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Inside NASCAR: Pressure mounts with three to go before Chase

August 25, 2011, Dave Rodman,

With three races to go before the field is set for the eighth annual Chase, NASCAR fans are looking at a dramatic stretch run, keyed-off points battles and potential winners, clouded by some murky performance.

Right now, realistically, 10 drivers are battling for five Chase spots. Three of those spots are at the tail-end of the top 10 in the drivers' points, where Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart currently sit.

"It's such a weird thing. ... One extra win by myself or someone else completely changes the game and I got to be aware of that."



"Our focus, even more so than before, shifts to getting the second win ... throwing the dice on the table and seeing what we've got."


The other two qualifiers, as of today, are in the new-for-2011 Chase "wild card" spots reserved for drivers who win races and are between 11th and 20th in the standings.

After this past Sunday's race at Michigan, the wild-card entrants are 12th-place Brad Keselowski and 14th-place Denny Hamlin, who's won once this season. The penalty for wild-card Chase entrants this season is that they don't get bonus points for the race wins that got them into the Chase in the first place.

"The seeding [via bonus points] obviously is a huge advantage [but] it's going to be good either way," Keselowski said. "I'm a big fan of the wild card. It's going to be something that's going to reward me. I think it's a great way of showing a commitment to our fans to rewarding those who can win races. It serves the sport well, accordingly."

The second five contenders -- Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Paul Menard, David Ragan and Marcos Ambrose -- are a mix of guys who can make it into the Chase via points and those who must get in via wins.

But for the entire group, these three races truly represent desperate times. Busch actually has a point-race win, scored at Sonoma in June. But Earnhardt hasn't won since June 2008 and Stewart, October 2010.

Bowyer and Biffle are the next-closest men in the points, in 11th and 13th, respectively. But neither has won since October 2010 either. Finally, Menard, Ragan and Ambrose have all won their career-first Cup events in 2011, but they're far enough back in the points that winning again is virtually their only hope.

Stewart and Hamlin are the only ones in the bunch who have won Cup races at any of the next three venues. Stewart won this past October at Atlanta and Hamlin, of Chesterfield, Va., has won two of the past four races at his home track, Richmond. Hamlin also has a second place in that stretch.

Otherwise, in a system that was built to reward wins -- which in Keselowski's case is particularly true this season -- and despite having five first-time winners, with three of them peripheral Chase contenders, five drivers have won 13 of the 23 races to date and that quintet is likely to win at least one of the next three.

No one else in the top 20, which includes A.J. Allmendinger (15th), Mark Martin (16th), Kasey Kahne (17th) and Joey Logano (19th), has managed to win once this season, never mind pulling off the two victories that it almost certainly would require to get into the select group of 12.

But more than ever, this season, the chase is on to make the Chase, and no one knows that better than five-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. Johnson referred to the Chase itself when he spoke to the media at Michigan -- but he could've been talking about the race to it, as well.

"The Chase does something to everyone -- the pressure that's put on the drivers," Johnson said. "As the races click off, it comes down to two or three races left, it does weird things to people, outside the car, on the pit box, things happen. We've seen that."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ninth) and Tony Stewart (10th) are the only drivers in current Chase standing without a win. (Autostock)

It remains to be seen, after the next three events, exactly who'll be seen contending for this title, along with Kyle Busch, who officially locked himself into the Chase field when he won at Michigan.

In on points, for now

Just one race ago, Kurt Busch was 78 points ahead of 11th in the championship. Three races ago, Busch was sixth, but only 77 points clear of 11th. Now, after a variety of maladies, Busch sits eighth, 52 points ahead of Bowyer. Despite his comfort level, things can happen, as his recent history has shown.

Since he won at Sonoma in June, Busch's average finish is 18.2. But with the current point system, finishes like the 34th at Michigan, where a cut tire put Busch in the wall, and 38th at Watkins Glen, which really cost him in the points, Busch forecast a little circumspection for his team.


Current top 10
2. J. Johnson 7891
3. K. Harvick 7603
4. C. Edwards 7601
5.M. Kenseth 7592
6. J. Gordon 7392
7. R. Newman 7251
8. Ku. Busch 7221
9.Dale Jr. 7000
10.T. Stewart 6940

"With the way that [crew chief] Steve Addington has put in new things to the car each week, just little things here and there, we're not going to go way off in left field and try things," Busch said. "We're still going to continue to polish up what we have because what we have has gotten us to this point at a fairly successful rate."

But Busch also said that Keselowski, who has scored three consecutive top-three finishes and four consecutive top-10s, had become an extremely effective teammate. Busch, however, also has a pretty big ace up his sleeve in that he's won multiple races at both Bristol and Atlanta, and he's also won once at Richmond.

