Take a deep breath because y ou’re going to need it.
The wild finish on Sunday at Pocono Raceway served as the perfect prelude for what is to come over the next month and a half — the Race to the Chase. While much has occurred since the season started in February at Daytona Beach, there are still many questions that need answering before the playoffs begin at Chicagoland Speedway.
With that in mind, here are five major stories to follow for the remainder of the regular season.
Will Kyle Busch Make the Chase?
The answer to this question is a resounding “yes.”
The fact that NASCAR hasn’t yet included him in the provisional Chase Grid is a mere formality and a reminder that he is still 23 points out of the top-30 with five races remaining. The more relevant question is whether or not Kyle Busch will enter as the top-seeded driver.
Despite missing the first 11 events of the season due to his violent crash at Daytona, Busch has come back stronger than ever — winning four times in 10 starts. His four trips to Victory Lane are tied with Jimmie Johnson for the most in the sport and he will enter the Chase as the top seed should they stay even.
However, safe money is on Busch winning again as the remaining tracks read like a Rowdy playground — especially Watkins Glen and Richmond. Instead of just making the Chase (or capturing the top seed) shouldn’t we all be asking if Busch can win the whole shebang?
Can Hendrick Motorsports Catch Back Up?
No team looked more prepared to contend for a championship during the first half of the season than Hendrick Motorsports. The same applied to its proxy satellite partners at Stewart Haas Racing. Jimmie Johnson won four times in the first 13 starts while Kevin Harvick spent much of the year finishing either first or second.
Even though he has only won at Talladega and Daytona, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had championship level consistency while Kurt Busch has also won twice for the SHR branch.
But Joe Gibbs Racing has turned the table over the past two months, having won five out of the past six events — an Earnhardt victory at Daytona in July representing their only blemish.
It’s not like Hendrick has been bad (Indianapolis notwithstanding) but Gibbs and Toyota have raised the bar to such a degree that Hendrick is now playing the role of pursuer entering the most important stretch of the year.
Jeff Gordon is still without a win in his final season while Kasey Kahne finds himself on the Chase Bubble for the second year in a row. So HMS needs to do some homework in advance of the Chase for the Championship.
What’s wrong with Tony Stewart?
On one hand, this seems like an insensitive and stupid question — Stewart hasn’t been the same since returning from the tragedy that occurred this weekend a year ago at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York.
On the other hand, Stewart has insisted to the media this year that he is in a good place emotionally and just hasn’t gelled with the current competition package. That certainly has a lot of merit as Stewart is used to driving loose-handling and high-powered race cars throughout his career as opposed to the high downforce and high stability cars presently used at the highest level of the sport.
Due to the current championship format, Stewart still has a chance to make the Chase for the Championship. At 25th in the standings, that won’t happen based on points, but he should be considered a contender this weekend at Watkins Glen (where he has five wins and a 7.93 average finish) or at Darlington with a package that better suits his driving style.
Will NASCAR Implement a New Package for the Chase?
NASCAR has given us mixed signals to this question. At times, officials from both the Charlotte and Daytona offices have stated that they foresee no changes to the standard competition package for the final 10 races of the season. At other times, both Steve O’Donnell and Robin Pemberton have said every option remains on the table.
The answer probably depends on what happens in two weeks at Michigan and four weeks at Darlington with as NASCAR further experiments with the super high drag and lower downforce formulas respectively.
The lower downforce technical regulations used at Kentucky received high praise from everyone in the industry and those watching at home. It will next used again at Darlington and would likely put on fantastic show at Chicagoland beneath the bright Illinois Sun.
But would NASCAR be willing to throw a curveball at their teams before the playoffs?
What will happen to Michael Waltrip Racing?
The answer to this question may get dragged out until after the regular season but those working at MWR need to know soon as the sport approaches the opening weeks of Silly Season. No doubt, Michael Waltrip (without the benefits of a merger) will be looking to NASCAR to institute a franchising model to give his team value.
MWR, despite the controversy at Daytona and Richmond over the years, is still one of the most interesting and downright fun teams in the sport. Losing it would be a significant blow to the industry and the implications of a closure would be far-reaching.
And oh by the way, there is that lingering question of who is actually going to make the Chase this year too. Business, as they say, is fixin’ to pick up in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
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