Winless drivers see another chance pass at Bristol
August 24, 2014, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com
RELATED: Full race results | Updated series standings
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Two ends of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series spectrum were on the same strategy late in Saturday's Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
On one side, there was two-win Carl Edwards staying out following a Lap 432 caution flag that sent nearly all of the leaders down pit road.
The other faction consisted of winless drivers Matt Kenseth, Kyle Larson and Paul Menard, who all came to the same conclusion -- that the opportunity to restart up front and have a real shot at a win was more valuable than getting fresh tires or making adjustments.
So it was those four, with Kenseth in the lead on the outside lane, that led the field to green on Lap 434 and set the stage for a dramatic conclusion on a dramatic night in which Joey Logano eventually caught Kenseth as the others slipped back.
"It was a discussion," Kenseth said of the dialogue with crew chief Jason Ratcliff about the late call. "We were still talking about it all the way to the cone. Jason told me to pit, and I decided at the last second to stay out. We were looking over some stats this morning and talking and I wasn't sure with the way (Ratcliff) said it ... I just felt like he was wanting a little input from me, so I just stayed out."
Kenseth had the backing of his crew chief as well. He radioed that he didn't think the No. 20 team stood a chance to pick up its first win of the season by staying out.
"I'm all in, brother," Ratcliff replied.
Kenseth's third-place finish matched his best showing of the year on a night where all three Joe Gibbs Racing cars looked strong, but only the No. 20 was running at the end.
As for the other winless drivers, Menard and Larson needed a victory for more tangible reasons. They both entered Bristol outside of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field and were -- and remain -- in win-or-else mode.
Coming off a 43rd-place finish at Michigan last week, Larson started at the back after wrecking in qualifying and had to drive through the field. He scraped the wall a couple of times, avoided a separate wreck and was running in the top five with a chance at the checkered flag with 50 laps to go.
"That is the hardest that I've ever raced," Larson said after the 500-lap event. "I made our whole team have to work really hard with wrecking in qualifying. I had a few run-ins today and ... I guess I'm happy with 12th. That is probably about as good as we were."
Between Larson and Menard, the Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender is in the best position to seriously challenge for a postseason spot.
He's 26 points behind Greg Biffle, currently the 16th seed in the Chase Grid, with two regular-season races remaining. It's a tall order to make up, but Larson's strategy for the final two races basically takes points out of the equation -- it's win or nothing.
That's exactly why he stayed out late at Bristol, and it's a mindset that will manifest itself next week at Atlanta as well.
"I think 26 behind Biffle is a long way to go for two races. Hope for some bad luck for him," Larson said. "But we need to go out there and get a win, like we tried to do tonight."