Kentucky may be Joey Logano's best chance to make the Chase
Joey Logano has dominated Kentucky, winning Nationwide races there in '09, '10
He needs to reach Victory Lane at least once to have a shot at qualifying for Chase
Also: Tony Stewart has reached boiling point; Carl Edwards looks to rebound
You can tell he's a natural just by the way he can make his car behave as if it's organically attached to his body. He possessed this skill even as a boy, and that's why Mark Martin -- a man never prone to overstatement -- has been saying for years that Joey Logano, who is now all of 21, will one day be a Sprint Cup champion.
And maybe he will. But right now Logano needs one thing more than anything else: a win. The most feasible way for Logano, currently 20th in the standings, to make the Chase will be to qualify as a wild card. (Remember: The top 10 in points advance to the Chase after 26 races and then the two drivers between 11th and 20th in the standings with the most wins will move on as wild cards in the 10-race playoff.) This means Logano, whose one career win came during a rain-shortened New Hampshire race in June 2009, needs to reach Victory Lane at least once in the last nine regular-season events to have a chance at qualifying for his first Chase.
And Saturday at Kentucky may be his best chance. This will be the first time the Cup series has ever stopped at the 1.5-mile oval in Sparta, Ky., and this should play into Logano's hands. He's dominated this track in the Nationwide Series. He sat on the pole and won here last year in the Nationwide race and he did the same thing in 2009. So in other words, he knows how to get around the joint better than anyone in NASCAR.
"I think my big advantage that I have [at Kentucky] is I just know what I need to make the car go faster," Logano said earlier this week. "I know what I need when the race starts and all that. I think that's an advantage I might have."
Logano needs to seize this moment -- and I think he will. He's my pick to take the checkers on Saturday night, which will then put him in the thick of the hunt for the final wild-card spot.
Here are four other drivers I'll be watching when the race goes green in the Bluegrass State:
1. Tony Stewart
Pay close attention to Stewart. For weeks he's said that the lack of respect on the track is as profound as it's ever been in the Cup series -- meaning drivers with slower cars aren't simply letting drivers with faster cars go by, which is rule No. 1 of racing etiquette -- and he's now at the boiling point. He said after the race last weekend at Daytona that if someone blocks him going forward, he would wreck that driver -- pure and simple.
I've spent a lot of time with Stewart over the years -- he even talked to the sportswriting class I taught in the spring at the University of Alabama, meeting with us at Talladega -- and this I know about the two-time Cup champion: He means what he says and says what he means. So my advice to anyone tempted to block Stewart on Saturday night -- don't.
2. Carl Edwards
After holding the points lead for most of the season, Edwards fell to second behind Kevin Harvick after he wrecked at Daytona last Saturday and finished 37th. Time for Edwards to panic? Not yet.
I'm of the belief that Edwards is the top intermediate-length track driver in NASCAR, so Saturday will be telling. If Edwards struggles at Kentucky, an intermediate track, then it could be indicative of deeper problems for the No. 99 team, which for most of the season has looked capable of dethroning Jimmie Johnson. But if Edwards flourishes on Saturday night -- and I think he will -- then you'll be able to chalk up his recent struggles as nothing more than bad racing luck and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
After finishing 19th at Daytona, Earnhardt's grip on a Chase spot loosened dramatically. Just three weeks ago he was third in the standings and looked like an iron-clad lock to advance to the playoffs for the first time since 2008. But after finishes of 21st at Michigan, 41st at Sonoma and 19th at Daytona, Earnhardt now only has a 36-point cushion between making the Chase and not making the Chase.
What makes Kentucky such a critical race for the No. 88 team is that the upcoming tracks on the schedule are some of Earnhardt's worst. He traditionally struggles in the summer; if that happens this year, his season -- which showed so much promise just weeks ago -- could be lost.
4. David Ragan
In this space last week I predicted Ragan's win at Daytona -- his first in 163 career starts. Could he back it up with another W on Saturday night? Don't be surprised if that happens. Drivers who get over the hump and notch that first career win tend to snag their second victory with relative speed.
And if Ragan does win? Even though he's currently 17th in points, you could pencil him into the Chase as one of the two wild cards.
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