Even though there are still two races before the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup, the stretch run to the championship begins now. This weekend was the last off-weekend for the Sprint Cup Series, meaning the next 12 weeks are going to be grueling and extremely difficult.
For teams that are safely in the top-12, whether they are locked into the Chase or not, momentum is going to be key the next two weeks. We’ve seen all year that when momentum is lost, it is tough to get it back. Early in the season, both Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin were the best drivers week in and week out. Both have five wins on the season, but right now Hamlin would have the lead entering the Chase because of having nine top-five finishes compared to Johnson’s eight.
However, neither driver has made much gain since the middle part of the season, especially Johnson. Bad luck, unfortunate breakage, and ill-handling race cars have made up the majority of the months of July and August for the No. 48 team.
Johnson is trying to go for yet another championship, which would make five straight for him and the team. But, this year it seems as though the momentum this team had the last few seasons entering the Chase is not there. If Johnson wants to defend, it doesn’t just mean running well those final ten races. It means enter those ten races with a head of steam, and keep ahead of the competition.
Hamlin as well needs to get his season in gear, because if he doesn’t get momentum entering the Chase, Johnson and others could overpass him. Look at what happened to teammate Kyle Busch two seasons ago. He dominated the regular season, winning eight races.
When the Chase began, two bad runs and no championship. Hamlin knows that, and he doesn’t want a repeat.
At the same time, guys that are locked into the Chase, such as Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon, also need to keep momentum on their side and run hard each week to improve their position. Harvick would begin the Chase third right now, while Gordon would be near the bottom.
Finally, the battle for the last spot in the Chase that was going to be an intense battle has somewhat become less likely to happen. With Mark Martin having a rough run at Bristol last week, Clint Bowyer appears to have all but locked up his place in the Chase.
That’s not to say it’s a done deal, because even with two races left before the Chase, one bad run can change everything.
In essence, this off-week gives every team a chance to step back and go over every aspect of their season and make strides in this final run in the season. Some drivers are going to new places in 2011, so they want to end the year on a good note with their current teams to give them hope entering next season. Meanwhile, there’s some drivers who are unsure of where they will be next season, as they don’t have a ride in Sprint Cup after Homestead.
There is a lot to gain and a lot to lose when the season goes through these last 12 races. Anything can, and will, happen. The only thing we as fans can do is sit back with a cold drink and a snack, and watch the fun begin.