FIVE MOST IMPORTANT RACES REMAINING ON THE CUP SCHEDULE

It is crunch time. We are into the second half of the season and there are seven races left to determine the 12 Chase drivers. After that, it’s a 10-race sprint for the Cup. Every race from hereon in is important, but some loom larger than others. Here are five to watch:

5. Watkins Glen (Aug. 9): The two road course races give some drivers fits and give others a rare opportunity for a good finish. There are always a few surprises after the checkered flag waves. Witness the Sonoma race in June that had Marcos Ambrose in third and A.J. Allmendinger, Clint Bowyer and Elliott Sadler in the top ten. The historic New York venue could shake up the championship standings.

4. Bristol (Aug. 22): Thunder Valley (pictured above) is known as a special place and the night contest in August is known as a special race. It pays as many points as any other event but teams and fans place it on a pedestal. This race is mentioned with the 600, Daytona and The Brickyard for preferred wins. But there is always carnage. Many an innocent bystander has had his fast ride removed with a flatbed truck. As a driver I would never want to enter Bristol needing points to stay off the bubble, especially with only two races to The Chase after this one.

3. Martinsville (Oct. 25): The Virginia half-mile is tight, hard on equipment, makes passing difficult and is the slowest track on the tour. All of this usually makes it one of the best races. A lot less engineering and a lot more racing come into play, which is the way it should be. But when there is trouble, there is little room for escape. Polite drivers don’t always get rewarded here. This 500-lap contest starts the second half of the 10-race Chase. With only four races remaining after the checkered waves, some of the championship contenders who are victims won’t have much time to recover.

2. Talladega (Nov. 1): You cannot run and you cannot hide. That sounds like a promotion for a scary movie but it best describes restrictor-plate racing on the Alabama superspeedway. As bad as short tracks are for sweeping up drivers who mind their own business, nothing can hold a candle to Talladega. Being up front or staying in the back are nice ideas on paper but there are plenty of mid-race garage interviews given by guys who unsuccessfully tried those strategies. There is no safe place. By the same token, there are plenty of opportunities to recover lost laps. A strong engine and a slick body are all that matter here. Every car handles well. Every car drafts well. Just pick the correct lane at the finish and miss the big one. Those last two are Herculean tasks.

1. Homestead (Nov. 22): The track and uniqueness of the event are not the issue. It is the timing. The November 400-miler is last call. There are no more weeks to make up anything. Whatever you have achieved at the end of the day is all you have. There is no more next week. This one does not set you up for anything else. Final points are listed following only one race per year.

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