Kentucky starts Chase-worthy stretch of races
It is an intriguing what if:
What if the last ten races of the regular season, starting with Saturday night's 400-miler at Kentucky Speedway, were actually the Chase races?
Imagine this scenario: We start the playoffs under the lights at Kentucky, a 1.5-mile track. There are currently five of them in the Chase. In my view, this places far too much weight on intermediate-length tracks in the playoffs, especially given that there are only five 1.5-milers in the entire 26-race regular season. But if we'd use these next ten races as the Chase, there would only be two 1.5-mile tracks in the playoffs -- Kentucky and Atlanta, in what would be Chase race No. 9.
After Kentucky we'd move onto... Daytona -- the most historic track in NASCAR, the place where the series was born, a place that, as it stands, is not featured in the Chase. This needs to change.
After Daytona, the circuit would shift to New Hampshire Motor Speedway, which is a flat and quirky one-mile track that is currently the second race in the Chase. NASCAR needs to maintain a footprint in the upper northeast, so it's critical that New Hampshire retains its spot in the playoffs.
After a stop in New England, the haulers would carry the racecars to what is inarguably the most famous track in the world: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which currently is not included among the stops on the Chase schedule. But if Indy were in the playoffs, it would inject a shot of adrenaline into NASCAR in the fall when it competes for eyeballs against the NFL and college football.
After Indy, the series would move to Pocono Raceway, which features the longest and fastest -- and therefore most treacherous -- straightaway in the sport. Then the circuit would travel to Watkins Glen International, a road course. This genre of venue currently isn't featured in the Chase (which to me raises the question of why NASCAR is even racing at these tracks at all right now). Up next would be Michigan Speedway, located in the shadow of Detroit, home of the American auto industry.
Then think of these last three races to close out the season: Atlanta (the fastest track in NASCAR), Bristol (the most electric short-track in America), and finally Richmond (the epitome of old-school, Saturday night, get-the-hell-out-of-my-way racing).
Will NASCAR ever radically makeover the Chase schedule? Not anytime soon, but it's engaging to ponder the possibilities of what could be -- and, in my opinion, what should be.
Now let's look at the five drivers to watch on Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway in race No. 17 of the 2013 Sprint Cup season:
1. Brad Keselowski
This is perhaps the most critical race of the season for Keselowski, the defending Cup champion who has slipped to ninth in the standings. Last year there, Keselowski led 68 laps and took the checkered flag. After that victory, he reeled off six straight top-10s -- including a pair of second-place finishes -- to kick-start his championship run.
Now Keselowski heads to Kentucky in a slump; in his last three races his average finish is 16.3. As I wrote earlier this week, I don't think Keselowski, who has yet to win in 2013, will make the Chase this season. But that prediction could be smashed on Saturday night if he takes the checkers, which would put him in a good position to at least qualify for the postseason as a wild card.
2. Kasey Kahne
If the Chase started today, Kahne, who is 12th in the standings, would advance as a wild card based on his victory in March at Bristol. If he could win one more time in the regular season, he'd be a virtual lock to advance to the playoffs for the second straight year. He should be fast at Kentucky. Last summer, he finished second there. What's more, he typically flourishes at intermediate-length venues. The last time the circuit raced on a 1.5-mile track, at Charlotte in late May, Kahne finished second.
3. Kyle Busch
No driver in NASCAR has been better at Kentucky than Busch. He won the inaugural Cup race in Bourbon country in 2012 and last year he led the most laps (118) before finishing tenth. He also has a Nationwide series victory at Kentucky as well as a win in the Truck series. Currently eighth in the standings, Busch has finished sixth or better in three of his last four starts. He is a hit-or-miss driver, and I think he hits big on Saturday night. He's my pick to win.
4. Denny Hamlin
The last two weeks have been borderline disastrous for Hamlin. He came in 30th at Michigan and 23rd at Sonoma. With ten races left in the season, he's 25th in the standings and now looking very much like a long shot to make the Chase for the sixth straight year.
To sneak into the playoffs, Hamlin will need to reach 20th in the standings -- he's currently 83 points behind Jeff Burton for that spot, which roughly translates to 83 positions on the track -- and he'll likely need to win twice over the final ten races of the regular season. So time is running out for Hamlin. But I think he'll have a strong run on Saturday night. He led 58 laps at Kentucky last year and finished third. Expect him to race near the front of the pack all evening.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Ever since he finished second at Fontana in late March to briefly seize the points lead, NASCAR's most popular driver has been relatively quiet. He had an impressive performance at Pocono on June 9 (he finished third), but the bigger news for the No. 88 team has been engine failures in recent weeks at Charlotte (where he came in 39th) and Michigan (37th). Earnhardt is currently sixth in the standings.
He has yet to win in 2013, but he should challenge for the checkered flag on Saturday night -- as long as his equipment doesn't fail him. He finished fourth in this race last year. But look for Earnhardt, like every other driver, to be chasing one person shortly after the green flag waves: Kyle Busch.