NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Jimmie Johnson (48) celebrates in victory lane after winning the FedEx 400 at Dover International Speedway. (USA TODAY Sports: Matthew O’Haren)
There are 13 places left in NASCAR’s high-stakes game of musical chairs, and each week, one of those chairs will be removed from the game.
We’re at the halfway point of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series “regular” season. The first 13 races have produced 10 different winners and three two-time winners: Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson.
But there are five drivers who qualified for last year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup who haven’t done what it takes to make the 2014 edition of NASCAR’s playoffs, meaning there are five Chase drivers from last year who haven’t yet won a race this season.
The gang of five on the outside includes Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman.
So let’s look at their chances over the next 13 races.
Theoretically, 13 more different drivers could visit Victory Lane before the Chase field is set at Richmond in September, but we all know that’s not going to happen. In the first place, the chances of shutting out the 10 drivers who already have won over the second half of the regular season are miniscule.
So even if there are 13 chairs left in theory, the number realistically is probably closer to five or six, given that some of the drivers who have already won are likely to continue winning.
So where does that leave our five outsiders? Here’s an analysis of their prospects:
—Matt Kenseth: Last season’s most prolific winner (seven races) hasn’t quite had the speed necessary to win a race. Kenseth has had enough muscle to post five top fives, including third-place results in the last two races, but the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has lacked the necessary edge to grab the top spot. If he continues to run up front, however, the odds say things will go Kenseth’s way sooner or later. He’s too good and too consistent not to win one of the first 26. If Kenseth can retain his lead in the series standings, he can make the Chase on points, too, even if he doesn’t win a race. Best chances for victory: Kentucky, Bristol and Atlanta.
—Clint Bowyer: The driver of the No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota has suffered through a star-crossed season. Despite pinching Kyle Busch’s Camry into the wall at Dover on Sunday, Bowyer salvaged a fourth-place finish, but that was only his second top five of the season. When Bowyer has a competitive car, something invariably goes wrong, either mechanically or in the pits. The No. 15 team needs to fins a level of consistency that will put Bowyer in position to win a race. So far, that hasn’t happened. Best chances for victory: Sonoma, New Hampshire and Richmond.
—Greg Biffle: What do you do when you don’t have speed at the tracks that typically are your bread-and-butter? That’s the conundrum confronting the entire Roush Fenway organization and Biffle in particular. Like Bowyer, the driver of the No. 16 Ford has but two top fives this year, and his best result (second) came in the crapshoot at Talladega. RFR is taking drastic measures to right the ship, recently releasing long-time lead engineer Chip Bolin. Whether Biffle will have a strong enough car to make the Chase, though, remains a serious question. Best chances for victory: Michigan (twice) and Daytona.
—Kasey Kahne: Is the curse of the Hendrick fourth car thwarting Kahne’s efforts to win a race? Or is the loss of the No. 5 Chevrolet lead engineer Keith Rodden (now crew chief for Jamie McMurray at Chip Ganassi Racing) still having a lingering effect? Kahne looked competitive early at Dover, then disappeared. Unfortunately, that’s been the pattern of the No. 5 team in too many races this year. Kahne was strong at Kansas, where he showed excellent speed, but that third-place finish is his only top five so far this year. Still, with the three other Hendrick cars winning in the first 13 races, you have to think Kahne is a candidate in the second 13 … unless it’s the curse. Best chances for victory: Pocono (twice), Kentucky and Atlanta.
—Ryan Newman: Bluntly, none of the Richard Childress Racing drivers has been a threat to win a race so far this year. In his first year with the organization, Newman has four top 10s and no top fives, with his best results (a pair of sevenths) coming in the second and third races of the season, at Phoenix and Las Vegas. It’s stating the obvious, but to win a race, you have to be in position to win a race at the end of the race, and Newman hasn’t been there. But RCR, which has a huge number of new moving parts on the personnel side this year, has 13 races to find answers. Best chances for victory: Sonoma, New Hampshire, Indianapolis and Richmond.
Let’s not forget that these five 2013 Chase drivers aren’t the only ones with realistic chances to win a race. Tony Stewart, sidelined with a broken leg suffered last August, finds invariably a way to win when it’s least expected.
NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race winner Jamie McMurray has shown excellent speed, as has rookie teammate Kyle Larson, who has five top 10s and an average finish of 15th this season. Danica Patrick had a breakthrough performance at Kansas in May and should be a threat at Daytona in July.
Paul Menard is a former winner at the Brickyard and often has had the fastest of the RCR cars this year. He is also a formidable plate racer and underrated on the road courses, where Richard Petty Motorsports driver Marcos Ambrose will be the favorite to win.
So if the next 13 races produce five or six more different winners, one or two of last year’s Chase drivers are likely to miss the playoff.
Whatever the case, it will be an exciting scramble to watch, particularly when we’re down to the last chair.