meant and how to plan for the remaining races.  With the new points system, everybody is pretty much flying blind. 

Forty points down today, who knows?  Ask another team, they’re mostly in the same boat.  The next engineer that most teams hired had best be a math major.

Brad Keselowski’s win a week ago at Kansas, along with a number of other angles, placed major focus on three different point position battles up and down the Sprint Cup Standings
• The points lead.  Carl Edwards, on the strength of a series high 10 top 10 finishes, had a 40-point lead on second place Jimmie Johnson heading into Pocono last weekend. But once the Chase starts, only wins matter.  After race 26 at Richmond the top-10 drivers earn Chase berths and have their points reset to 2,000, with 10 bonus points added for each win during the regular season.  Currently Kevin Harvick leads with three wins and 30 Chase bonus points. Edwards has one win, and ten bonus points.

• The top ten. After race number 26, the top 10 drivers are locked into the Chase.  Heading into Pocono last weekend Ryan Newman had a scant 1-point lead over Denny Hamlin for the 10th place spot in the Chase.

• The top 20.  The 12-driver Chase field consists of the top 10 after Richmond, with spots 11 and 12 going to the two drivers outside the top 10 who have the most wins, providing they’re in the top 20 in points.  Two drivers outside the top 20 have won this season: Brad Keselowski, 21 and seven points outside of the top 20, and Regan Smith, 29th in the standings and 49 points outside the top 20.

If there is a tie, or if there is only one winner from position11-20, then the Chase spot would go to the driver with the best points finish position.

Keselowski hopes it doesn’t get that far.  After his victory, he talked about wining another race, and locking himself into the Chase.

“I’m a big fan of the rule NASCAR implemented putting winners in the last two spots.  I think that serves the sport very well,” he said. “And hopefully we’ll be able to capitalize on it, but there’s no guarantee of that.  I feel pretty confident that it’s going to take really two wins to guarantee your way into it.”

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