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No wins, but no worry for these Sprint Cup drivers

The Sprint Cup drivers all left Loudon following the Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and headed their separate ways. With a weekend off before returning to racing at the Brickyard in Indianapolis, drivers were free to do whatever they pleased, be it returning to the garage for more work or kicking up their feet as far from the speedway as they desired.

The opportunity to relax didn’t come without a caveat, however. The Brickyard 400 is today , and there are no more breaks between this race and the Chase for the Cup. The season is entering its final dash, and for many drivers on the bubble of a postseason berth, that means these two weeks were a final chance to make the necessary tweaks and adjustments for a shot at making the Chase.

Some of those drivers are the bigger names in NASCAR. Matt Kenseth is in that group. So is Tony Stewart. And Kasey Kahne. And Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr., Chase competitors from a year ago who are hardly sure bets for this year’s edition.

They should all be somewhat nervous – regardless of a driver’s prestige, experience or position in the standings, being winless in late July when wins mean more than ever is cause for concern. But while plenty of drivers are in a near-panic as their final chances to make a Chase stand slip away, the following racers can like their odds as the season hits its homestretch.

Matt Kenseth: Kenseth has everything this year – just not a win. That might come across as downplaying an important criteria, but last year’s runner-up has raced more than well enough to feel confident that he’ll be in the Chase field when September rolls around.

Start with the close finishes – 12 top-10s, tied with Jimmie Johnson for the second most in the circuit, and seven top-fives, second to only Brad Keselowski’s and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s nine. That consistency is why he has the fourth position in the standings, the best among non-winners, and why he has every right to feel like the elusive win is right around the corner.

“We’re calling the races the way we need to call them to get ourselves in the best position,” Kenseth said. “We’ve just got to keep trying to get our cars faster, keep trying to get in position to win more, and if you can put yourself in that spot enough times, sooner or later you’ll get one.”

He’s been close so far, and whether or not he finds his way into Victory Lane, his Chase odds should stay high.

Concern level: 2 out of 10.

Tony Stewart: Unlike Kenseth, Stewart can’t draw much confidence from the way the season’s been going. A seventh-place finish at Loudon broke a string of five straight races out of the top 10, and he’s led only four laps over the past five races.

It’s the races coming up that have Stewart feeling confident – and the three-time champion has some sweet spots coming up.

Few are better for Stewart than the next one. The Indiana native has been at home at the Brickyard, winning a pair of races while managing a 7.9 average finish at the hallowed track.

“If you can’t win the Daytona 500, this is the perfect second to get your first win for the year,” Stewart said. “When you grow up 45 minutes from Indy … that is sacred ground to me. It always has been, always will be.”

If Stewart is good at Indy, he’s unconscious at Watkins Glen, where the series will go two weeks after the Brickyard and where Stewart has won five times in 14 races. Add in the final regular-season stops at Atlanta and Richmond, where he’s won three times each, and there’s enough reason, even with the slow finishes, for Stewart to think big.

Concern level: 5 out of 10.

Ryan Newman: Stewart’s former teammate has seen his consistency improve in June and July, enough so that he’s compiled the seventh most points in the Cup circuit. Good thing, because for those in the group of drivers hanging on to a Chase spot while still searching for a checkered flag, sidestepping the calamitous week is the key to staying alive.

In the coming weeks, though, Newman should see some of his best chances to grab the win that can put him on cruise control the rest of the summer. It starts at Indianapolis, the Childress driver’s home track and where he’s the defending winner, and continues at the next stop at Pocono, where he owns a respectable 11.5 average finish and has compiled nine top-10s, six of which have come in the past seven races there. If he still needs a final boost, he can get it at the regular season finale in Richmond, where he has a win, six top-10s and an 11.3 average finish – his best at any track.

If Newman has a major obstacle, it’s his own speed. He’s won no poles and started in the top 10 only seven times in 19 races. He’s had to make his way up through traffic week in and week out, and to his credit, he’s done it enough to remain a contender. But that’s a tough way to go about racing, particularly if a few drivers come from off the grid to snag a victory and the importance of getting a win to stay in the Chase picture goes up.

Concern level: 4 out of 10.

Three up

∎ Brad Keselowski: Dominated at Loudon and has three wins now, two in the last three races. A non-factor in the Chase picture a year ago, he’s looking like the man to beat this time.

∎ Kyle Larson: Looks like the first real bump in the road in the rookie’s season has passed. He ran well at Loudon and got a third-place finish to go with it, a big boost to his points chances in his Chase bid.

∎ Kyle Busch: Got the pole at NHMS and finished second behind an uncatchable Keselowski. His starting position broke a streak of four straight starts outside the top 10; the speed could be returning to the No. 18 team.

Three down

∎ Jimmie Johnson: With three wins and a Chase spot wrapped up, now’s the time to push the envelope and find out just what the car can and can’t handle before the Chase arrives. Still, a second straight 42nd-place finish and only 11 completed laps (to tire problems, no less) is just ugly.

∎ Aric Almirola: The winner in Daytona saw his attempt at an encore in Loudon derailed early by a crash in practice. He started in the back with a backup car and had an uphill battle all afternoon, eventually finishing 23rd.

∎ Kevin Harvick: Can’t really fault him for the 30th-place finish; he pushed his fuel and ran out right at the end, and as a two-time winner this year, he has the luxury to gamble. It’s the first time this year he’s gone three straight races without leading a lap, however, and with one top-10 in his last four races, it’s certainly been a harder time on the track than it was in April, May and early June.

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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