News & Media

Race for the Chase tightens from top to bottom

August 13, 2012, Seth Livingstone, Special to NASCAR.COM,

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- So much happened so fast on the last lap of Sunday's Finger Lakes 355 at Watkins Glen that it was tough to keep up with all the ramifications and put everything in perspective.

So, in case you missed it:

Three drivers are now separated by three points for the Sprint Cup Series lead.

Jimmie Johnson is the new front runner, having vaulted three places with his third-place finish. He leads Greg Biffle (sixth on Sunday) by one point and Matt Kenseth (eighth) by two.

"Excited to be leading the points," Johnson said. "Whoever the team is [that leads], I really believe they get some much-needed experience with the pressure of the points lead late in the season. Every little thing we can do to get prepared for the Chase is helpful. [We] ran kind of third all day, so we're real happy to finish where we did."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the big loser in points, going from series leader to fourth place after a late-race crash relegated him to a 28th-place showing.

"I just got in the corner and made a mistake," said Earnhardt, who had a top-10 car most of the race. "That was pretty much all there was to it. I was just overdriving the car ... driving like a dummy, way too hard."

Ryan Newman is in as a Chase wild card and Jeff Gordon is out, for now.

Newman, 11th on Sunday, moved into the second provisional wild-card spot. He's now 10 points ahead of Gordon, who ran afoul of the oil on the track and watched a possible top-10 finish dissolve into a 21st with a crash on the last turn.

"I'm just really disappointed because we fought hard to get what was going to be a pretty nice finish," said Gordon, who also trails Kyle Busch by four points in the quest for the wild card.

Brad Keselowski and Sam Hornish Jr. are making sure NASCAR has not heard the last from Dodge.

Keselowski led 37 laps and went toe-to-toe with Marcos Ambrose for the win. Hornish, pole-sitter for the weekend's Nationwide event, started 17th but drove all the way up to fifth by the Cup race's end -- a strong performance by a driver bucking to remain permanently in Roger Penske's No. 22.

"Roger and I have even talked about it," Keselowski said. "[Sam] has done a phenomenal job growing as a driver. I think running in both series has been huge for him. His progress as of late has been something I'm proud to see. I think we all enjoy watching a driver get the hang of this sport, especially a guy who has paid some dues like Sam has."

Clint Bowyer demonstrated, once again, that he can handle a road course. Denny Hamlin, on the other hand, would just as soon stick to ovals.

Bowyer, who won this season's race at Sonoma, delivered a fourth-place performance that moved him up three spots to seventh in points. "I would not say I'm a [road course] ace," Bowyer said. "Thank [crew chief] Brian Pattie and everybody on this 5-hour Energy Toyota. ... We needed that. It was a solid weekend for us."

Hamlin, who crashed last year at Watkins Glen, started 23rd, blew an engine and finished 34th. He dropped two positions to 10th in points.

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"I have a thing with wrecks and fires lately," said Hamlin, who has finished 25th or worse in five of his last eight races and has one top-five and six DNFs in 12 combined Sprint and Nationwide starts at Watkins Glen. "[It was] a rough weekend after getting caught up in the oil on Friday [and going to a backup car in practice]. Just an overall bad weekend for us."

Carl Edwards could make no progress toward making the Chase.

Despite a rousing win in Saturday's Nationwide event, Edwards remained winless in Cup with a car that started 18th, finished just four spots higher and proved no match for the leaders on Sunday. Edwards remains 12th in Cup Series points, but unless he can win at least one of the next four races, entertains no real hopes of qualifying for the chase.

Juan Pablo Montoya is still waiting for his speed to pay off.

For a second week in a row, Montoya started on the pole but couldn't produce a contending effort. After his 20th at Pocono, Montoya "hit a curb" and managed to complete only 63 of the 90 laps at a track where he traditionally performs well. He ended up 33rd.

"I thought we had a car that could win today," he said.

All Martin Truex Jr. does is solidify his position as a Chase contender.

Truex started ninth, finished 10th and, although he lost one spot, sits sixth in points -- 49 behind Johnson.

"We dodged a bullet there," Truex admitted. "We were running third and one lap from pitting [when] we ran out of gas -- and the caution came out. When we pitted, we had to go to the tail end of the longest line. We had to pass a lot of cars to get back to 10th. Those kind of days when you make mistakes, you've got to battle back."

Regan Smith posted his second consecutive top-10 finish and his first career top-10 on a road course.

"You need to get top-10s before you get top-fives, and top-fives will eventually turn into wins," said Smith, whose Furniture Row Chevrolet came home ninth.