Sometimes it seems like time takes as long as it wishes, and sometimes it flies by as if it was on track at Talladega. The days in between each race can crawl by, but then I look back and find myself asking 'wasn't the Daytona 500 just yesterday?' Then of course I have to come to the realization that that perfect season opener was six months ago, and we've logged 23 races since then. So with the Chase bearing down on us, I began to wonder how each driver with a shot at the chance, no matter how certain or iffy, got to this point of the season.
10th - Tony Stewart
Tony's season has been more like a roller coaster than anything else. Although he has finished every lap in 20 races, his average is only 15.0 with nine finishes in the top 10 and five races where he wound up outside of the top 25. Smoke is best known for heating up during the summer months, but while he's done that a little bit, it has been so inconsistent that he has fallen to the point of possibly not making the Chase. His statement about not deserving to be one of the elite 12 is certainly shocking, but if he is going to make the Chase, he must either get a win or stay in the top 10.
*My grade for how likely Tony will make the Chase: B- Possible, but he's got to pick up the pace.
11th - Brad Keselowski
Brad's turnaround in the last five weeks has been nothing but impressive. In the first 19 races of the year he finished outside of the top 25 six times and only finished in the top 10 in four races, one of those being his win in Kansas. But since New Hampshire's thirty-fifth place result, he hasn't finished outside of the top ten once and only outside the top 5 once. That has transformed him from having a distant shot at making the Chase (twenty-third in points) all the way up to eleventh and sniffing at the top 10. He is definitely the hottest driver in NASCAR right now.
*My grade for BK making the Chase: A+ Absolutely going to happen, and he might not even need one of the wild card slots.
12th - Clint Bowyer
Clint's year has been somewhat abnormal for a team that is used to running up front and making the Chase. In his first four races he did not manage to pick up a top 10, but followed that up with six top 10s in seven races, including two runner-up finishes that catapulted him into Chase position. He hasn't been able to hang on to that though, and after back to back mid-30 finishes at Daytona and Kentucky, he tumbled back to his current position.
*My grade for Clint making the Chase: D Unlikely. If he is going to make a run at the Chase, he needs a win or to figure out how to push his way into the top 10.
13th - Denny Hamlin
A couple of races ago, I would have told you Denny's shot at making the Chase was rapidly disappearing'until the drivers he was racing ran into problems too. His season got off to a slow start, but by the time he won the Michigan race in June, it looked like they might be figuring stuff out as they moved into ninth. It didn't take long for them to fall back out of the top 10 though, and they've only spent two weeks since automatically locked into a run for the championship. Their seventh place finish in Bristol makes it look as if maybe they are starting to get things turned in the right direction again.
*My grade for Denny making the Chase: A Highly likely. His chance to move back into the top 10 is quickly vanishing, but that win is going to be enough for them as long as they keep up the momentum and those around him don't win a race or the others with one win don't grab a second one.
14th - A.J. Allmendinger
A.J. and his team have had a solid season, especially considering they almost ceased to exist towards the end of last season. He has an average finish of 16.5 and has picked up five top 10s with nine more between eleventh and fourteenth. On the flip side, he only failed to pick up a top 25 finish in four races. Despite several top 5 runs (some of which didn't turn into finishing there), he still hasn't picked up a win although he is the popular choice for the next first time winner.
*My grade for A.J. making the Chase: D Unlikely. Unless he grabs that first win in the next two races, he will not make the Chase.
15th - Kasey Kahne
Kasey and his Kenny Francis-led team have had a pretty good season despite the rumors swirling around Red Bull Racing. They have eight top 10 finishes, but seven finishes of twenty-fifth or worse and two DNFs have dropped their average to 17.2.
*My grade for Kasey making the Chase: C- Unlikely, but slightly possible. If he is going to be in the hunt for a championship, he needs a win and the next two tracks are ones where he already knows his way to victory lane.
16th - Greg Biffle
Greg's season has certainly been a disappointment for him and his Roush Fenway team. After making the Chase the past three seasons, the highest finish they have claimed is a fourth in Texas at the beginning of the season. He has claimed top 10 positions in 6 races and finished 98.6% of the laps. That isn't enough to fight through four under-25th place results to raise his average finish higher than 17.4.
*My grade for Greg making the Chase: C- Unlikely, but slightly possible. Like Kasey Kahne, Greg will need a win to have a chance to make a run for the championship.
