It’s Chase time.
And in the best NASCAR tradition, it started with a touch of controversy.
Well, more than just a touch, NASCAR decided Tuesday. Clint Bowyer’s spin with 10 laps to go in Saturday night’s race at Richmond, to the benefit of teammate Martin Truex Jr., was too much to ignore. NASCAR stripped Truex Jr. of his place in the Sprint Cup “playoffs” and put Ryan Newman in his place.
It almost worked. Bowyer’s spin had brought out the final caution, sending everyone to the pits and changing everything. Race leader Newman had a bad stop and wound up third — if he had won, Truex would have been out of the Chase.
“I think we had something going wrong,” Bowyer said after the race, protesting his innocence in any kind of brother-in-lawing. “We went from a car capable of winning the race, leading, to … just went straight backward.
“I know it’s a lot of fun for you guys to write a lot of wacky things. Go ahead if you want to, get creative. But don’t look too much into it,” he said.
NASCAR looked into it and found enough.
So the 10th edition of the Sprint Cup playoffs is set, beginning this weekend in Chicago. Twelve drivers are eligible for the championship, played out over the final 10 races.
The field includes five-time champion Jimmie Johnson (although not as the top seed, for a change), the inaugural Chase winner Kurt Busch, fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. and 2011 Chase runner-up Carl Edwards.
But not Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart or defending champion Brad Keselowski.
The rundown of the Chasers:
Matt Kenseth: The top seed for the Chase, with a series-high five wins. He’s also had seven finishes outside the top 20, but only one at a Chase track — Dover — and that was because of a blown engine.
Jimmie Johnson: Who took the real Jimmie Johnson and what did they do to him? The one that has been running the past four weeks has finished 40th, 36th, 28th and 40th. Very, very unusual.
Kyle Busch: This is a driver to fear. Supreme talent and daring. And now he is qualifying better than ever. His 8.2 average start is the best of his career by far. His three poles this year are the most of any Chaser.
Kevin Harvick: Outside of a bad weekend in Bristol last month, he is clicking. For four months, he’s been in the top 10 or not far outside. And that’s with no qualifying efforts to speak of.
Carl Edwards: It had been 24 races since Cousin Carl won. He was in the Chase, but he needed a boost and got it by winning Sunday at Richmond. Where he goes from here is anyone’s guess.
Joey Logano: The new car and new team has paid off for the young driver, who a lot of people still remember as a young phenom. This is his first time in the Chase, so he has no track record under pressure.
Greg Biffle: With no Tony Stewart in the Chase this year, Biffle now has the second-most Chase victories in the field. His seven are better than everyone else except Jimmie Johnson’s 22.
Clint Bowyer: The highest-seeded driver without a win. Coming in without a lot of momentum after Sunday’s 25th-place finish at Richmond and blowing an engine the week before.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Making his sixth appearance in the Chase. Picked up one pole this year. Has 14 top-10s, second-most among the Chase drivers. But not moving the needle much.
Kurt Busch: After a year in NASCAR Siberia — the underfunded — the former champ is back in decent equipment, and he’s back in the Chase. He was the first winner under the Chase format in 2004.
Kasey Kahne: The first wild card, thanks to a pair of victories. But being outside the top 10, he doesn’t get bonus points for the victories. Still, he feels decent about his late summer, including a win at Pocono.
Ryan Newman: Newman does not have to merely ride out the string, booted from his ride at Stewart-Haas Racing. Now he has a chance to race for a championship, something neither his boss or his other teammate can say.