RICHMOND, Va. -- There are 17 races before the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to Richmond for the cutoff race for The Chase, but two names can already be penciled in.
Mark it down -- Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch will be in The Chase, even if they leave Richmond in September outside the top-10 of the standings. That's because positions 11 and 12 in the Chase will be awarded for the first time to the drivers outside that group with the most victories. The only requirement is that they are in positions 11-20 in the standings after Richmond. So how many victories will it take?
"Two is probably going to be borderline, but I think if you get three, you can probably guarantee yourself a spot," Busch said after driving to his second win of the season last Saturday night at Richmond. "If you get four, yeah, you locked yourself in. ... There are [17 races left] so there is a long ways to go. Plenty of time. Plenty more wins out there for somebody to get."
Right now, Busch and Harvick are the only drivers in the series with two victories. Harvick notched his with back-to-back wins at Auto Club Speedway and Martinsville in March. The duo is also in the top 10 in points with Busch third, just 30 points behind leader Carl Edwards, and Harvick in fifth, 35 out of the lead. Should they stay in that lofty territory, the drivers who I think may be the real beneficiaries of the new Chase rule are Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray. Of that group, only Gordon has driven to victory so far in 2011, but any the others is capable of winning multiple races this season.
When McMurray won two of the biggest races of the season in 2010 -- the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 -- it wasn't enough for him to get into the Chase because he was 14th after the 26th race of the season. That is one reason NASCAR made an adjustment, so that more drivers who won races would be contending for the championship.
"I guess that was kind of the point," Busch said. "In 2009, I had four wins and missed the Chase by eight points or something like that. That would have locked us in. I think the same thing happened with McMurray last year, he had [two wins before the Chase, three for the season] and missed just barely. He would have locked himself in, too. That's kind of the idea NASCAR was looking for."
Well, not quite.
NASCAR wanted to make the September Richmond race more dramatic and compelling than last year's, in which the 12 drivers for the Chase were all but decided entering the day. There was little chance that the drivers in 13th or 14th could get into the Chase unless calamity struck 12th-place Greg Biffle. He had a 98-point lead over Ryan Newman entering that race and was 128 points ahead of McMurray in 14th place. By contrast, this year the race winner may be able to qualify for the Chase.
For Busch's crew chief Dave Rogers, that the team has already won two races and has taken a huge step to locking in a Chase berth, won't change his attitude or approach to the races in between the two Richmonds.
"I think that's too hard to tell," Rogers said. "Circumstances, you know. We've had some good runs and weren't able to finish the race because of wrecks or blown motors. It's way too early to worry about points. We're going to go to every race track and go as fast as we can and try to lead as many laps and win as many races as we can. If we do well, we'll be in the Chase. That's our approach."