17th - Martin Truex Jr.
Martin picked up only six top 10s in the first twenty-one races, but in the last three he has earned two top fives that moved him into a position of getting the wild card if he could get the ever-elusive win. Five finishes under 25th, three of them being DNFs, have kept Martin and his Napa team from being closer to the top ten and mired him with a 17.6 average.
*My grade for Martin making the Chase: D Unlikely. If Martin is going to steal a place in the top 12 at the end of the season, he needs another win or two.
18th - Joey Logano
Joey's year started off without a finish higher than twenty-third in the first five races before he finally claimed tenth at Talladega. Since then Joey has five finishes in the top five, but fell victim to sub-par finishes below 25th three times to leave him with an average that closely reflects his spot in the standings: 17.5.
*My grade for Joey making the Chase: D Unlikely. Joey hasn't consistently shown that he could run for a win. It would not be out of the question for him to get a win in these next two races, but he would need two wins to have a realistic shot at being one of the exclusive 12 come Chicago.
19th - Mark Martin
The position we find Mark in isn't a typical one for a Hendrick Motorsports driver. But HMS typically only has three teams running well at once and it appears Mark is the one that wound up with the short end of the stick. Seven finishes inside the top 10 look as if he wasn't doing too badly, but once you see that he has finished outside of the top 25 four times, plus his 17.8 average, it begins to make a little more sense. His wreck in Bristol didn't help anything either, although he was on track to have a decent finish before that.
*My grade for Mark making the Chase: D Unlikely. Mark would practically need two wins to make the Chase. Besides that he would also have to stay inside the top 20, which could be pretty difficult.
20th - Paul Menard
Paul's win at the Brickyard 400 was not only the highlight of his season, but also for all of NASCAR when he became the fourth first time winner this year. It also gave him what looked to be an almost certain spot in the Chase as his team seemed to getting back on their early season track by following it up with a 10th at Pocono. The last three races have made it all questionable when a cut tire sent him into the wall in Watkins Glen in the closing laps and lackluster runs (which plagued 3 of the Childress cars in Bristol) gave him finishes outside the top 25.
*My grade for Paul making the Chase: B- Slightly possible. Regardless of what anybody else does, Paul needs another win to secure a wild card spot in the Chase. He also needs to make sure he stays inside of the top 20, ahead of David Ragan and Marcos Ambrose, while hoping nobody ahead of him wins a race.
21st - David Ragan
David had swings of terrible finishes and great finishes up to his win at Daytona in July that made him a surprising wild card participant. He was holding on to a top 20 spot in the points until the wild last lap in Watkins Glen dropped him four positions to twenty-third. He jumped back up to twentieth before falling a spot to twenty-first after Bristol.
*My grade for David making the Chase: C+ Slightly possible, but unlikely. If David is going to take advantage of his win, first and foremost he needs to get back into the top 20. After that, he needs a second win to give him a realistic chance.
22nd - Marcos Ambrose
Marcos's first season with Richard Petty Motorsports has had some very encouraging highlights, but enough low spots to put them outside the top 20 in points with an 18.2 average. He has eight top 10 finishes, including a tenth at Bristol, and just as many finishes below 25th. The win in Watkins Glen was enough to give him a glimmer of hope to make the Chase, even as surprising as that would be.
*My grade for Marcos making the Chase: C Unlikely, but slightly possible. To make the Chase, Marcos faces the same situation as David Ragan, but it is more difficult considering he needs to pass two people and has a team that isn't considered as one of the elite. Still, he only sits four points out of 20th and anything can happen.
So now that I have laid out what would need to happen for each individual driver, I will tell you what I think is going to happen. Based off Tony Stewart's inconsistent performance and Brad Keselowski's momentum, I think that Brad will knock Tony out of the top 10. All hope is not lost for Tony if Juan Pablo Montoya moves into the top 20, keeping those three with wins out of contention for the wild card slot and the other drivers without a win don't pick up one. That isn't what I think will happen though. Denny Hamlin is pretty much assured of a Chase slot, leaving one more available. It is my opinion (and hope) that Paul Menard will be able to turn things around enough so that he will be able to cash in his Brickyard win and make the Chase.
Well here we are standing on the line between the first two thirds of the season and the last third. We've seen a lot of great racing, some surprises and I think there is more of that to come. So strap in and hang on. These next two weeks are going to get wild!
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