The Inside Line: Who has a shot of making the Chase?

( – Six races down and 20 to go before the regular season
ends in the Sprint Cup Series.

It’s still a long way to go before the 16-driver field is determined for the
Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, There are five drivers — Denny Hamlin,
Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano — virtually
guaranteed of making this year’s playoffs in NASCAR’s top series after each
one of them has won a race this season.

With 11 positions still up for grabs in the Chase field, who has a good chance
of making it in and who doesn’t based on performances early in the season?

Harvick, the defending Sprint Cup champion, has two wins, while Hamlin and
Johnson as well as Team Penske drivers Keselowski and Logano have one victory
each. Hamlin became the most recent one to join the Chase party with his win
this past Sunday at Martinsville. It was the first time he, Joe Gibbs Racing
and Toyota went to victory lane for a Sprint Cup points race since May 4, 2014
at Talladega.

“It’s a big win for Gibbs and Toyota,” said Hamlin, who moved from 14th to
eighth in points. “It’s been a rough year for both of us. We’re just not used
to not having success, especially with the resources that we have. Boss man
(team owner Joe Gibbs) expects a lot from us, and we expect to be in victory
lane and be up front. Even though it doesn’t cure things, it makes things

“We’ve got some kinks in our team right now, but like (crew chief) Dave
(Rogers) says, this buys you months of time to get everything worked out and
get all the kinks worked out because we know we can go on a championship run.”

Positions 1-15 in the Chase are determined by the drivers with the greatest
number of wins after the regular season concludes on Sept. 12 at Richmond. The
16th spot is reserved for the points leader if he or she does not have a

Last year, 13 drivers scored at least one win during the regular season to
qualify for the Chase. Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman did not have
a victory but made it into the field based on points.

Right now, Martin Truex Jr. is the highest-ranked driver in points without a
victory. Truex, currently third in the standings, has finished no worse than
eighth this season. He placed sixth at Martinsville despite having a loss of
power steering during the race.

“It’s awesome,” Truex said of his six-race streak of finishing in the top 10.
“I can’t say enough about the team. To battle like we did (at Martinsville),
we showed that we never give up. We haven’t all year long. It feels good to
have another good run at one of my worst racetracks.”

Truex only had five top-10 finishes for the whole season last year. He placed
24th in points in his first season driving for Furniture Row Racing, a single-
car team in Sprint Cup.

Harvick, the current points leader, and Logano, presently second in the
standings, are the other drivers who have finished in the top 10 in each of
the six races this season. Keselowski, fifth in points, has five top-10s.

Kasey Kahne (fifth in points), Newman (sixth), Paul Menard (seventh) and Dale
Earnhardt Jr. (ninth) are all off to good starts this season.

Earnhardt, though, dropped five spots in the rankings after his 36th-place
finish at Martinsville. He dealt with a broken shifter early in the race and
then was involved in an accident just before the halfway point, which put him
in the garage briefly for a damaged radiator. Earnhardt won at Martinsville
for the first time last October.

Other drivers who are presently ranked in the top 16 in points are: Aric
Almirola (10th), Kenseth (12th), David Ragan (13th), Casey Mears (14th), Jamie
McMurray (15th) and Danica Patrick (16th). Johnson dropped to 11th in the
ranking after his 35th-place finish this past weekend.

Ragan continues to drive the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing car in place of the
injured Kyle Busch. It’s not known yet when Busch will return to racing after
he fractured his right leg and left foot during an accident in the Xfinity
Series season opener at Daytona in February. He has made the Chase in each of
the last five seasons.

Ragan has never qualified for the playoffs and this might be his best shot at
doing so while driving the 18. He scored his first top-10 finish of the season
with a fifth-place run at Martinsville.

“I feel like we’ve underperformed the last three or four weeks,” Ragan said.
“A lot of it has been just mistakes on my behalf. We’ve been really good.
We’ve had some good speed, and we’ve had top-10 cars, but we just haven’t been
able to have a good entire weekend. We put together a good race (at
Martinsville), and that’s most important.”

When Busch is medically cleared and hops back into his car, Ragan will return
to Front Row Motorsports and resume his driving duties in the No. 34. Ragan’s
last Sprint Cup win occurred at Talladega two years ago, in his second season
with Front Row.

Jeff Gordon had a rough start to his 23rd and final season in the series,
finishing 33rd at Daytona and 41st at Atlanta due to accidents. After placing
18th at Las Vegas, Gordon has recorded three straight top-10 finishes. At
Martinsville, he held the lead with less than 40 laps to go but was penalized
for speeding onto pit road during the last caution. He ended up finishing

“It didn’t fare well for us, and that’s our fault,” Gordon said. “We just had
some things that didn’t go well for us, and we need to perform at a higher

Gordon, a four-time series champion, has climbed from 30th to 17th in points
since Las Vegas.

Those drivers who are struggling this year include Carl Edwards and Tony

Edwards, who lost the 2011 championship to Stewart in a tiebreaker, has yet to
record a top-10 finish this season and sits 18th in points. This is his first
season driving for JGR after spending the last 11 years with Roush Fenway

Stewart has accumulated just 87 points for the season, which ranks him 32nd.
He had finished 30th or worse in the first four races before placing 14th in
Fontana, California, and then 20th at Martinsville. It’s been nearly two years
since Stewart has won a race in the series.

Kurt Busch missed the first three races when he was suspended by NASCAR due to
domestic violence allegations, but Busch is eligible for the Chase if he were
to win during the regular season or collect enough points to earn a spot in
the field. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has moved up to 25th in points after
top-five finishes at Phoenix and Fontana and then a 14th-place run at

Sprint Cup takes its first break of the season this Easter weekend and then
returns to action the following week at Texas.