Cool Down Lap: Who's in the Chase?

Cool Down Lap: Who's in the Chase?

Cool Down Lap: Who's in the Chase?
Sporting News

You don't have to wait nine more weeks to find out who's going to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup.

I'll tell you right now.

I'll also tell you who won't be in the top 35 in owner points at the end of the year and, consequently, why the entire landscape of Toyota's Nextel Cup effort will see dramatic changes for next season.

First, to cut to the Chase, you need look no farther than the points report NASCAR furnished after Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway.

What that tells you, first of all, is that the top eight drivers in points right now -- Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick -- are going to be in the Chase when the cutoff comes at Richmond in September.

Do the math. Harvick, in eighth place, is 507 points behind Gordon, the series leader, but he's 248 points ahead of Ryan Newman in 13th, the first position outside Chase eligibility. Jamie McMurray in 14th is 305 behind Harvick, and 15th-place Kurt Busch trails the Daytona 500 winner by 357.

Mathematically, it might be possible for one of those three drivers to supplant Harvick, but it's not going to happen. Trust me.

Now look at positions nine through 12, occupied by Chevrolet drivers Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt is 628 points behind Gordon, but he's 127 ahead of Newman (Dodge), 184 ahead of McMurray (Ford) and 236 ahead of Kurt Busch (Dodge).

On paper, of course, it's possible for any of the four drivers in ninth through 12th to fall out of the Chase, but again, it's not going to happen.

The rich will keep getting richer, and drivers currently in the top 12 will still be in the top 12 after Richmond, without exception.

The rationale is simple. The introduction of the Car of Tomorrow has created a caste system in Nextel Cup -- those who have an edge in testing and development of the COT, and those who don't.

From a team standpoint, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Richard Childress Racing have their COT programs hitting on all cylinders. From a manufacturer standpoint, Chevy is at the vanguard in the development of the new car.

Chevy drivers swept the top eight positions at New Hampshire, and seven of those drivers belong to one of the four teams mentioned above, Jeff Green being the exception (though the team that field's Green's cars, Haas CNC Racing, is a Hendrick affiliate).

Note also that 12 of the drivers currently in the top 13 in the standings also finished in the top 13 at NHIS, with the only exception being Bowyer, who had trouble with an oil cooler line. That's hardly a coincidence -- just more evidence that the chasm will widen between 12th place and those below the cutoff.

The teams that are performing well now will continue to do so -- sufficiently, at least, to solidify their positions in the Chase. So when Richmond rolls around, we won't see a battle for the final spot. The suspense and drama of 2006, when Kasey Kahne edged Tony Stewart by 16 points in the race for the 10th and final position (before the Chase was increased to 12 drivers), simply won't be there this year.

There won't be any suspense about who makes the top 35 in owner points, either. Failing to qualify for the Lenox Industrial Tools 300 was a devastating blow for 36th-place Scott Riggs' Evernham Motorsports team, which fell 182 points behind the No. 70 Haas CNC Chevy driven by Johnny Sauter.

New Hampshire polesitter Dave Blaney, 37th in owner points, is 188 back of Sauter, and the Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford, currently driven by Bill Elliott, is 219 points behind Sauter in 38th position. Those are the only three cars with a remote possibility of unseating the No. 70.

But again, it won't happen, and that's the crux of Toyota's problem. As it stands now, Toyota will start the 2008 season in worse shape than it started 2007 -- with no teams in the top 35 in owner points.

Blaney was in the top 35 in 2006 and therefore was guaranteed a starting spot in the first five races this year. Dale Jarrett will still have six past champion's provisionals to use next year -- based on a lot of assumptions: that NASCAR doesn't amend the past champion's rule, that Jarrett still drives a Toyota and Michael Waltrip Racing still exists.

That's not the sort of progress Toyota will find acceptable in its second season. Blaney's pole at New Hampshire, Toyota's first in the Cup Series, certainly was an oasis on a generally barren landscape, but the current predicament of Toyota brings urgency to the carmaker's courtship of Joe Gibbs Racing.

Toyota needs a team with marquee stars who are guaranteed to race. From Gibbs' standpoint, the organization would move from second, third or fourth in Chevy's pecking order -- depending on how heavily you weight performance, history and sentiment -- to elite status as Toyota's flagship team.

For Gibbs, it's a tempting proposition.

For Toyota, it's a necessity.

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