The STP 400 race at Kansas Speedway on Sunday not only represents the first of two NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Kansas this season but also the midpoint in the 26-race schedule leading up to the 10-race Chase for the Cup championship that ends the season.
With 14 races remaining on the schedule and warmer weather setting in at all of the NASCAR stops, the second half of the season is expected to get especially heated on the track, as well. Contributing mightily to the craziness we can expect over the next three-plus months is a major rules change in the Chase for the Cup qualifying format.
A dozen drivers will still qualify for the season-ending Chase, which over a 10-race schedule will determine the Sprint Cup champion for the year, a title Jimmie Johnson in the Hendrick Motorsports Lowe's Chevrolet has proudly held for the past five consecutive years. This year, however, unlike previous seasons, the final two spots will be determined outside of the standard season-long accumulated points system.
The 11th and 12th Chase qualifiers will be the two non-top-10 drivers with the most wins who are among the top 20 in points. In other words, the Sprint Cup Series drivers with the most wins who finish 11th through 20th in the points standings can make the Chase this year as wild-card qualifiers.
This rules change will enable someone like Jamie McMurray, who last year won two of NASCAR most prestigious races, the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and three races total but fell outside of the 12 best drivers in points, to make the Chase field and vie for the Sprint Cup championship as a wild-card entry.
Currently Jeff Gordon, in 16th, is the only driver in the second-half of the top 20 in points with a race win to his credit this season. And there are five drivers in the top 10 - Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman - who have not taken the checkered flag so far this year.
With race wins holding such a premium this year - especially so for the contending cars outside of the points - we are bound to see more drivers putting it all on the line and taking more chances as the season moves forward in the interest of putting themselves in position to grab an all-important win. Most experts agree that it will take at least two and maybe three wins to guarantee a wild-card ticket to the Chase.
One driver who likes the idea of giving more emphasis to wins as a determinant for making the Chase for the Cup field is Brad Keselowski. "That's going to add a lot of excitement to these races," he said. "It's going to be like a countdown. It just keeps getting a little more tense...a little more tense...everybody takes a little bit more chances."
Not all of the drivers in the Sprint Cup Series, however, are fans of the rules change regarding the final two Chase qualifiers. Kansas native Clint Bowyer, from Emporia, Kan., located a little over an hour west of Kansas Speedway, doesn't like the idea that drivers who haven't really shown much of anything for most of the year can qualify for the Chase with a couple of race wins.
"I just feel like if I was running a Chase format and had 12 teams to run for a championship, I'd want my 12 best teams over the course of a year to be able to compete for that," Bowyer said.
"I just don't see how a guy running 19th in points (and, say, he were to qualify based on a win in a rain-shortened race or one determined by fuel mileage) would stack up in a 10-race Chase for the Championship."
Matt Kenseth, who drives the No. 17 Ford for Roush-Fenway Racing, doesn't feel that the change in the Chase qualifying format should determine how a driver approaches each race. "You want to go out and try to win more races, you want to try to run up front and be consistent and be a contender week in and week out no matter what time of year it is," Kenseth said.
Say what you want, but if the idea is to increase competition and give more drivers a chance later into the season to contend for a coveted postseason Chase seat, how could it not be beneficial, both to the drivers as well as the hordes of NASCAR fans?