History shows if you're late to the Chase, your title hopes are slim
Since Chase expanded to 12 teams, no late clincher has finished better than sixth
Fight to just make the playoffs often leaves these last drivers with little left in tank
Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer are two drivers who still have to battle to make Chase
MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- History hasn't been kind to the last drivers to make the Chase field. Since the Chase expanded to 12 teams in 2007, no late clincher has finished better than sixth in the final standings and several of them have finished dead last. With the addition of the Chase wild card, several drivers are still vying for a spot in the playoff with only three races remaining. Do any of them have a shot at the title or will the race just to make the Chase ruin their chances?
Denny Hamlin is one of those Chase aspirants on the bubble heading into Bristol. He's currently 14th in the points, but with one victory to his credit this year, he's in position to secure one of the two wild-card spots.
Another victory between now and the cutoff race at Richmond on Sept. 10 would likely guarantee Hamlin a spot in the Chase, but the Joe Gibbs Racing driver is slumping. One month ago, Hamlin finished third at New Hampshire and was 10th in the standings with one victory. Since then, he's finished outside of the top 25 three times in four races. With the way he's driving lately, Hamlin would be lucky to make the Chase -- something he's done every season since his rookie year in 2006 -- let alone contend for the title.
"We need to figure out how to finish races, and that carries on my shoulders as much as anyone's," Hamlin said. "To me, it's not worth making the Chase if I'm not going to be effective, and we need to right our ship."
In righting the ship, Hamlin, a self-professed hoops junkie, would be wise to steal a page from the Virginia Commonwealth Rams, who play in Richmond, Va., a short drive from Hamlin's hometown of Chesterfield, Va.
During the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament the VCU Rams were the last team in, and they had to advance through the play-in round simply to join the field of 64 teams vying for the national championship. While the NCAA doesn't use the term "wild card," VCU was certainly on the bubble when it came to their chase for the college championship.
Little was expected from Coach Shaka Smart's team, as the team had to give its best effort every game simply to get into the tournament and many expected they would quickly burn out. With a little VCU magic, however, the Rams defied the odds and made it all the way to the Final Four.
Hamlin and drivers out of the Chase such as Clint Bowyer (11th in the points without a win) and Greg Biffle (13th in points without a victory) will need to fight furiously between now and Richmond to make the Chase. If they make the playoffs, will they have anything left in the tank?
"It's hard to do," Hamlin said of clinching late. "I think we've seen it with a lot of guys that limp into the Chase. ... It makes it tough to contend when you have to put all of your effort in the races leading up to the Chase."
Car schedules make contending for the Chase title even more difficult for the late clinchers. Teams rotate their fleet of race cars throughout the season. It's the same as a major league baseball team setting up its pitching rotation to start the playoffs. This often begins in the final week or two of the regular season, when teams that have clinched division titles or even wild cards then have the luxury of adjusting their pitching rotation so the ace of the staff is on the mound for Game 1 of the playoffs.
In NASCAR, teams want to have the best car in the fleet ready for each of the 10 tracks in the Chase.
"The car schedule, for us, is what's tough because obviously we can't bring the best race car we have in our shop to the racetrack every single week," Hamlin explained. "We have to plan for that. So, we always plan for our best stuff to obviously come in the Chase, like everyone else does in the garage. But, when you're trying to fight for that spot you can't afford to wait that long."
While the adage "You can't win it unless you're in it" holds true for the Chase, when teams expend so much energy just to get in are they really factors?
A statistical analysis suggests those last few drivers are rarely in contention for the Chase title. Last year Bowyer, Jeff Burton and Biffle were the last drivers into the Chase. Despite winning the first Chase race at New Hampshire, Bowyer was penalized for a car infraction and was virtually eliminated by the second race. Burton would ultimately finish last among the 12 drivers, but Biffle made it up to sixth.
In 2009, Brian Vickers was the last driver to make the 12-driver field, and he fell out of contention by Chase race No. 3. He finished last and a whopping 723 points behind champion Johnson.
In 2008, Dale Earnhardt Jr. entered the Chase ninth in the traditional standings; he went on to finish last among the 12 drivers. Matt Kenseth entered the Chase 11th in the standings and finished 11th. Bowyer was the last driver in that season and finished fifth in the standings.
In 2007, Kevin Harvick was the last driver into the Chase and finished 10th in the final standings. Martin Truex Jr. entered the Chase in 11th and finished in that same position.
In 2006, only 10 drivers made the Chase and Kahne was the last driver in. He finished eighth after the final race of the season.
In 2005, Kenseth and Jeremy Mayfield were the last two drivers in the 10-driver field and Kenseth finished seventh while Mayfield was ninth.
In 2004 -- the first year of the Chase -- Mayfield clinched a Chase spot during the cutoff race and entered the playoff in ninth position. He went on to finish last in the Chase after the Homestead-Miami finale. Elliott Sadler was another last race entrant into the Chase and finished ninth. Kurt Busch, however, entered the Chase seventh and went on to win his only Cup title.
Conversely, the driver that is No. 1 after the Chase field is reseeded -- when bonus points from victories are factored in -- has only gone on to win the Cup title twice -- Johnson in 2007 and Stewart in 2005. Three times the driver seeded second has won the Chase -- Johnson in 2010, 2009 and 2006.
What could make this year's Chase interesting, however, is the two wild-card drivers will be proven race winners from the regular season. That could add a completely different dynamic to the battle for the title while the drivers that struggle just to get in at the bottom of the top 10 may be the ones that are non-factors.
Hamlin hopes to be one of the Chase challengers either as a wild card or a top-10 driver if he can sneak into the top 10 over the final three races before the cutoff.
In order to do that, however, the hoops junkie may want to wander up Interstate 95 to visit Coach Shaka Smart and learn how to get a little of that VCU magic on his side.
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