WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — official release — John Harrelson/NASCAR via Getty Images photo — Five races on five very different tracks.
That’s what faces the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and the 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. For 11 drivers, it’s all or nothing time. For those 11 drivers with wins – and therefore a likely Chase spot – a victory means three more bonus points tacked onto their total to start the Chase.
But, really, these next five races are all about the winless. There are some big names out there battling for their playoff lives – Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle. If the Chase started today, only Biffle would make it among the three perennial Chasers.
So while this might not be panic time, there’s a definite sense of urgency – and a big, shiny opportunity on Sunday afternoon.
For some, Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen might be the last best hope at a spot in NASCAR’s playoffs. Here’s a look at some of the favorites, and their chances:
Marcos Ambrose: The series’ unofficial “road course ringer” has waited for this opportunity since his eighth-place finish at Sonoma (which, for him, might as well have been a 38th-place finish). However, put the Glen a notch above Sonoma in the Ambrose track hierarchy. He’s won two of the last three races there, and besides a wreck-marred 31st place finish last season, he has never finished worse than third.
Tony Stewart: The king of Watkins Glen, Stewart boasts five wins at the Glen, the most all-time at the update New York road course. His last two finishes were outside the top 10, but he has scored a driver rating above 100 in six of the last seven races at Watkins Glen.
AJ Allmendinger: Last year, Allmendinger went 2-for-2 at road courses in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, so he knows how to win at this style. At Watkins Glen, he’s finished in the top 10 in each of the last three races. He led 35 laps at Sonoma before finishing 35th.
Martin Truex Jr.: He could sneak up on the field in this one. The 2014 season has been mostly a slog for Truex, but one win could erase all ills. Currently 26th in points, a win is pretty much the only means of advancement into the Chase. It’s not impossible. After all, he won last year at Sonoma and finished in the top 10 in each of the last three Watkins Glen races (including third last year).
Kasey Kahne: Kahne has a Sonoma win on his record, but it’s a different story at Watkins Glen. In 10 starts there, he has yet to score a top-10 finish. He has a ton of momentum on his side, however, with five top-10 finishes in the last seven races.
Greg Biffle: Biffle is coming off only his third top five finish of the season. That’s the good news. The not so good news: With an average finish of 23.1, the Glen ranks as his worst track.
You know who’s NOT rooting for any of the above drivers? Guys with one win. Let’s explain…
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick have all clinched a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, assuming they attempt to qualify for the remaining five races.
A number of scenarios can play out this weekend at Watkins Glen in terms of future clinches.
If there is a repeat 2014 winner this weekend, any driver with one win and a locked-up top 30 spot will clinch a spot in the Chase. Potentials: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch.
Why? Well, there would be 11 different winners with four races to go. The maximum number of different winners could then be 15. No matter what, a winner would lock up a spot – even in the unlikely event the points leader is winless.
If there is a new winner, all bets are off. Kyle Busch, the highest ranked of the one-win drivers, could potentially lock up a spot with only one win (though it would be difficult). If currently winless Matt Kenseth wins, he could be high enough in points to clinch a spot, even though it would be his first win. Same applies to Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer. For Kenseth, Newman and Bowyer, a win would clinch them if they have enough points to guarantee a points position ahead of the lowest ranked winner after Richmond.
The sands of time are running out. Translation: it’s win or go home time.