In stock-car racing circles, they call this part of the schedule “the chase for the Chase.”
While the NASCAR Sprint Cup’s “Chase for the Championship” doesn’t officially kick off until Sept. 15, drivers and their teams take into account the month that comes before the Chase.
The next four races will likely play a major factor in determining drivers who will contend for the championship and the angling, many feel, begins this weekend at Michigan International Speedway, which will host Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series Michigan National Guard 200 and Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400.
“The most important thing for me is to get into that top 10 and not have to use a wild card,” said Kasey Kahne, one of two drivers currently in a wild-card spot for the Chase. “In order to do that, we need to be consistent. It would be great to get another win and get some more of the bonus points when the Chase does start.”
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Sunday’s Sprint Cup race is exactly four weeks from the start of the the Chase at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. — the final 10 races of the 2013 Sprint Cup season — and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson earned a berth in the 12-driver field by finishing eighth last Sunday in the Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International.
The top 10 drivers in the Sprint Cup points standings and two wild-card drivers (who earn the final two spots by virtue of points combined with the most race wins), qualify for the Chase and contend for the Sprint Cup championship. Kahne and Ryan Newman are currently the top two drivers in contention for a wild-card spot, and Newman’s bid for the chase at an unusual time in his career. Stewart-Haas Racing — owned by Tony Stewart — announced last month that Newman will not drive for the organization after this season.
Kahne, meanwhile, looks to help his cause; he was involved in a six-car wreck last weekend at Watkins Glen and finished 34th in the race. He dropped from eighth to 12th in the standings.
“We lost tons and tons of points,” Kahne said of the accident. “It doesn’t sit well with me at all.
“We’re trying to get in the Chase and it hurts when you get wiped out while you’re minding your own business. There’s nothing you can do about it, but I’m not pleased.”
After he finished second in the Cheez-It 355, defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski expressed confidence in his chances at qualifying for the Chase. Keselowski is eighth in the Sprint Cup points standings but has only two top-10 finishes in eight career starts at MIS.
“With the exception of Michigan I would say I feel very, very strongly about how we're going to finish out the race to the Chase,” said Keselowski, a native of Rochester Hills, Mich.
“We ran very strongly at Bristol in the spring and have a great track record there. At Atlanta, we just came off a tire test, and that went very, very well, and we have a team-specific Richmond test coming up in a week and a half.
“Michigan has been one of our weaker tracks. The repaved style of track hasn't been one of my favorites or go-tos, but we're very optimistic that we can at least get a solid finish.”
Martin Truex, Jr., is 10th in the points standings and enters Sunday’s race with confidence. However, he looks at the bigger picture.
“There's a lot of things that can happen in four races,” said Truex, who finished third at June’s Quicken Loans 400 at MIS. “We just need to keep doing what we've been doing and keep racing hard. It seems like this year every time we got ourselves in a comfortable position in points, we had a really bad weekend, out of our control, places like Daytona and engine problems and things that we've had throughout the year. The points are what they are. We're just going to go racing and try to do what we know how to do.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.