In Sprint Cup’s stretch drive, a bunch of possibilities

By John Kekis
Associated Press / August 14, 2011

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. - Kurt Busch likes where he sits in the Sprint Cup standings as he prepares to try for a rare season sweep at NASCAR’s two road courses.

“I’m glad that we’re in a more comfortable position and having an 88-point cushion on that cutoff,’’ said Busch, who is fourth in the standings but qualified a disappointing 27th for today’s race at Watkins Glen International. “You can gain 40-something points in a race. Right now we have a two-race cushion. I’m glad that we can sit on the outside of the fence and not be one of those guys trying to race their way in.’’

NASCAR’s new points system has created more drama than ever since the 10-race Chase for the Cup was instituted in 2004. Race winners earn 43 points, plus 3 bonus points for the victory. Winners also can earn an extra point for leading a lap and leading the most laps, bringing their total to a maximum of 48. All other drivers in the finishing order are separated by 1-point increments, with the second-place finisher earning 42, third 41, and so on.

The top 10 drivers in the standings and the two drivers with the most victories in 11th to 20th place earn spots for the Chase.

If the postseason had begun yesterday, the wild cards would have gone to Brad Keselowski, who sits 18th in points but has two wins, and Denny Hamlin, who is 11th with one win.

With five races remaining - Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta, and Richmond - before the Chase cutoff, the tension is mounting.

“I’d be willing to say where we are right now, there’s more questions about who’s going to make the Chase than we’ve ever had,’’ said Jeff Burton, who has yet to register a top 10 and sits 24th in points. “You can make a solid argument there’s six or seven teams, maybe eight or nine teams, that could go either way. That puts a lot of people in the mix to be excited or disappointed.’’

Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits in 10th place with 641 points, just 1 point behind two-time Cup champ Tony Stewart. They’re the only drivers in the top 10 without a victory, giving hope to Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard of Richard Childress Racing, and Roush Fenway’s Greg Biffle, among others.

“It’s changed for some of those guys,’’ said Bowyer, who sits 12th, 41 points behind Earnhardt but only 3 ahead of Biffle. “For us, we don’t have a win. Our best shot is to race our way into the top 10. But for some of these wild-card guys, getting a second win is a big deal.’’

Despite racing with a broken left ankle and sore back, Keselowski zoomed into the playoff picture with a stunning win a week ago at Pocono, holding off Kyle Busch for his second victory of the season. Still, he’s only 19 points ahead of 21st-place Juan Pablo Montoya, the defending race winner at Watkins Glen.

“To say that we would win this week would be a little unrealistic expectation,’’ said Keselowski, who finished 20th at WGI last year in his first career Cup start at the track, then improved to 10th at Sonoma in June. “I’ve slowly been improving. I’d like to get a good, stout finish.

“If we can just keep chipping away and just keep getting a little bit better, get a top 16, a top 10, that would be a hell of a day.’’

Rain is in the forecast for today, which could affect strategy as it did a week ago at Pocono.

Kyle Busch did what he’d never done before: He won a pole on a road course, shattering the track record.

“This feels very good,’’ Busch said after posting a lap of 126.421 miles per hour around the 11-turn, 2.45-mile circuit. “I’ve won races at road courses, but never been the fastest guy for one lap.’’

Busch, who qualified last after posting the best time in practice Friday, was nearly 2 m.p.h. faster than the mark Jeff Gordon set eight years ago. That knocked A.J. Allmendinger off the pole and deprived Richard Petty Motorsports of a front-row sweep.

Allmendinger turned a lap at 126.041 m.p.h. to edge teammate Marcos Ambrose’s speed of 125.984.

“I’ve always been pretty good here,’’ said Allmendinger, who sits 17th in the Sprint Cup standings. “If we get a win, it puts us in a chance for the Chase.

“But I’m not looking at that as make or break. We feel like if we can just keep getting better as the year goes on and have a good, strong finish to the end of the season, that’s going to be what I’m going to look at. This is a great place to start.’’