CONCORD — Is it too late to make a run in the Chase? Probably not.
But for the drivers who have fallen 40 or more points behind Sprint Cup points leader Brad Keselowski with six races left, winning the championship will be a difficult task.
Only four drivers – Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer – remain within 40 points of Keselowski entering Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
What’s so important about the 40-point barrier?
Since the advent of the Chase format in 2004, the biggest comeback victory after four races involved Johnson overcoming a 156-point deficit after the fourth race of the 2006 season.
Johnson’s 156-point deficit would translate to about a 40-point deficit under the current point system in place.
Can it be done again? Sure.
Is it likely? Probably not without some help, says pole winner Greg Biffle, who trails Keselowski by 49 points.
“If we get back in it, it’s because they gave it back to us. That’s really what is going to have to happen, and we’re going to have to earn it for sure,” he said.
“We’re going to have to earn it Saturday night here in the Bank of America 500 and next week and on to the rest of the races, but they’re going to have to give us a little bit back to get us in the hunt.”
So far this season, Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin have shown little signs of slipping.
In the Chase’s first four races, Keselowski has two wins and finishes of sixth and seventh for an average finish of 3.75.
Johnson’s worst finish thus far was 17th place last weekend at Talladega, Ala. Hamlin has been even more consistent.
Should Keselowski come anywhere close to maintaining this pace through the remainder of the Chase, it will be nearly impossible for anyone to catch him.
Jeff Gordon put together an impressive run in the last three races with finishes of third, second and second, but the main reason he finds himself 42 points behind Keselowski is his 35th place finish in the Chase opener at Chicagoland.
“Of course, it started the way it did in Chicago. But, other than that, we’ve been on quite a roll; quite a streak and I’m really proud of this team,” Gordon said.
“It’s got me excited to go to each and every race. We’ve just really improved our cars, and it has me driving with more confidence, giving better information back to them. I give so much credit to the team.”
If Gordon is able to maintain his current pace, he could well emerge with a chance at a fifth series championship.
Of Keselowski’s main competitors, Bowyer starts fourth on Saturday night, Johnson fifth, Hamlin ninth and Kahne 10th. Keselowski will line up 20th.
“I feel like we can race them heads-up,” Johnson said of Keselowski’s No. 2 Penske Racing team. “We’ve been nip and tuck through all these events and you’ve got to bring your best stuff out right now.
“That’s what the Chase is about. And with all that said, (Hamlin) is still right there and there are some other guys back there that also have something to say, too.
“Regardless of the stats, they’re a threat to the leader right now. We’ve got to go out and race them hard.”