By Jerry Bonkowski
It’s time for NASCAR’s yearly installment of musical chairs – otherwise known as “the Race to the Chase.”
A number of drivers have to significantly pick up the tempo in the next seven races, lest they miss the biggest dance of the year, the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
With that in mind, we’ve borrowed from Bristol Motor Speedway’s tradition of drivers picking songs to be introduced to (and potentially inspired by) before each of that track’s two annual Cup races – and have given each of them a song that speaks to their waning Chase chances.
We’ve already conceded that the top four winless drivers currently – Jamie McMurray, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman will make the 16-driver Chase, unless one of the drivers below wins a race between Sunday’s Brickyard 400 and the final Chase qualifying race at Richmond in September.
Here’s the 10 drivers we think still have a chance to make the Chase, where they are ranked now – and their musical chairs theme:
Paul Menard (14th) – Menard has never made the Chase in his career. He needs another big win like 2011’s Brickyard 400 (his only Cup victory to date). His song: Jermaine Edwards’ “Don’t Count Me Out.”
Aric Almirola (15th) – Almirola enters Indianapolis on the Chase bubble. If he can stay on the positive side of the ledger for the next seven races, he’ll make the playoffs for the second straight year. His song (from the 1940s): “We Did It Before and We Can Do It Again.”
Clint Bowyer (16th) – Bowyer has struggled terribly this year. Even worse, he hasn’t won a race since 2012 and is on track to miss his second consecutive Chase. His song, from the band that carries the name of his home state: Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son.”
Greg Biffle (18th) – Biffle hasn’t won a Cup race since 2013 and unless he finds a way to fly through the pack in the next seven starts, he’ll miss the Chase for sure. His song: “Learn To Fly” by Foo Fighters.
Austin Dillon (19th) – A diehard country music fan, Dillon is in his sophomore Sprint Cup season and has yet to win his first race or make the Chase. The song he needs to inspire him to make the Chase: Blake Shelton’s “Sure Be Cool If You Did.”
Casey Mears (20th) – Mears has made 435 career Sprint Cup starts in 13 seasons, yet has never qualified for the Chase. While his chances are slipping away, we’d love to see him pull a big surprise in the next seven races. To make the Chase, he’ll have to live up to one of his favorite songs: Pearl Jam’s “Better Man.”
Kyle Larson (21st) – It has been a rough sophomore season in the Sprint Cup Series for Larson. He still has yet to earn his first career Cup win, and his chances of doing so (plus making the Chase) are fading with each passing race. His song: “I Can’t Drive 55” by Sammy Hagar.
Danica Patrick (22nd) – Since Patrick grew up just outside Rockford, Ill., home of rock stars Cheap Trick, we’ll pick an appropriate theme to make the Chase: “I Want You To Want Me.”
AJ Allmendinger (23rd) – After his emotional win to make the Chase last year at Watkins Glen, we couldn’t pick a better song to inspire a Chase repeat than one of AJ’s favorites: “I Wish” by Skee-Lo.
Tony Stewart (26th) – While we were going to go with something from fellow Indiana native John Mellencamp, because of Tony’s woeful struggles this season, Bruce Springsteen’s ode of better days fits perfectly for Stewart’s quest to return to “Glory Days.”
Jerry Bonkowski writes for NASCAR Talk at NBCSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.