Pocono Raceway is not part of the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
However, Sunday’s Pennsylvania 400 will play a pivotal role in which drivers qualify for the playoff over the season’s final 10 races.
Five drivers have clinched a berth in the Chase with multiple race victories. Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch each have four wins, while Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth have two each.
Six more — Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart — have one win each and are likely to qualify as well.
That leaves five spots available. That number will dwindle should there be another first-time winner this season. But for now, those spots will be determined by the point standings.
Rookie Chase Elliott is in 11th place, 63 points ahead of the Chase cutoff. Austin Dillon is 12th, 58 points ahead of the cutoff. Ryan Newman is 13th, 45 points ahead of the cutoff and Jamie McMurray is 14th, 34 points ahead.
They all would appear to be relatively safe to make it, but none are taking anything for granted.
“You want to get to Victory Lane so you know you’re locked in,” Dillon said. “But we also have a good shot the way the point standings are right now. It’s a hard act to balance, but we’re just trying to consistently get better every weekend and put ourselves in a better position to win. The more we have those top-five, top-10 runs and show speed, we’ll have that opportunity.”
Dillon showed a lot of speed last week in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, placing ninth in the No. 3 Chevrolet. He believes he can carry that over to Pocono — a place where he has won previously in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
“It’s going to be hard to catch those (Joe) Gibbs (Racing) cars. They’re smokin’ fast right now,” Dillon said. “But I feel like we can show some speed at Pocono. I think we’re very capable of doing that with the package we showed at Indy. So we’re heading there with a pretty good plan. You never know what can happen. I’d love to lock ourselves in (to the Chase).”
Earnhardt on bubble: Things are tight for the 16th and final Chase berth. Currently, it’s held by Kyle Larson by 10 points over Kasey Kahne.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 11 points behind Larson. He fell out of the top 16 after missing the last two races due to concussion-like symptoms. He also will miss Sunday’s race at Pocono; Jeff Gordon will replace him in the No. 88 Chevrolet.
If and when Earnhardt Jr. returns, he will need a waiver from NASCAR since he did not meet the requirement to attempt each race. Stewart received one earlier this season after being sidelined with a back injury. Kyle Busch got one last year after he missed the first 11 races due to leg injuries suffered in a crash at Daytona during the NASCAR Xfinity Series race. He used that waiver to win the championship.
Trevor Bayne sits 14 points in back of Larson. Rookie Ryan Blaney is 22 points out and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 23 points behind.
Others battling for Chase: Following an eighth-place finish at Kansas in May, A.J. Allmendinger was in 15th place in the standings and in the Chase.
But in the nine races since, Allmendinger has not had a finish better than 13th. And three races he placed 36th or worse.
That has dropped him into 21st place, 51 points behind Larson.
“Honestly, the Chase is the last thing on my mind,”
Allmendinger said. “It’s been a rough month-and-a-half. Running better is the only way to get yourself out of the situation.
“Obviously, we know what’s at stake. You win a race, you make the Chase. But we’ve just got to get better and minimize our mistakes. If we get in a position to win a race, that’s great. If not, we’ve got to be a little bit better all around as a team.”
Of the drivers currently in the Chase on points and those on the outside looking in, many have won at Pocono in one series or another.
Newman, Kahne and Greg Biffle, who is in 22nd place in the standings, 75 points back of the Chase cutoff, all own Sprint Cup victories at the 2.5-mile triangular track. Besides Dillon, Blaney has a Truck Series win. Elliott, Larson, Bayne and Stenhouse Jr. have ARCA wins. Larson also took the checkered flag in last month’s Xfinity Series race.
They would love to duplicate the feat Sunday in the Pennsylvania 400. Because time to make the Chase is quickly running out.