Chances to make Chase dwindle
August 12, 2014, Stu Hothem, NASCAR.com
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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- When NASCAR ushered in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup's Chase Grid era in January, elimination rounds were part of the postseason plan. But with four races remaining until the start of the playoffs and 12 drivers with victories, survive and advance arrives a month early.
Kurt Busch went to Victory Lane at Martinsville Speedway in the season's sixth race. At the time, it all but assured him a spot in the Chase. Following Sunday's race at Watkins Glen, Busch looked back at a lost opportunity with a third-place finish behind first-time winner AJ Allmendinger.
"Right now, our focus is the Chase and trying to keep others from punching their ticket to get in, and today, Allmendinger got in," Busch said.
Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Kyle Larson, who finished fourth at the Glen, expressed a similar sentiment in congratulating the winner but realizing his playoff chances were dwindling.
"I had a blast today, and happy for AJ, but in a way, it kind of makes it tougher for us to even make the Chase again," Larson said. "Just got to keep having top‑five runs, top‑10 runs and hopefully can squeak out a win soon, but if not, we've got to be consistent.
"Michigan is a good track for me as well as Bristol and Atlanta. I have three tracks I'm really confident at. Just go to each track with the same game plan, (which) is to shoot for a win, but if not, be as far forward as you can."
Thanks to Allmendinger's win, no scenario existed for a driver to clinch a Chase berth at the Glen, snapping a streak of three races that saw seven drivers place themselves in the Chase.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick all have multiple wins and cannot fall out of the top 30 in points, clinching spots in the 16-driver Chase.
One-win drivers like Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola and now Allmendinger will be racing winless drivers like Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman to seal their Chase fate by keeping others out of the win column.
Points currently put Bowyer, Kenseth, Larson and Newman in the provisional field after 22 races. Counting the one-win drivers and those who have clinched, a record 10 different organizations would make the postseason, bettering the mark of eight set in 2009. But if four other drivers notch their first wins of 2014 in the next four races, those racers will find themselves out of the sweet 16 headed to Chicagoland.
Seated next to Larson and runner-up Marcos Ambrose on Sunday, Kurt Busch counseled the winless drivers, saying they need to continue to run up front and put themselves in position for victories.
"I know Larson is over there biting his fingernails, but he's in position, where Ambrose wants to attack and jump on those guys," Busch said. "That's what the Chase is all about. It's win and you're in, and I'm sure we're going to see, as the races get closer, people doing more dramatic things to have a chance to make a run at the championship."
As he seeks to join Hamlin as only the second rookie to make the Chase, Larson has learned quickly that the new playoff field may be expanded, but it might be more difficult to crack.
"It's crazy to think that with a 16‑car Chase, it would be harder to make it than it was previously," Larson said. "I'm in the top 12 right now, and I'm sweating, trying to get locked in the Chase.
"But it's exciting. It's exciting for all the race teams that got to step up and for the fans to pay attention to it. I think NASCAR did a good job with the change. It's made everybody step up even more."