Wednesday, June 29, 2011

June races showcased potential Sprint Cup championship contenders

June is often considered one of the most important months of the NASCAR schedule. It is a month that includes several different types of tracks that force teams to have a good, solid program overall.

From horsepower to fuel mileage, the races in June tend to expose which teams have their act together and which teams are good, but maybe not good enough to make a run at the championship.

So, what insights might we have gained this June? For one, Carl Edwards and the #99 team is for real. It would be shocking if Edwards isn’t a factor in the late stages of the Chase.

He may not have won a race, but aside from an engine problem that relegated him to a 37th place finish at Pocono, a race where he started sixth, Edwards racked up three top fives while maintained the top spot in the points ahead of second-place Kevin Harvick.

Speaking of Harvick, the #29 team doesn’t have a commanding lead in the points standings as it did last year at this time, but Harvick has closed Edwards’ points lead to 26 after starting the month 35 points behind coming off of his win in the Coca-Cola 600.

Harvick finished in the top 15 in every race during June. Plus, he persevered to a ninth-place finish Sunday at Sonoma after he got caught up in an early wreck that left his car with substantial damage.

That consistency, combined with his three wins, will keep Harvick in contention throughout the Chase.

The other obvious team that awakened during June is last week’s winning #22 team and its driver, Kurt Busch. The team’s struggles earlier in the season have been well-documented, but Busch’s rebound actually started a week before June began.

Busch has flown from ninth to fourth in the points since Dover and has reeled off a win and four top 10s, including three straight poles.

This team likely won’t stay as hot as its been lately, but Busch is not far behind Edwards and Harvick at this point. And, while assuming Jimmie Johnson will be in the championship mix, Busch is next in line as a dark-horse contender for the title. The key for this team will be finding the consistency the other three contenders have.

While June is a month to separate the contenders from the pretenders, July begins with a shootout at Daytona to start the unofficial second half of the season. The Fourth of July race at Daytona is another one of the special events where points don’t matter so much.

But, with the chance of a surprise winner relatively high, this race could have a big say in who gets into the Chase because of the wild-spots this season. In that case, there might be one way to satisfy the “Winning doesn’t count enough” crowd.

While it still won’t directly help him win a championship, the winner of Saturday night’s race, or any of the upcoming 10 races, could at least have a chance to win the championship. In that way, winning could have a huge say in the championship, especially if a wild-card driver ends up winning the Sprint Cup.

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