Reid Spencer Predicts Whos in the Chase

By: Kaye Leery

Reid Spencer, a Sporting News NASCAR journalist, predicts who is going to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup for the next nine more weeks. He also has predictions as to who will not qualify in the top 35 in owner points at the end of the year and why the entire landscape of Toyota's Nextel Cup effort will witness dramatic changes for next season.

He first looked at the points report NASCAR furnished after Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway. With this, he concluded that the current top eight drivers in points - Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick - are going to be in the race when the cutoff comes at Richmond in September.

Series leader Harvick in eighth place is 507 points behind Gordon. Harvick is 248 points ahead of Ryan Newman in 13th, the first position outside Chase worthiness. Fourteenth placer Jamie McMurray is 305 behind Harvick, and 15th-place Kurt Busch drags the Daytona 500 winner by 357.

Having those figures, the journalist writes that it might be possible for one of those three drivers to replace Harvick, but the writer assures it is not going to happen.

Positions nine through 12 are occupied by Chevrolet drivers Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Behind Gordon at 628 points lead is Earnhardt. But Earnhardt is 127 ahead of Newman (Dodge), 184 ahead of McMurray (Ford) and 236 ahead of Kurt Busch (Dodge).

Spencer writes that it is possible for any of the four drivers in 9th through 12th to fall out of the Chase, but again, he predicts that it is not going to happen. He adds that drivers currently in the top 12 will still be in the top 12 after Richmond, without exception.

He further writes that the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow (COT) has built a status system in Nextel Cup -those who have an advantage in testing and development of the COT, and those who do not have.

Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Richard Childress Racing have their COT programs hitting on all cylinders, from a team standpoint. But from a manufacturer view, Chevy is at the forefront in the development of the new car.

Getting the top eight positions at New Hampshire are the Chevy drivers. Seven of those drivers belong to one of the four teams mentioned above, Jeff Green being the exception.

Also finished in the top 13 at NHIS were 12 of the drivers currently in the top 13 in the standings, with Bowyer being the only exception, who had trouble with an oil cooler line. The journalist writes that the situation is hardly a coincidence and just more of evidence that the gap will widen between 12th place and those below the cutoff.
Spencer adds that the teams that are performing well now will continue to do so in order to solidify their positions in the race. He deduces that the public will not witness a battle for the final spot when Richmond rolls around. He further writes that the suspense and drama of 2006 when Kasey Kahne edged Tony Stewart by 16 points in the race for the 10th and final position before the Chase was increased to 12 drivers simply will not happen this year.

He adds that there will not be any suspense on who makes the top 35 in owner points, either. According to him, failing to qualify for the Lenox Industrial Tools 300 was a devastating flurry for 36th placer Scott Riggs' Evernham Motorsports team, which descended 182 points behind the No. 70 Haas CNC Chevy driven by Johnny Sauter.

Thirty-seventh in owner points New Hampshire pole sitter Dave Blaney is 188 back of Sauter. The Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford driver Bill Elliott is 219 points behind Sauter in 38th spot. Spencer predicts that those are the only three cars with a remote possibility of unseating the No. 70.

However, the writer again forecasts that it will not happen, and that is the basis of Toyota's difficulty. According to him, Toyota, maker of quality , will start the 2008 season in a more unfavorable shape than it started 2007 -- with no teams in the top 35 in owner points.

Being in the top 35 in 2006, Blaney, therefore was guaranteed a starting spot in the first five races this year. Dale Jarrett will still have six past champion's provisionals to use next year. These statements were based on a lot of assumptions like: NASCAR does not amend the past champion's rule, Jarrett still drives a Toyota and Michael Waltrip Racing still exists.

The writer states that it is not the sort of progress Toyota will find acceptable in its second season. Blaney's pole at Toyota's first in the Cup Series - New Hampshire - certainly was a parcel on a generally barren landscape. But the current predicament of Toyota, according to Spencer, brings urgency to the carmaker's courtship of Joe Gibbs Racing.

Spencer recommends that Toyota needs a team with marquee stars who are guaranteed to race. From Gibbs' standpoint, the organization would move from second, third or fourth in Chevy's stricking order - depending on how heavily a driver weights performance, history and sentiment - to elite status as Toyota's flagship team.

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