Crunch Time

Brad Keselowski Suffered Engine Failure with 18 Laps to Go

Currently 28 points outside the top 10, Brad Keselowski remains eligible for a top-10 spot. Keselowski must win at Richmond to be in contention for a Wild Card spot. (photo courtesy: Jeff Zelevansky, GETTY IMAGES SPORT)

You may be under the impression that it’s a fete accompli and that five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson is on course to receive his sixth title at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday, November 17. 

If that’s the case, you clearly haven’t been paying attention for the past three weeks. The No. 48 held nearly a two-race lead heading into Watkins Glen International the second weekend in August.  That giant lead has all but evaporated.  In fact, Johnson’s lead, wasn’t a lead at all last Sunday at Atlanta, when Clint Bowyer led the field and overtook the season points lead temporarily before engine troubles befell him. 
 
Johnson still maintains a 28-point lead over Bowyer heading into Saturday’s night’s Richmond contest.  No one I know is foolish enough to count Johnson out.  However, his rough August makes him vulnerable – and gives a huge mental boost to the drivers hunting him down.  Now, it will require him to rebound in a big way if he wants to close the season on top come Miami.  In fact, as things stand now he wouldn’t even be the top seed if the Chase were starting.  Johnson needs to win Saturday to match Matt Kenseth and his five season wins in order to garner the most points for the reseeding.

The Johnson story will play out.  For now, there are plenty of other stories to watch unfold before we even get to the final 10 races.  Saturday’s contest is appropriately dubbed “One Last Race to Make The Chase” before the 10-driver and two Wild Card field is set. 
 
Seven drivers –Johnson, Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Kenseth and Kasey Kahne – have clinched Chase spots, leaving five spots to fill among 10 drivers. 
 
All of it will be settled during 400 miles of short track racing Saturday night (ABC-TV, MRN Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Channel).  You can’t ask for more subplots and drama in a single race.  The storylines are rich, including last year’s champion, Brad Keselowski, fighting for the chance to defend his crown.  Two other former champions, Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon, will be battling for their playoff lives this weekend as well. 
 
You definitely want to pay attention now! To help you, here’s a primer on what’s at stake on the final weekend before NASCAR’s version of the playoffs commence.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., currently seventh in points, will clinch a top-10 spot with a finish of 32nd or better, 33rd with at least one lap led or 34th with the most laps led.
 
Joey Logano, currently eighth in points, will clinch a top-10 spot with a finish of 11th or better, 12th and at least one lap led or 13th and the most laps led.
 
Greg Biffle, currently ninth in points, will clinch a top-10 spot with a finish of ninth or better, 10th and at least one lap led or 11th and the most laps led.
 
Kurt Busch, currently 10th in points, will clinch a top-10 spot by winning, finishing second with at least one lap led or finishing third with the most laps led.
 
The remaining mathematically eligible drivers need help to clinch a top-10 spot. Some, however, control their own Wild Card destiny (a win would guarantee at least a Wild Card spot).
 
Clinch scenarios for the remaining eligible drivers:
 
Jeff Gordon:  Currently 11th in points, Gordon would clinch at least a Wild Card spot with a victory at Richmond. Gordon, currently six points outside the top 10, remains eligible for a top 10 spot.
 
Kasey Kahne: Kahne, currently 12th in points, has already clinched at least a Wild Card spot. Ten points outside the top 10, Kahne remains eligible for a top 10 spot.
 
Martin Truex Jr.: Currently 13th in points, Truex would clinch at least a Wild Card spot with a victory at Richmond. Fifteen points outside the top 10, Truex remains eligible for a top 10 spot. Truex, currently holding the provisional No. 2 Wild Card spot, could clinch a Wild Card spot without a victory.
 
Ryan Newman: Currently 14th in points, Newman would clinch at least a Wild Card spot with a victory at Richmond. Twenty points outside the top 10, Newman remains eligible for a top 10 spot. Newman could clinch a Wild Card spot without a win (Logano and Biffle must remain in the top 10 or be replaced by Kahne; Newman must out-point Truex by six points; Gordon must not win; and Brad Keselowski or Jamie McMurray cannot win and overtake Newman).
 
Brad Keselowski: Currently 28 points outside the top 10, Keselowski remains eligible for a top-10 spot. Currently winless, Keselowski must win to be in contention for a Wild Card spot. Mathematically there will be at least two drivers outside the top 10 with wins. To clinch, Keselowski would need to win and outpoint Truex by 13 and Newman by eight (and would only need to outpoint one of these drivers if Kahne would displace a winless driver from the top 10). If Truex or Newman displaces Kurt Busch from the top 10, he would need to outpoint the other one-win driver remaining outside the top 10 by the requisite amount.
 
Jamie McMurray: Currently 39 points outside the top 10, McMurray remains eligible for a top-10 spot. Currently winless, McMurray must win to be in contention for a Wild Card spot. To clinch, McMurray would need to win and outpoint either Truex by 25 and Newman by 19 (and would only need to outpoint one of these drivers if Kahne would displace a winless driver from the top 10).  If Truex or Newman displace Kurt Busch from the top 10, he would need to outpoint the other one-win driver remaining outside the top 10 by the requisite amount.
 
Paul Menard: To clinch, Menard would need to win and outpoint Truex by 47 and Newman by 42 (and would only need to outpoint one of these drivers if Kahne would displace a winless driver from the top 10).  If Truex or Newman displace Kurt Busch from the top 10, he would need to outpoint the other one-win driver remaining outside the top 10 by the requisite amount.

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