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Caraviello: It's go time, but many going wrong way

August 28, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

During this go time for wild-card hopefuls, many going the wrong way

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- It all unfolded like a bad movie Denny Hamlin had sat through too many times before. With 200 laps remaining in Saturday night's event at Bristol Motor Speedway, the most snake-bitten championship contender in NASCAR saw two cars in front of him go sideways. Hamlin slowed down, but the vehicle behind him didn't. Paul Menard rammed into the back of his No. 11 car, doing enough damage that the Joe Gibbs Racing driver had to head to pit road for repairs.

"I was like -- of course," Hamlin said. "Our luck."

The reaction was understandable, given all the mechanical misfortune Hamlin has battled through this season to keep himself in contention for a wild-card berth to the Chase. But crew chief Mike Ford asked for silence over team radio, and then sent his pit crew into action with detailed instructions on how to mitigate the damage. On a half-mile layout such as Bristol, where track position is so important and the sight of the pace car coming back around the corner doesn't leave much time for repairs, they did what they could. It proved to be enough to manufacture a seventh-place finish that not only prevented a points loss, but moved Hamlin up one position to 13th in the standings.

"Here, the larger concern was whether we could get it fixed in the time that we had to fix it," Ford said. "If you have to come back in, you have to go back behind the lead-lap cars. So having a game plan to execute the pit stop, make the adjustments, and fix the repair is difficult. We didn't get it fixed exactly like we'd like to, but we weren't willing to give up the track position. I think the guys executed as well as you could expect, and it was a good solid night all the way around from the pit crew and the driver to the fortunes of the evening. It was good all the way around."

It was the kind of response you'd expect from a team that came within one race of a championship last season, particularly with just two events remaining in the run-up to the Chase after Saturday night. But it was in short supply at Bristol, where many of Hamlin's chief rivals for a wild-card position (Brad Keselowski essentially put a hammer lock on the other one with his third victory of the year) endured horrible evenings that cast doubt on their abilities to seriously contend. With Richmond now so close you can almost glimpse the Virginia capitol building, it's go time for those drivers on the Chase bubble. And Saturday night several of them went -- backward.

* Race Rewind: Trouble strikes for some Chase bubble drivers

Clint Bowyer finished two laps down in 27th. Tony Stewart finished three laps down in 28th. Greg Biffle all but fell off the map after an early wheel issue began a spiral to a six-lap-down, 31st-place finish that cost him three positions in the points. One-time race winner David Ragan finished 20th, as the last car on the lead lap, and dropped one spot out of the top 20, in which drivers must finish to be eligible for the playoff. It was the kind of night where Dale Earnhardt Jr. could slog home in 16th, and still solidify his place inside the Chase by nine points. No one seemed capable of making up any ground.

Chase Bubble

Notables after Bristol
Pos.DriverPts+/- 10thW
10.T. Stewart 710 --0
11.Keselowski 689-213
12.C. Bowyer 688-220
13.D. Hamlin 672-38 1
16.G. Biffle 649 -610
20.P. Menard 631 -791
21.D. Ragan 628 -821
22.M. Ambrose 627 -831

"We struggled all night ... We were thankful to finish where we finished."

--DALE EARNHARDT JR.


_______________________

" I was pretty proud of where we ended up right there."

--DENNY HAMLIN

"We struggled all night, really, trying to get a good car," Earnhardt said. "We were trying to get a good car, trying to get the car to drive. We just couldn't really get a good balance all night. The balance was decent on the car, but we were just slow, we didn't have enough grip. Just sliding around a whole lot. We were thankful to finish where we finished."

Does anyone else besides Keselowski want to make this Chase? No question, much of what happened Saturday night was a function of Bristol, a short track where mistakes are unavoidable, and the difference between a good finish and a poor one often comes down to crisis management. But Biffle said he pitted because a vibration made him think he had a loose wheel, although his crew wasn't able to find anything amiss after the stop. And some others seemed to just whiff altogether, despite the fact that they're running out of races to try and make something happen.

"Just a rough night," said Stewart, who managed to hold on to 10th place, but lost 31 points on his lead over the now 11th-place Keselowski. "Struggled through."

He wasn't alone. The weeks go by, and we wait on one of these wild-card contenders to assert themselves, and it doesn't happen. It all makes what Keselowski is doing that much more amazing, considering he wasn't even on the Chase radar screen in the spring. Now, he's essentially a lock. He wins races and distances himself from the competition, while everyone else tries simply to maintain or not to lose ground. Is he waiting on a challenge that will never come?

Not so fast, he says. "Oh, it will come. This sport works in cycles. I've been at the bottom of the cycle since I came in, and we're just now getting back to the top. You've got to capitalize when you're at the top. You've got to find a way to get good finishes, and we're doing that," said Keselowski, his firesuit smelling much like the malted beverage product that sponsors his race car.

"I know we'll cycle back to the bottom, every team does. You just hope that your cycle is at a time when it doesn't mean anything. I think you look at teams, Denny is the best example. He's cycled both ways. As a team and as a driver, you just hope that when you're at the top of the cycle, you capitalize on it, and when you're at the bottom of the cycle that you can somehow find a way to persevere through it. Tony Stewart is not going to run where he finished [Saturday] forever. This is by no means the end of his career. So he's definitely going to cycle back up. Does he cycle up tomorrow, or four weeks from now, or more? I don't know. But you certainly can't count on him to not get back to his winning form."

Certainly, everyone expects that to happen. But time is running short, and we're nearing the point where one race victory might no longer guarantee anything. All of which further emphasizes comebacks like the one Hamlin made Saturday, after he was caught up in the aftermath of David Stremme's blatant takeout of David Reutimann.

* Video: Stremme dumps Reutimann; Hamlin gets damage

Ford's quick fix got his driver off pit road in 13th place, and Hamlin said he was more patient behind the wheel than at any time since his rookie season. What could have been a disaster turned into a small gain, and another small step toward a wild-card berth no one else seems to want to claim.

"It hurt the handling a little bit," Hamlin said of the accident, "but I was pretty proud of where we ended up right there." Among the bubble boys in the Chase wild-card race, he was decidedly in the minority.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.