LONG POND, Pa. – With half of the regular season in the record book, the road to the 2013 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup figures to take a variety of twists and turns through the next 13 races, beginning with Sunday’s Party in the Poconos 400.
Pocono Raceway’s first of two events kicks off TNT’s NASCAR Summer Series of six events at 1 p.m. EDT.
The Chase lineup will be set Sept. 7 at Richmond International Raceway. The top 10 in points automatically qualify for the Chase. Two Wild Cards – drivers ranked 11th through 20th with the most wins – fill out the field of 12.
By points margins, the current top 10 is unsettled. From eighth – Kyle Busch – to 13th – Greg Biffle – the spread is just 21 points. A year ago, nine of the 10 drivers qualifying for the Chase by points occupied a top-10 position entering the regular season’s final 13 races.
So it’s not too early to consider the Wild Card scenarios.
Tony Stewart, until recently outside the top 20, is the current Wild Card leader (16th) following Sunday’s victory at Dover Int’l Speedway.
Jeff Gordon, 11th in the standings, holds the second Wild Card based upon his points position.
David Ragan won at Talladega but ranks 27th and is 113 points outside top-20 eligibility.
Stewart’s Dover victory was his first top-five finish of the 2013 campaign – the slowest start in 15 seasons for the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. To say Stewart-Haas Racing has struggled would be an understatement, but Stewart said last month at Charlotte his team had turned the corner.
Only 33 points outside the top 10, Stewart may not be a Wild Card hopeful for long. He finished third in Pocono’s first race a year ago, fifth in the second. Stewart counts two victories at the track and a fifth-best Driver Rating of 98.6.
Of Stewart’s 48 career victories, 42 have come after June 1.
Gordon, likewise, is trending upward. A trio of accident-caused DNFs has offset three third-place finishes, the most recent coming last Sunday. He’s gained 10 positions in the points since Bristol, where Gordon suffered one of three finishes of 34th or worse.
The four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion won last August’s weather-shortened Pocono event, his second victory in the last four races and sixth overall at the 2.5-mile track. Gordon enjoys a third-best Pocono Driver Rating (100.9) and series-best top-five (18) and top-10 (28) finishes.