NASCAR’s Final Chase Spot Represents a Changing of The Guard
When NASCAR introduced the Generation Six car, one of the points of emphasis it had, aside from safety and uniqueness, was how it would allow smaller teams to be more successful against the likes of perennial favorites Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing.
With NASCAR’s regular season nearing the halfway point and each race becoming more and more prevalent in the championship picture, two drivers have the ability to shake up the NASCAR standings and knock off some of NASCAR’s best to cement themselves as championship contenders.
Paul Menard began this year with high expectations, but a regressing Richard Childress Racing team and a perception that Menard was only in NASCAR because of his father’s money were thought to be detractors on any possible success this year.
Rather, the Wisconsin born driver finds himself as one of the most consistent drivers in NASCAR, and Menard has put himself in position to contend with teammate Kevin Harvick for the 10th and final Chase for The Sprint Cup spot. Harvick is leaving RCR for Stewart-Haas Racing at season’s end, and an unheralded Chase berth would keep RCR at the top as the team transitions from drivers Harvick and Jeff Burton to brothers Austin Dillon and Ty Dillon.
Currently sitting ninth in the standings, but only two points away from being out of the chase, sits Richard Petty Motorsports driver Aric Almirola, who came into the season predicted to not even be the best driver on his own team. Now, Almirola is in prime position to shock everybody and make the Chase.
Both Almirola and Menard find themselves in their respective positions through astonishing consistency, but between the two drivers, they share no victories or top-five finishes, but only one DNF. Behind them are Harvick, Roush-Fenway Racing driver Greg Biffle and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, who have gotten off to slow starts, but are hungry and certainly favorites to fill out the Chase for The Sprint Cup field after the series returns to Richmond International Raceway.
For Almirola and Menard to fill the field, it will take more than the consistency they have displayed early in the season. Between the pair of young drivers, they only hold one victory, that being Menard’s 2011 Brickyard 400 victory. It will take at least one trip to victory lane, and consistent top-five finishes, both which can be expected from the three veteran drivers stalking the top-10 in points.
In the end, it is too early to confidently predict who will be in and who will be out of the Chase. But, over the course of the next few races, I expect one these two drivers to rise to the occasion, ending up in victory lane and gaining valuable points in the process.
If both of these drivers were to somehow make The Chase though, it would cement the Generation Six car era of NASCAR as one of the most competitive in the history of the sport, and propel both Richard Childress Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports into the upper-echelon of Sprint Cup Series teams.
Follow Mike Guzman on Twitter @Mike486