NASCAR is unique among American sports leagues, especially when it comes to the playoffs. Whether it be Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NHL or the NBA, once the end of the regular season comes, it is only those few teams who have clinched a playoff berth that continue. For the rest, they can pack up the gear and unpack the golf clubs as the off-season has begun.
Last weekend in Richmond, the Sprint Cup regular season came to a close, and the sixteen drivers who will compete for a championship were determined. (The XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series Chases will be finalized this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.) In other sports, those teams would be the only ones to compete for the remainder of the season. Not so in NASCAR.
Through the final races of 2016, every team that can qualify for a race will continue to compete and could still have an impact. While logic might suggest those capable of winning an individual race might have already done so through the course of the regular season or at least been consistent enough to make it into the Chase on points, there will be those in the field ready to play spoiler and could have a huge impact on the Chase.
Take, for example, Ryan Blaney. The driver of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford may not have been able to point his way into the Chase, but it wouldn’t be impossible to envision Blaney becoming another rookie to grab their first Cup win before season’s end. With a win in the playoffs allowing for Chase drivers to advance to the next round, a Blaney win could be a huge barrier for someone struggling in points who needs a win to keep their championship hopes alive.
At the same time, a non-Chase driver could end up having an adverse impact on the Chase. Imagine a scenario in which Matt DiBenedetto blows a tire at Dover and begins a wreck that includes Kyle Busch. Without meaning to, DiBenedetto could end Busch’s championship defense in the first round.
Of course, that’s not to say drivers couldn’t or wouldn’t intentionally derail another’s Chase chances. Last year, Matt Kenseth wrecked Joey Logano at Martinsville, ending Logano’s promising season and his chance at a championship. The incident stemmed from an earlier collision between the two drivers at Kansas, when Logano had spun Kenseth, leading to the latter’s eventual Chase elimination.
Before the first Chase race of 2016, there are already tempers flaring. Kenseth and Logano’s teammate, Brad Keselowski are already at odds, and no one can forget the physical fight between Cole Custer and John Hunter Nemechek in the truck series. There’s little doubt that Custer may have something to say about Nemechek’s chances in the Chase.
Welcome to the Chase 2016, where every driver in the field has a part to play.
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