SONOMA, Calif. — Brad Keselowski started his Monday by studying the Sprint Cup Series standings.
Currently 10th in points with two wins this season, Keselowski should be in solid position for a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Turns out he is just part of the logjam of talented drivers vying for one of the 12 berths.
“Looks like the wildcard race (9-12) is about to get crazy,” he tweeted.
That’s an understatement.
By Keselowski’s count, there are eight drivers jockeying for four positions under the wild card element NASCAR introduced last season to its title-deciding, 10-race championship. Only the top 10 in points after the 26th race of the season are guaranteed a spot in the Chase, with the final two positions going to the drivers with the most wins who aren’t already locked into the field.
There are 10 races left to set the field, and there are big names in danger of missing the cut.
Among them is Carl Edwards, who wouldn’t be eligible if the Chase began today. A year after tying Tony Stewart in the standings and losing the championship on a tiebreaker, Edwards could very well be a spectator if this “hangover season” doesn’t turn around quickly.
Recent history has shown that the driver who loses the championship battle suffers through a slump the next season. Nobody had it worse than Denny Hamlin, who lost the 2010 championship to Jimmie Johnson in the season finale and struggled most of last year.
Even Edwards has been through this before: He won nine races in 2008 as the runner-up to Johnson, and went winless the next year while finishing 11th in the Chase field. Mark Martin failed to make the Chase in 2010 after finishing second to Johnson, and Jeff Gordon wasn’t nearly as competitive in 2008 — he went winless and finished seventh in the final standings — after going down to the wire with Johnson in the championship race.
So here Edwards sits, 16 races into this season, struggling to be a factor at the same time Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle sit 1-2 in the standings with one win apiece.
He’s not alone, though.
Kyle Busch is in a horrendous stretch of bad luck: Before Sunday’s 17th-place finish at Sonoma, he had three consecutive engine failures and he’s currently 12th in points. He would make the Chase as a wild card if the field was set today based on his victory earlier this season at Richmond, but he has a bunch of one-win drivers breathing down his neck.
Among them is Ryan Newman, the winner at Martinsville who is 13th in points and would be the second wild card today. Newman is followed by Joey Logano, the Pocono winner who is 15th in the standings, and Kasey Kahne, the Charlotte winner ranked 17th.
That drops Edwards down to fifth in the current wild card standings.
And remember, Keselowski with his two wins doesn’t even think he’s safe. He has just an 11-point lead on 11th-place Edwards, and should he fall a spot or two in the standings, he would suddenly be battling every driver with one win to get a wild card.
That means Martin Truex Jr. isn’t in the clear, either. He is ninth in points, but winless and could fall into Edwards’ territory.
Keselowski is probably in good shape, since it is unlikely that both wild-card drivers will have two wins each — they are more likely to be in the top 10 in points.
But Edwards needs to get moving. Busch’s bad luck has to end soon, and Logano and Newman are both in free-agent years needing a strong summer push to lock down 2013 jobs. Kahne is with powerful Hendrick Motorsports, and a horrendous start to the season has him presently 14th in points. But at just 69 points outside the top 10, he could come charging along at any time.
It’s going to get interesting over the next 10 weeks and this race to make the Chase could very well give NASCAR a big boost through the summer.