With Indianapolis Motor Speedway next on the Sprint Cup schedule and with only seven races remaining to the Chase for the Sprint Cup cutoff, the top 10 drivers in the standings have divided themselves into a couple of packs.
There are the Four Guys At The Front – Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson.
From Johnson to fifth-place Denny Hamlin, there’s a 28-point separation, but the drivers from Hamlin through the rest of the top 10 are tightly bunched. Kevin Harvick, in sixth, trails Hamlin by six. Tony Stewart is seventh, four behind Harvick. Michael Waltrip Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. (eighth) and Clint Bowyer (ninth) are only three points apart, and Bowyer leads 10th-place Brad Keselowski by only one point.
Although much can change in seven races, the drivers in the top 10 have performed so consistently well that they have opened a relative chasm between themselves and everyone else who would seek a Chase spot. Carl Edwards, in 11th place, is 46 points behind Keselowski, and that’s a big deficit to make up in seven races.
Oddly enough, much of the order of the top 10 matters very little in the long run.
Once the Chase begins, the standings will be scrambled. Everyone in the top 10 will have his point total reset to 2,000, and each driver in the 10 will receive an additional three points for each win scored during the regular season.
As the points now stand, the Chase would begin with Stewart, the defending champion, and Keselowski on top with 2,009 points – courtesy of the three wins each has scored.
Next would be Johnson and Hamlin at 2,006, then Kenseth, Earnhardt Jr., Biffle and Bowyer at 2,003. Harvick and Truex Jr., currently winless, would sit at 2,000.
The drivers who earn the two wild-card spots – they currently belong to Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch – would start the Chase at 2,000 points each. Kahne and Busch each have race victories, but, as wild-card drivers, they would receive no Chase points for them.
Earnhardt Jr.’s season is perfectly illustrative of the awards consistency provides. Although he has won only one race, he has completed every lap this year – the first driver to do that through the 19th race of a season, and he looks to be a strong Chase contender.
Earnhardt Jr. owns no victories at the next stop, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of one of his father’s most celebrated wins in 1995.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.