NASCAR Barometer: Who Makes the Chase?

NASCAR Barometer: Who Makes the Chase?

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

With just two races remaining in the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, and an off week before action picks back up again at Darlington Raceway, now would be a good time to look at the championship contenders. We'll look at who is currently in the Chase (has scored at least one victory in 2015), who is on the bubble (currently in the Chase through points tally but winless in 2015), and a few drivers that aren't yet qualified (outside of the top-16 Chase standings and winless in 2015) but could pull off a surprise and make the cut.

Only two races remaining means that this season will see at least three drivers without a win make it into the playoffs. Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, and Ryan Newman were the three to qualify for the Chase last season without wins, but it was Kevin Harvick who took the big prize. There have yet to be any true long-shots claim a surprise win in 2015, so competition to advance through each elimination round should be even tighter than it was last year.

LOCKED IN

Jimmie Johnson - Johnson is locked into this season's Chase by virtue of scoring four victories, which is tied for the most by any driver so far this season. Johnson's wins came early in the season, and he hasn't visited Victory Lane since the end of May at Dover International Speedway. The team's finishes haven't been consistent top-10s like they were the first half of the year, which

With just two races remaining in the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, and an off week before action picks back up again at Darlington Raceway, now would be a good time to look at the championship contenders. We'll look at who is currently in the Chase (has scored at least one victory in 2015), who is on the bubble (currently in the Chase through points tally but winless in 2015), and a few drivers that aren't yet qualified (outside of the top-16 Chase standings and winless in 2015) but could pull off a surprise and make the cut.

Only two races remaining means that this season will see at least three drivers without a win make it into the playoffs. Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, and Ryan Newman were the three to qualify for the Chase last season without wins, but it was Kevin Harvick who took the big prize. There have yet to be any true long-shots claim a surprise win in 2015, so competition to advance through each elimination round should be even tighter than it was last year.

LOCKED IN

Jimmie Johnson - Johnson is locked into this season's Chase by virtue of scoring four victories, which is tied for the most by any driver so far this season. Johnson's wins came early in the season, and he hasn't visited Victory Lane since the end of May at Dover International Speedway. The team's finishes haven't been consistent top-10s like they were the first half of the year, which means Johnson has two races remaining to regain his momentum and move back to the head of the class before others with momentum overtake him.

Kyle Busch -
Despite missing the first 11 races of the season Busch was granted a waiver from NASCAR for Chase eligibility. He was then only required to score a win and work his way into the top-30 in points, which was no small feat. He did that. In fact, he won as many races as Jimmie Johnson, and has a 24-point cushion to 30th place. Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing firmly have momentum in hand and now need to focus on maintaining their progress, not allowing that dominance to slip.

Joey Logano -
Logano had a relatively quiet middle part of the season after opening the year with a Daytona 500 victory. Despite not returning to Victory Lane until August at Watkins Glen International the team still packed in the top-5 and top-10 finishes. Their consistency is among the best, and demonstrates that this team will not give up when things aren't going their way. Five of Logano's last seven races have produced top-5 finishes, and we learned last year that consistently scoring top-5s can be as important as winning.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth took a little bit of time to get off the mark in 2015. He scored an early win at Bristol Motor Speedway in April, and began improving his consistency in terms of top finishes from there. He has won two more races since then, and had a run of six consecutive top-10s going until his return to Bristol. Kenseth has the benefit of the Gibbs resurgence, but needs to get a little more out of the package to be able to challenge teammate Busch for top honors.

Kevin Harvick -
The defending series champion started 2015 by finishing in the top 2 in six of the first seven races of the year. He picked up right where he left off in 2014. While that impressive streak didn't last through the summer, Harvick rediscovered that form as the regular season has drawn down. He finished inside the top 3 in each of the last three races. The speed he showed early in the season coupled with his habitual top finishes make him a dangerous contender who could win back-to-back titles.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Both of Earnhardt's 2015 wins have come on the restrictor-plate tracks. He has been a regular face among the top-10 finishers at other tracks, but his top-5s and top-10s are not as ubiquitous as some of the other contenders. The No. 88 can be a championship contender, but may need to pull off a win or two in the Chase order to make that a reality. He will need to lead laps in order to get that done, which he hasn't done since his last win.

Kurt Busch -
Busch has been the closest emulator of teammate Kevin Harvick among the Stewart-Haas Racing garage. When he hasn't encountered trouble in 2015 he has generally been capable of scoring top-5s and top-10s. He lacks the consistency of the No. 4 team, though. His win came first at Richmond International Raceway, and then he added another when rain ended the proceedings at Michigan International Speedway. Busch could be one to watch if he can avoid mistakes and other people's problems.

