In late April, I released an early season "stock report," where I took a look at three drivers: one up, one down and one that was all-around. Coming off the midseason bye week, it's crunch time in the Sprint Cup Series. There are only seven races left before the unofficial postseason of NASCAR.
Jimmie Johnson is running off with the points. His four wins, along with the four of Matt Kenseth, more or less guarantee them a Chase spot. However, while the No. 48 might be uncontested at the top, this year's Chase field is as murky as it's ever been.
Johnson leads second-place Bowyer by 56 points. By comparison, Kasey Kahne holds the 10th automatic Chase spot, and he's just 46 points in front of the three-way tie of Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Paul Menard, who rank 18-20 in the final positions for a possible Chase Wild Card. To put that in perspective, it's mathematically possible that the 20th-ranked driver could jump the 10th-ranked in a single race.
All these drivers should be on red alert for the opportunity to make the Chase. In many cases, a win could have a huge impact on the Chase field. Of course, it's not out of the question for any of the drivers ranked 11-20 to clinch via a top-10 standing.
Here are three drivers whose stock has noticeably changed in recent weeks:
This would have better written before he got spun at New Hampshire last week, as he had driven Furniture Row Racing into the top-10 in the standings. (He fell to 14th after a 31st-place finish.) It wasn't a good points day, but Busch led the most laps at NHMS. It marked the second time in four weeks that he seemed to have the car to beat, after missing the win at Sonoma due to back-to-back speeding penalties.
I hadn't given Busch much of a chance to make the Chase entering the season, but if he keeps this roll going, I think he'll finish in the top-10. That said, he still needs to close out one of these good days with a win to give himself a safety blanket should he stagger short of the top-10. The Camping World RV Sales 301 was a stark reminder of just how quickly fortunes can change.
The news that he would not return to Stewart-Haas Racing was disappointing, and the fact that he's in the midst of his second also-ran season hasn't helped matters. NHMS should have been an opportunity to spring himself back into contention, but it wasn't.
Despite having claimed a track-record six poles (Jeff Gordon also has six, but two were by rule book), Newman wasn't fast and qualified 15th. He raced his way up to the top-10, but was swept up in a wreck and finished 39th. It's looking unlikely that he makes a Chase run this year.
The defending champion climbed four spots from 13th to 9th in the standings, thanks to his fourth-place finish at NHMS. He'd fallen off miserably before that. After starting the season with seven top-10s in the first eight races, the finish at Loudon was just the second top-10 in 11 races.
He doesn't have the luxury of a win to help seal a Wild Card spot. Sure, he's capable of winning anywhere, he needs to win somewhere soon if he wants to do right with his title defense and take it into the postseason. There are three drivers within eight points of him in the standings, so he shouldn't view his current standing inside the top-10 as a relief, he should view it as a lifeline.