This weekend’s race at Pocono Raceway marks the start of the second half of the regular season.
For drivers on the bubble, the pressure to get a win to guarantee their spot in the postseason will intensify with each week. So far, eight drivers are guaranteed a spot in the postseason. That leaves eight open spots for the rest of the field, to be parceled out first via victories, and then via points.
With a nod to Pocono’s unusual layout – three corners and three straightaways, here are three drivers who likely will have to win to make the postseason.
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Dale Earnhardt Jr.: He is 22nd in points with no realistic path to driving his way into the postseason without a victory – he is 99 points out of 16th.
He hasn’t had a race-winning car all season, but with Dale Jr. it’s almost as important that he thinks he has a fast car as it is to actually have one. And he should arrive at Pocono feeling racy.
In the past seven races at Pocono, he has six top-fives (including two victories) and an 11th . A victory would salvage an otherwise lost final season for the sport’s most popular driver. Among the remaining tracks, he should be strong at Michigan and Daytona (in addition to Pocono).
Ryan Blaney: Don’t be deceived by the fact he is 13th in points. When victories are factored in, he drops to 17th. And that’s a soft 13th anyway – he’s been so inconsistent it’s easy to imagine him falling completely out of contention between now and the start of the postseason.
His average finish of 20.3 is good for only 23rd among full-time drivers. He has finished on the lead lap in less than half of the races.
To be fair, young drivers who race too aggressively, as Blaney has at times, often stop doing that and start winning, and Blaney could do that, too. He had chances to win at Daytona, Texas and Kansas, which means he should be strong at Michigan and Kentucky in addition to the return to Daytona.
Matt Kenseth: He is 12th in points but 16th when wins are factored in. If one more driver below him wins, he’s out. Kenseth won at Pocono in 2015 (in a fuel mileage race) but otherwise has struggled there.
He has a better chance than Blaney to drive his way into the postseason … but not much better as the winless drivers ahead of him are too far ahead of him to catch.
His average finish so far this season is 18.1, his worst since 2001. It’s doubtful he’ll be a factor at Pocono, but keep an eye on him at Bristol (four wins), Michigan (three) and Loudon (three).