Brad Keselowski -
Like teammate Logano, Keselowski had a more difficult middle portion of the season than he would have liked. The Penske Racing team has righted the ship, though. Keselowski scored a top-10 finish in each of the last seven races despite starting as low as 31st at one circuit. Consistency can get you to the end of the knockout stages and this team could be peaking at the perfect moment. We saw how hard he fought elimination last season, so don't expect that tenacity to subside.

Martin Truex Jr. -
This has been a career-defining year for Truex. His case for being a contender was made early. He finished in the top 10 in 14 of the first 15 races of the season. That much speed and that many top finishes made a stunning case for his inclusion in the Chase. He finally locked himself into the field by winning at Pocono Raceway in June. Top finishes have escaped him recently, though. The team could be worried, but just need to rediscover what they were doing earlier this year to be back on track.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin's 2015 resume is littered with finishes outside of the top 15. His win at Martinsville Speedway in March is what locks him into the Chase. The team was up and down for much of the season. Recent progress has coincided with the upturn in the overall fortunes of the JGR organization, and he now has back-to-back top-5 finishes. Though the regular top-10s have been missing so far for Hamlin, he is known for his hot streaks. The garage should be worried if he nabs a win in the next handful of races.

Carl Edwards -
The season started with heaps of promise for Edwards. He was with a new team, and had the same opportunities that gave new teammate Kenseth such a boost in performance earlier. That promise faded quickly as Edwards struggled to get up to speed. He notched an early win on fuel mileage at Charlotte Motorspeedway. That was his first top-5 finish of the season. Things have gotten better recently, though. Edwards is starting to find his legs with the new team.

ON THE BUBBLE

Jamie McMurray - What started as a very promising season for McMurray has turned into a long drought of top-10s. The driver of the No. 1 machine started the year off with a top-10 or top-5 every few races, but hasn't scored a top finish for the last nine races. Still, he is in the Chase by virtue of his points total. He is currently 13 points clear of his next closest contender, and 41 points clear of the cutoff. Assuming there is no major disaster McMurray will be in the Chase. He'll need to get back to the top-10 to make an impression, though.

Ryan Newman -
Last year's Mr. Consistency has lacked exactly that this season. Newman was hit with penalties earlier in the year, and the team has failed to full regain their composure thus far. He has two top-10 finishes under his belt after a rough middle portion of the season. This team was one of the surprises in 2014, but it looks as though that may have been a better championship opportunity for them than 2015.

Paul Menard -
Menard can't feel comfortable with his Chase positioning. He is winless, and just two points ahead of Jeff Gordon. Should any two drivers below Menard in the standings notch a win in the last two races before the Chase begins he could find himself out of luck. Menard has been extending his usual strong season starts deeper and deeper into the schedule each year, and that has been his case again in 2015. He is still a longshot for the title, and hasn't scored a top-10 since the June Michigan race.

Jeff Gordon -
Aside from 2015 being Gordon's final year before retirement from driving, this has been a season to forget. Gordon has demonstrated the speed necessary to contend at many points throughout the year, but hasn't been able to close the deal. Bad luck and mistakes have cost the No. 24 team dearly, and Gordon is looking at the very real possibility that he could miss the Chase in his final season. The team needs to find some confidence and build on it to score a win and contend for a farewell title.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer is in the most precarious position of any Chase driver at the moment. He sits winless and at the bottom of the Chase standings by nearly 20 points. He has a 35-point cushion to Aric Almirola, but should just one driver below Bowyer win in these last two races he would be on the outside looking at what could have been. Michael Waltrip Racing will not field a full-time team in 2016, so Bowyer is auditioning for his future, and missing the Chase could be a heavy blow to that search.

LOOKING IN

Of the remainder of the field on the outside looking into the Chase all need to win at either Darlington or Richmond to get their ticket stamped. Few have looked capable of pulling off such a feat so far this season, but it could still happen. Aric Almirola was one of the feel-good stories of last year's Chase qualifiers, and could pose more of a threat to win than most observers give him credit for. Kasey Kahne has taken a definite step backward as the schedule has wound down, and would benefit from a decent top-15 finish at this point. Roush Fenway Racing has been behind the 8-ball all season and Greg Biffle would have to pull off a strategic upset to get in, though at Richmond that could happen. Lastly, the 2014 rookie pairing of Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon have proved they belong in this series and maybe the Chase as well. Dillon has been turning in much more promising outings the past few weeks, while Larson has the raw speed capable of putting him in Victory Lane.

There is no doubt that the last two races will evoke drama and emotions from those trying to get their shot at a title. The pressure will only ramp upward from there, and it should be an exciting run to the finish of the 2015 Sprint Cup season.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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