With 13 races completed in the Sprint Cup Series season and 13 to go before the start of the Chase for the Championship, the playoff picture is starting to take shape.
For drivers like Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, the second half of their regular season should be on cruise control. Unless they suffer catastrophic failures in the next three months, all four can worry more about getting cars and setups ready for the Chase.
For drivers like Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr., they currently are comfortably on track to make the final cut for the playoffs. All of them, however, still have some issues to resolve in the next 13 races if they’re going to be championship contenders.
And drivers like Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman need a big push down the stretch to be in position to hang onto a spot in the top 10 or qualify for one of two wild-card spots.
Starting with Sunday’s Party in the Poconos 400, there will be a lot of different agendas. While everyone will be looking to win at the 2.5-mile triangle-shaped raceway, the approaches certainly will vary.
Those who aren’t comfortably among the top 10 in the point standings will have to take more chances to make up lost ground.
Every win in the next 13 races could be the difference between qualifying for the Chase or being part of the supporting cast during the final 10 races.
Those outside the top 10 will need a minimum of one victory to be in line to earn one of two wild card entries.
“It’s like, wait a minute the season was just getting started, but at the same time here we are, it’s June and away we go. The next few races will be tough for us,” Kurt Busch said.
Drivers are divided into four groups as they approach the second half of the regular season: Those who are safely in, those who are likely in, those who need a surge in the next 13 races and those who already are out of it.
With three wins Kenseth will make the Chase. Even if he drops from fourth place in the current standings, he still will get in as a wild card. The same goes for Johnson, Harvick and Kyle Busch. They all have two victories apiece.
“Right now we are just racing on a week to week basis and the performance of the cars has been good,” Harvick said. “We have been able to get to Victory Lane four times, two points races, so I think we are in a good position to contend for it. Everybody is focused on the job and task at hand to be able to put ourselves in position to try to do that. I don’t see why not.”
The list of likely candidates is long. It includes Kahne, Edwards, Bowyer and Earnhardt Jr., as well as defending series champion Brad Keselowski.
While they all are in the top 10, each haven’t had the type of consistency that generally leads to a championship.
But there’s plenty of time to fix it.
“Right now it’s all about the status quo,” Bowyer said. “We have to continue to improve on our program and we need to get closer to leading more laps and obviously winning. Right now fourth in points, it’s all about maintaining that points base, continuing to improve and getting closer to that Chase at full stride.”
The group that needs a significant push in points and wins include drivers like Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Truex and Ryan Newman. Jeff Gordon, Paul Menard, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, Aric Almirola and Joey Logano also belong in this group because they, too, lack any real consistency.
“We’re doing everything we can and if we come up short then we come up short, there’s nothing we’re going to be able to do about it,” Hamlin said.
Stewart won last week at Dover, Del., but that’s been the exception to the rule. He heads into Pocono 16th in points.
“It’s a bigger deal to me to get our program turned around to where if we have the opportunity to get in the Chase that we have – our goal is not just to make the Chase,” he said. “Our goal is to be championship contenders.”
With the regular season already at the midpoint, time is running out to find the answers.