"Just a few weeks ago at Pocono, we were struggling all through practice," Busch said. "We threw our setup in the trashcan and bolted in Brad Keselowski's setup. He won the race, we finished third. That's the sign of a team that's in position to do good things, when you can just throw a setup at it and still come away with a top-five finish."

Earnhardt has been on a roll of five consecutive consistent, if unspectacular finishes in which his worst was 16th -- like his 14th-place Sunday that was plagued by tire-related issues. But he's doing better than he was a year ago by far and he'd really have to screw up to fall out of Chase contention.

But don't try to convince a guy who's made the playoffs only once in the the past four seasons that it's a sure thing, however.

"We're not in the Chase yet," Earnhardt said coming into Michigan. "But we had a good week [at Watkins Glen], where some other guys had bad weeks. We got some fortune there when it came to the points.

"Hopefully, that can help us maintain our position if not improve it. I think we can even improve our position if we do well enough."

Earnhardt is 30 points clear of Bowyer and he's been very effective at Bristol, where in his past five starts his worst finish is 14th and his average finish is 12.8.

But Bristol is critical for Earnhardt to expand his edge, because during his past five starts at Atlanta his average finish is 15.2, bolstered by two 11ths; at Richmond in his past five starts he's averaged a mediocre 26.6, with a best of 19th.

Stewart wasn't thrilled to finish ninth at Michigan. But the fact is, despite his rancor at his team's performance, Stewart lost only one point to Bowyer. He leads the Kansan by 24 coming into Bristol, where he's outrun Bowyer only twice in their past five starts. But under the current system he's a net 15 points better than Bowyer in those same races.

"I don't want to have to rely on the wild card," Stewart said. "We've had potential; we just are losing some consistency again. I just want to keep getting points, and if we can stay in the top 10, then we don't have to worry about that wild-card spot."

And that fact, in and of itself, depicts how hard it's going to be for anyone to overtake the drivers currently in the top 10 because their consistency -- despite 2011's added urgency to winning -- has placed them there and it's not likely to fade now.

Making the climb

Brad Keselowski is making the drive to Bristol himself to clear his head and think about the upcoming weeks.

Wild cards, plus

Keselowski is the "wild card" in more ways than one, because nothing he's done until this point in this season really could've been predicted. His previous averages, albeit constructed in a limited number of races, are irrelevant.

But what he and Penske Racing crew chief Paul Wolfe have done in the past several weeks -- and when you consider the physical limitations of a broken ankle it's even more impactful -- Keselowski is easily a dark-horse title contender.

"The last few weeks are more than I could ever ask for," Keselowski said. "I think [we're peaking at the right time]. Right before the Chase is always the right time to peak; you just hope you can carry that momentum in the Chase.

"I feel pretty good about the next three [races]; we'll just have to see what we get there. It's been a good ride the last three weeks. We seem to be executing fairly well with our team. I'm proud of that.

"Kind of weird things have happened to us the first third of the year. Sometimes people forget about you when you have those things happen. For our team, probably the biggest thing I could say is there's certainly some confidence and snowballing going on -- one good run breeds another good run.

"I'm not sure how to quantify that, how or why. I think I'm probably a little too close to the fire to truly understand it, but it's been amazing. It's been more than I could ever ask for and exactly what we were looking for out of our team here at Penske Racing and everyone that supports us."

On the other hand, Hamlin is befuddled by the fact that he won eight times in 2010 and led the championship going into the Homestead finale, but he's won only once this year and his average finish is 17.2.

While a connection to last season would be hard to argue, Hamlin's been in a downward spiral for the past four weeks that has him in danger of being surpassed by Menard, the next race winner behind him in the standings.

Bubble stories

No one, least of all Denny Hamlin himself, expected last year's championship runner-up to be in this position.

"Obviously, this is the lowest point that I've been since 2006 [his rookie season]," Hamlin said. "Now it's on me to try to figure out what I've got to do to get better. What information do I need to give Mike [Ford, crew chief] for him to make better adjustments on the car? What do I need to tell him to make sure that, when we get on the race track, that we've got a race-winning car, not a 20th-place car?"

The drama heightens if Bowyer or especially Biffle wins this weekend, which is a definite possibility.

"I didn't realize until I had an interview with Larry [McReynolds] and he said, 'Have you talked to [crew chief] Slugger Labbe at Menard's [team]?' " Hamlin said. "[McReynolds] said they're the biggest Denny Hamlin fans at this point to try to get in [the top 10]. If I were them, I'd be so torn on whether you want me to have a good day or a bad day -- because they want me to get in the top 10, which automatically puts them in.

"But, if we have problems then he could pass me in points. It's such a weird thing and no one's ever going to know what's going to happen until the last lap at Richmond. One extra win by myself or someone else completely changes the game and I got to be aware of that."

Hamlin knows what he has to do, but he's known that all season and hasn't consistently been able to do it.

