History shows strong start often leads to making the Chase

Todd Warshaw

What to know who will make the Chase? Just take a look at the current standings and that will provide you the answer.

After five consecutive races to start the year, NASCAR took its first hiatus of the season this past weekend and now enters a 15-race stretch that will not see it break again until late-July.

From short tracks like Martinsville and Richmond, to intermediate ovals like Charlotte and Michigan, to superspeedways like Talladega and Daytona to the twisty Sonoma road course, the upcoming gauntlet of races will test teams on every kind of track included on the Sprint Cup Series schedule.

This 15-week run will also go a long way to dictating who makes the Chase and who doesn't.

But even with only five races in the books, we already have a good indication of which drivers will be racing for the championship when the Chase begins Sept. 15 at Chicagoland Speedway.

Since the implementation of the Wild Card system, how the standings look after five events is pretty similar to how it will look five months from now.

In both 2011 and 2012, nine of the top 12 drivers in points after five races went on to qualify for the Chase. This is a testament to how critical it is for a driver to start the year off strong, establishing a cushion where a couple of bad races in the summer months won't be a dramatic blow to one's Chase hopes.

"Nobody runs the whole season perfectly," said series points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Fontana. "I'm just trying to get as many points as we can as early as we can so when that bad luck comes, it doesn't hit us as hard as it hits some of these guys early.

"These guys that run so well and then have something silly happen to their car or whatever and get in a hole early; they really have to grind and it weighs on you trying to make that up and get back into a comfortable position in the points."

As the only driver to finish in the top 10 in every race so far, Earnhardt finds himself atop the Cup standings by 18 markers and is in excellent position to secure a Chase berth for the third consecutive season.

And if you're looking at the other drivers making up the top 12 in points, it's easy to think that Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle all will join Earnhardt as Chase participants.

But what about Paul Menard, Joey Logano and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who find themselves eighth, ninth and 12th? The jury is still out, as none of the trio has ever been a Chase participant.

And of course there are a host of big names lurking in the shadows, including Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick, all of whom have been Chase regulars but are facing an uphill battle to qualify.

For Stewart, this is an unusual occurrence.

Residing 22nd in the standings, never before has the owner/driver been this low in points after five races and there is doubt whether he can make the Chase for the ninth time in 10 years.

As for Gordon, this year has an all too familiar feel to it, as he again is off to a slow start, and with the exception of Bristol, has struggled to find a handle on NASCAR's new Gen-6 car.

Although he has just one top 10 thus far, the good news for Gordon, 18th in the standings, is he is still in a better position than he was a year ago at this time when he was buried back in 25th.

"We've got ourselves in a hole that we're going to have to climb ourselves out of," Gordon said at Fontana. "We can certainly do it again, but it's not something you want to do.

"We definitely focused coming into this season on, even if we're off a little bit, let's get some consistent finishes so we're staying up in the points and don't get too far behind and here we are in a similar situation."

However, while starting strong does make things easier later, it isn't necessarily vital to make the Chase. No driver demonstrates this better than Keselowski, the defending Cup champion.

In '11, Keselowski was 23rd after five races and it took a scorching performance in the summer that included three victories for him to race his way into the Chase for the first time.

While he began the '12 season slightly better with a win at Bristol, Keselowski struggled with consistency early on. Heading into Martinsville the eventual champ sat 16th overall and look nothing like the driver who would go on to post an average finish of 6.3 in the Chase.

More often than not, however, the first five races set the tone for the remainder of the year. This underscores the importance of accumulating as many points as possible from the onset.

"Everybody wants to be in the Chase, it's so important to be in the Chase," Earnhardt said. "So much publicity for your team and so much excitement to be able to race for the championship. Trying to build on the points early is important to me."

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