By Matt Weaver — For the drivers currently sitting on the Chase bubble, the playoffs have already begun. The next two weekends at Atlanta and Richmond could define their seasons and every track session from here on out will have a tremendous amount of impact.
Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon are at the heart of the battle and run 11th-13th in the championship standings. More importantly, each one of them have gone winless through the first 24 races and must get to victory lane or get back in the top-10 to secure a Chase spot.
The top-10 drivers, plus two others with the most wins from 11th to 20th in the standings will earn a spot in the 10-race playoff system.
Contenders like Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth have already clinched a spot and have nothing to lose by going for wins. But those on the bubble, including current wild card holders Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman have to balance competitiveness and the risk of getting involved in an accident.
It’s a tough spot because one bad race can undo a month’s worth of work.
Busch has fought his way back into the top-10 but had a myriad of tire problems before finishing 31st on Saturday night at Bristol. That dropped him out of the top-10 to 12th and six points out of a Chase spot.
“The Chase for us started a few weeks back,” Busch said on Friday. “We’ve had to be perfect and run sixth and run third and run these top-5s against the stats every week. When we had a week like last week with the right-rear hub falling off while we are leading the race — those things are tough to overcome.”
Gordon can relate.
He fought his way back into a Chase spot after consecutive top-10s at Indianapolis and Pocono. But an accident and 36th place at Watkins Glen negated all of it.
He was out of the Chase picture until each of his rivals crashed on Saturday, leaving him satisfied with a seventh-place result. He’s now back to 13th and 11 points out but may have to do the rest of the work himself. And he has before, translating second-place finishes at Atlanta and Richmond last year to rally his way into the Chase.
And then there’s Keselowski, who just one year ago was setting the stage for his epic championship run. He’s also gone winless this season but understands that the momentum of just making the Chase could easily parlay into a championship run.
“If we come out guns ablaze these next two races, we’ll get that confidence real quick, and I think we are positioned to do that.”
Who makes the Chase may depend on a case of Musical Chairs as the three have rotated turns In the top-10 over the past two months and it all comes down to two races. Who will have a chair when the song stops playing? The next two weeks will decide.