"I can make up [the gap to Stewart], but he's going to have to have a bad week," Hamlin said. "The same with Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. -- he would have to have a bad week and some mediocre races in between. And then on top of that, I've got to run top-five and be really consistent.

"Our biggest issue is that if we're not going to be competitive it really doesn't matter if we make the Chase or not. What's the difference between 12th and 15th in points -- to me it's nothing, other than you just have the stature of being a Chase contender. You never were a Chase contender if you finish in 12th place.

"For me, I'd like to get back to being consistent like we were, first. Then we can work on building for a championship."


Positions 11-20
(current wild cards in bold)
12.B. Keselowski 642 2
13.G. Biffle 636 0
14.D. Hamlin 635 1
15.A. Allmendinger 632 0
16.M. Martin 627 0
17.K. Kahne 623 0
18.P. Menard 617 1
19.J. Logano 610 0
20.D. Ragan 604 1

On the outs

Bowyer has been chipping away at the gap to 10th, but he needs to do something dramatic to make it happen -- like winning a race or two. He's tried to make a run while dealing with his contract negotiations at Richard Childress Racing.

"You know, it is what it is," Bowyer said before Michigan, where he finished eighth. "That's, unfortunately, part of this business every three years, but right now I'm focused on these next [three] races. I care about the future, but I've got to set that aside and focus on getting myself in the Chase. We've got a legitimate shot at this, and we need to make sure we do everything we can to see it out."

Bowyer said his team needs to qualify better to have a shot at better finishes. But he really needs to make something happen at Bristol, where he's averaged a mediocre 22.6 in his past five starts, despite a fourth-place finish in this race a year ago.

Bowyer's average finish in his past five starts at Atlanta is 17th, but it's Richmond where he really shines, averaging a 9.6 in his past five starts, best of the group save for Hamlin's 5.6.

"[The plan is] to try as hard as we can and get every point as we possible can -- we've got to beat those guys," Bowyer said. "At the end of the day, that's what it's going to take to succeed and be a part of that Chase, is to be better than those guys for these next [three] races. I feel like we can do it, but we've got to be able to step up to the plate and get the job done."

But Bowyer made up only one point on Stewart, so as Hamlin said; it's really about finishing no worse than top five in the next three races, and even that might be good enough.

Biffle, who before the weekend said he knew he had to win to have a chance to get into the Chase, has been very good at Bristol, with top-10 finishes -- including two fourth-place finishes -- in his past four starts at this weekend's venue.

But he's been erratic in his past five Atlanta starts, with an average finish of 19.6, despite three top-10s; he's been similar at Richmond, with a best finish of 13th and an average finish of 19.8 in his past five there.

Paul Menard trails Kyle Busch by 182 points, but another win for Menard could make them Chase adversaries. (Autostock)

Biffle won the pole and dominated early at Michigan, but staggered to a mind-numbing 20th-place finish that he was at a loss to explain immediately after the event.

On the outs (winners)

Look for Menard to throw everything he has at the next three events. The intriguing thing about the Wisconsin native is that he, like Keselowski, is achieving at a never-before-seen level.

So Menard's fifth-place run at Bristol in the spring is more indicative of his potential than his 19.2 five-race average. But Atlanta (22.8 average, 35th last fall) and Richmond (29.6 average, 37th last spring) mean something might need to happen Saturday night, and at Michigan, Menard said he knew it.

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"Our focus, even more so than before, shifts to getting the second win and doing all we can to try and get that second win -- throwing the dice on the table and seeing what we've got," Menard said. "If it comes down to fuel mileage, we've got great fuel mileage and Slugger makes great calls on the box."

Ragan got back into the top 20 in the standings after Michigan, but he needs to win, plain and simple. But his averages at the three venues indicate that'll be a tall order. Ragan's averaged 23.6 in his past five Bristol starts, 23.2 at his home-state Atlanta Motor Speedway and 21.4 at Richmond.

Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer could be Ragan's personal wild card to make something out-of-the-ordinary happen, however.

Ambrose's Aussie verve has carried him to race wins on consecutive weekends, albeit on road courses in the Cup Series at Watkins Glen and last weekend's Nationwide Series event in Montreal.

With his Glen triumph, Ambrose put in a crucial piece in his American racing puzzle; but the final one could be his key to Nirvana.

"I need to win on ovals, I want to win on ovals -- that would finish the story for me," Ambrose said last weekend. "If I could win an oval race, it would be the crowning moment in my cruise through NASCAR. It is the one thing that is missing, from what I can tell."

In his past five races, Ambrose has a top-five and a top-10 at Bristol and an average finish of 16.2. At Atlanta, his average is 22nd, but his past two finishes are 11th and 10th. He has a top-five and top-10 at Richmond, with a 14th-place average.

Let the race to the Chase begin.