600 could be springboard

jutter@charlotteobserver.comMay 25, 2013 

— Drivers in the Sprint Cup Series will have done a lot more than complete 600 miles of racing at the conclusion of Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

They also will have a pretty good idea whether they will have a chance to compete for the championship.

Next weekend’s race at Dover, Del., will mark the halfway point to the 26 races which will determine the 12-driver driver field in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. History shows, however, much of the Chase field typically is decided by the time the 600 has come and gone.

Last season, eight of the drivers in the top 10 in points after the 600 remained among the top 10 in points after the 26th race and qualified for the Chase. Only Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch dropped out.

That doesn’t leave a lot of room for error, but history shows the improbable still is possible.

Jeff Gordon wasn’t even among the top 20 in points after last year’s 600 but managed to make the Chase with a wild-card entry.

Brad Keselowski, the eventual series champion, and Clint Bowyer raced their way into the top 10 in points in the 14 races remaining after the Charlotte stop.

Regardless of the title implications, Keselowski wants a win Sunday for two reasons – he still is looking for his first 2013 win and he appreciates the significance the race has played in NASCAR’s history.

“I feel like this is a big race and this is one of those races, and with the events the other night at the Hall of Fame, you can see what people think of race winners from this event,” he said.

“They think of them as people that have a spot potentially in the Hall of Fame and receive some kind of accolades from winning this event. I think that signifies, at least to me, how big a win this would really be for me or any driver and how important this event can be to your career.”

Keselowski has fewer wins but is in a much better position in points than he was a year ago. His seventh-place position is nothing to rest on, however, so he likely would like to see better results in both to feel more secure about contending for another championship.

Jimmie Johnson, who leads the series standings and has two wins, appears in solid shape to maintain his streak of competing in every Chase.

Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne also appear on track for Chase berths barring a significant run of bad performances.

Kyle Busch, Aric Almirola and Kevin Harvick – who currently hold down positions eight-10, respectively, could use strong runs in the 600 to fuel the consistency needed to remain among the top 10.

Once again, Gordon is battling from the outside, but a victory on the 20th anniversary of his first 600 start could propel him into the top 10 in points – a far better position than he found himself in one year ago.

“We are off to a slow start, but I think as an organization we have the tools that it takes to make up those gaps to get ourselves back into a position to win,” Gordon said.

“I think we learned a lot from the all-star race. We had a pretty good car and didn’t show for it. There is no doubt I feel like we can be a threat in this one.”

Denny Hamlin, who missed four races this season with a broken vertebra in his back, is trying to complete a comeback even bigger than Gordon’s of a year ago.

First, Hamlin needs to get back into the top 20 in points to be in a position to use one of the two wild-card entries in the Chase reserved for drivers between 11th and 20th with the most wins. Since he hasn’t won yet, he also will need one or more wins.

Sunday is shaping up as a good place to add to the win column. Hamlin won the pole with a track-record qualifying lap and was fast in both of Saturday’s practices. He is tied for 26th in the series standings.

“I think ultimately getting the big trophy on Sunday is the validation that you’re truly back,” Hamlin said. “For me, it’s going to take some wins and some really good consistency throughout these summer months to put ourselves in position to have a chance at a championship.

“That’s what we’re here for.”

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