NASCAR’s “new” Chase is changing the way we look at the course of a driver’s season. It used to be all 26 races were taken into account while judging success or failure. Now? Just one checkered flag will make the difference, both with shop morale and in the boardroom.
This week’s example is one Carl Edwards, victorious at Charlotte after a fuel mileage gamble stole the show at the end of NASCAR’s longest race. Those 600 miles have now turned the driver’s season into a success story. He’s got the playoff bid all sponsors are looking for, three-plus months to test for the postseason and that all-important Sprint Cup victory.
However, take a look at what Edwards’ season would look like under the “old” NASCAR point system, where there was no playoff and your year was judged over a full 36-race schedule. Edwards sits 16th in points, without a race finish better than 10th before Sunday’s Charlotte surprise. He had two finishes of 31st or worse, showed less speed than teammates Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth while struggling at was once his biggest strength: intermediate tracks. This win, while a sure sign of a turnaround, still leaves him a whopping 161 points behind current leader Kevin Harvick. Without a NASCAR playoff, his goal would have been to finish 10th in points — not make a run to win it all at Homestead.
Instead, Edwards now has as much of a chance to take home that hardware as Harvick, who’s earned himself 11 top-10 finishes through the season’s first 12 races. Edwards, by comparison has only two, yet has the resources to compete well in a 10-race playoff. How would fans react if one of these inconsistent seasons somehow scrounges up the ability to pull a trophy out of their hat in the season finale?
NASCAR has had a postseason now for a dozen years. So why does it still always feel like it’s imperfect?
Through the gears we go...
FIRST GEAR: A New Team Beats a Former Friend
For Carl Edwards, Sunday’s win brought confidence his move from Roush Fenway Racing this offseason was the right one. Jumping to Joe Gibbs Racing this season has been a bit of a rollercoaster, but crew chief Darian Grubb knew the right strategy to pull down the stretch. The decision to stretch fuel in the No. 19 car left him battling with former teammate Greg Biffle of RFR down the stretch. It was probably Biffle’s best chance to make the Chase this season, putting up a strong fight until his No. 16 car lost fuel pressure over the final two laps of the race.
Now, Edwards can breathe a sigh of relief as a postseason bid is assured months before the pressure to earn one ramps up.
“I’ve been doing this long enough to know that you’re a lot better off to go to the races in the position that we’re going to go now,” he said. “You go there a little more relaxed. I can let Darian and these guys work on what they’re good at, making the cars better and figuring out the communication… it’s a huge opportunity for us.”
Considering this veteran’s strength on 1.5-mile ovals, tracks which make up five of the 10 Chase races, this team cannot be counted out once the postseason begins in September.
SECOND GEAR: Joe Gibbs Racing Makes its Statement
Carl Edwards may have led the pack but Joe Gibbs Racing had plenty of other success stories at Charlotte. Denny Hamlin, although needing fluids after the race, was eighth and won the All-Star Race at the track the week before. Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch also finished inside the top 11 during the Coca-Cola 600.
While Hendrick equipment and chassis appear to still have more raw speed JGR is gaining on their rivals. They also now have three of their four drivers in the Chase, allowing them to focus on Busch and the No. 18 Toyota for much of the rest of the regular season. Busch, making his return this month, needs a win and to climb inside the top 30 in points in order to make the postseason like everyone else. His 11th-place result at Charlotte was a good start.
THIRD GEAR: Opposite Ends of the Spectrum for Stewart-Haas Racing
While they didn’t win Sunday, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick continue to run circles around the competition at intermediate tracks. Combined, they’ve led 715 laps at these 1.5- and 2-mile ovals, blowing away the rest of their competition. (Hendrick Motorsports, next in line has led just 292). But in the wacky world of Stewart-Haas Racing, all those moments up front have come from only Busch and Harvick. Know how many laps Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick have led during that stretch?
The inability for either driver to get going is puzzling considering how much success their teammates are having across the way. Patrick, after struggling All-Star Race weekend, was never a factor Sunday and ran 22nd, two laps off the pace. Her fourth straight finish outside the top 20 has dropped her five positions in the point standings, down to 18th and she’s now on the fringes of Chase contention. What will that mean for her NASCAR career as she sits sponsor-less for 2016? Will she be dumped or used elsewhere within the Stewart-Haas organization? (I.E. - Formula One)
As for Stewart, he could barely do better, clocking in 21st to remain a lowly 30th in series points. The three-time champion is now a whopping 134 points behind Paul Menard for a Chase spot with 14 races remaining. That means it’s “win or bust” as far as the postseason is concerned. At this rate, crew chief Chad Johnston should go radical with both strategy and setups. What’s the point of trying to run 15th instead of 25th? There’s still a chance for Smoke to salvage his season but it’ll have to happen at short tracks like Bristol or even the road courses of Sonoma and Watkins Glen.
FOURTH GEAR: Race to the Chase Redefined
Carl Edwards’ win didn’t just lock in a “bubble” driver into the postseason field; it also brought clarity to the Chase race entering the regular season’s second half. The Cup Series now has nine winners through its first 12 races, all virtually guaranteed a spot: Edwards, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. That leaves seven spots remaining for drivers to either win or get in on points.
Looking at the standings, there are three drivers who have flashed the speed to win and should do so within the next three months: Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, and Martin Truex Jr. Should Kyle Busch be able to break through, charging toward the top 30 in points, we’d have 13 of the 16 spots filled. That would leave Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard and Aric Almirola to fight for the final three spots based on points. Menard, last in that group, has a 40-point edge on Clint Bowyer, the next winless driver and has finally flashed the consistency this year to stay out in front.
What about other drivers not mentioned, like Bowyer, Danica Patrick, Greg Biffle, AJ Allmendinger and Kyle Larson? So far down in the standings, their path forward to the postseason is simple: Win. Win. Win. Trying to point their way forward, with just 14 races left, will be difficult based on their inconsistency to date.
We’ve said it many times in this space, but how much longer will Roush Fenway Racing put up with underperforming Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne? While teammate Greg Biffle ran second Sunday, neither Stenhouse Jr. nor Bayne were so much as sniffing the top 20 by the checkered flag… The 22 lead changes over 600 miles at Charlotte paled in comparison to the 37 made over Sunday’s Indy 500. No wonder INDYCAR beat NASCAR in Sunday’s ratings by a whopping 16 percent … Edwards, despite a history of success at intermediates had never won at Charlotte in a Cup car prior to Sunday night.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.