The 12 contenders in this year’s chase for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup were finalised in Saturday night’s 400-mile race on the one-mile Richmond oval. The ‘Chase for the Cup’ takes place over the last 10 races of NASCAR’s marathon 36-race season, starting next weekend on the high-banked 1.5-mile Chicagoland oval.
The Richmond race was won by Kevin Harvick, who scored his fourth win of the year in one of Richard Childress’s trio of Chevrolets. Harvick was chased home by Carl Edwards aboard his Roush-Fenway Ford, with Jeff Gordon taking third place in his Hendrick Chevrolet. Championship leader Kyle Busch finished sixth in one of Joe Gibbs’ Toyotas, so Busch and Harvick go into the Chase as top seeds, both with four wins.
Although Busch and Harvick have won NASCAR’s second-division Nationwide championship, neither have claimed a Sprint Cup title. Busch, 26, is considered NASCAR’s fastest driver and is this year’s championship favourite. He’s been racing Cup cars for eight years and this is his fourth season with Joe Gibbs’ team. Harvick, 36, is in his eleventh year in the Cup series, all with Childress, after replacing Dale Earnhardt following his death at Daytona in 2001.
The 12 championship contenders are seeded based on wins. All start the 10-race Chase with 5000 points, plus an additional 10 points for each win scored in the first 26 races of the season. Busch and Edwards thus go to Chicago next weekend with 5040 points, followed by four-time champion Jeff Gordon on 5030 points.
Seeded fourth is 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth, who’s won two races so far this season in one of four Roush-Fenway Fords. Kenseth’s team-mate Carl Edwards is next up with one win and is grouped with defending champion Jimmie Johnson (Hendrick Chevrolet), Kurt Busch (Penske Dodge) and Ryan Newman (Stewart-Haas Chevrolet).
Completing the top 10 are Tony Stewart (Stewart-Haas Chevrolet) and Dale Earnhardt Jr (Hendrick Chevrolet). Neither Stewart nor Earnhardt have won during this year’s first 26 races. Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin round out the 12 Chase contenders. Keselowski has shown plenty of ability, winning three races in his second full Cup season with Roger Penske’s Dodge team. Hamlin has scored one victory this year aboard his Joe Gibbs Toyota.
This is the eighth year for the Chase for the Cup and, contrived or not, the system does help keep the championship open down to the last race in November at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. In theory any of the 12 seeded drivers has a chance to take the title. Busch and Harvick start the Chase as favourites but each of four-time champion Gordon, five-time champion Johnson and Edwards are entirely capable of challenging for this year’s title, as is Keselowski.
The rest are long shots but NASCAR’s great depth of field means anything is possible. Like it or not, it’s motor racing’s toughest championship.