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Wild Card Watch: Junior's cushion almost gone

August 22, 2013, George Winkler, NASCAR.com

A Chase berth seemed like a sure thing a month ago but not so much anymore

Related: Sprint Cup Series Standings

What would a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup look like without Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver 10 years running?

A month ago, that question didn’t seem necessary because Junior was sitting firmly in fifth place and had a 55-point cushion between him and 10th-place Kasey Kahne. What has happened since then, however, has Junior in a tailspin.

Where did the cushion go? Well, it’s like two elephants sat on it, which is to say it’s not quite as cushiony anymore.

A mere 16 points separate Earnhardt Jr. in seventh place from Greg Biffle in 10th. And after that, it gets dicey, because without a win this season, Junior would be out of luck for a Wild Card spot.

How did it get this bad? It really hasn’t been until recently. But a pair of finishes in the 30s at Watkins Glen and Michigan the past two weekends has conspired to cut our hero down to size.

The wreck that caused Junior to finish 30th at The Glen was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. (See video.) Meanwhile, the 36th-place showing at Michigan was clearly because of frowning leprechauns as a tire went down and caused the No. 88 to smack the wall. (See video.)

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Throw in engine failures earlier at Michigan and Charlotte and a couple of sub-par finishes at Martinsville and Texas and a dark cloud has managed to accumulate over the No. 88, threatening to rain on the popularity parade. And to think things looked vastly different when Junior began the season with five straight top-10 finishes.

But sooner or later one has to find Victory Lane, or else these situations will inevitably happen when the bad luck does kick in. Junior has come close to winning several times thanks to five top-fives this season, including second-place finishes at Daytona and Fontana very early on.

Can he finally finish?

My magic eight ball says: It is decidedly so.

Junior has had plenty of success on the three tracks that are up next: Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond. In fact, if you look at his average finishes in Cup races, his best mark is at Bristol, followed by Atlanta, with Richmond tied for fourth with Daytona. He has three wins at Richmond, one apiece at Atlanta and Bristol.

That means there’s still time for Junior to get his cushion back and enjoy a soft landing in the goose-down comforter that is the Chase.

Ready to pounce: Joey Logano is back in the Race for the Chase after scoring a victory last week at Michigan, the third win of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career. Logano won the Coors Light Pole in record speed and came on late to pull out the victory for Ford at a track that is important to their organization.

Logano zoomed past Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon in the standings and is just seven points out of the final NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup Wild Card spot. Logano has four straight top-10 finishes, but before that streak there were back-to-back 40th-place finishes, reminding folks that anything is possible.

In spring at Bristol, Logano finished 17th after Denny Hamlin spun him and an altercation ensued. The next week at Fontana, Logano and Hamlin tangled again with Hamlin hitting an inner wall at the track, fracturing his back and in essence ending his Chase hopes.

We’re sure to see plenty of videos of all that leading up to this week’s race. How will Logano handle the added attention amid the pressure of a possible Wild Card? Getting the answer could be fun to watch. Logano has just one top-10 finish in nine races at Bristol, but he has started from the pole once there (spring, 2010).  

In danger of falling out: It has been a rough week for Ryan Newman both on the track and off of it. Logano’s win last week at Michigan pushed Newman even farther out onto the fringes of the Wild Card race. Now Newman, who is in 15th place, not only has 17 points between him and the final Chase qualifier (Martin Truex Jr.), but also Logano, who, like Newman, has one victory this season.

Plus, with reports out that Stewart-Haas Racing has offered Kurt Busch a ride in a fourth car next season, it has to be at least somewhat awkward for Newman, who was not invited back to SHR next year, to be carrying the team’s Chase hopes through the next three races. The good feelings of winning at Indianapolis seem like eons ago.

As for Newman’s outlook this week at Bristol, he has a driver rating of 86.7 there, according to NASCAR Statistical Services, which ranks 12th among active drivers. He finished seventh at Bristol in the spring, but crashed in the night race last season and finished 36th. In 23 career Cup races at Bristol, Newman has 13 top-10s and has started from the pole three times.

 

 

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