After how Saturday night went at Charlotte, the pressure to make the next round of the Chase has certainly gone from a concern level to a major panic level. Little did we know that the pressure among those that were not officially locked in the next round would also ramp up.
Let’s work up from the bottom. Currently on the outside of the cutoff for the Eliminator Round are Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Think about this for a second, right now there is a strong possibility that two of the last three Sprint Cup champions will not move on, plus a driver that has seen a resurgence in his career, plus a driver that a year ago won more races than anyone in the series.
Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. are the ones that are not just in panic mode, but their title hopes are basically, to use a hospital term, are on life support. The only way either can advance to the next round is to win next week, because they are points-wise outside what would be needed to make it in. Keselowski is in the same boat, but more on him in a little bit. Kenseth is only on the outside by a single point, and with how Gibbs has run recently at plate tracks, he’s got a chance.
Now, onto Keselowski, who decided to steal a lot of headlines at the end of the night. Let me try to sum up what happened: final restart, he tries to go but is blocked by Hamlin. He runs into the back of the No. 11, and it forces him to lose spots, while he falls back farther. On the cool-down lap, Hamlin brake-checks him, so Keselowski tries to spin him out in the third turn, only to nearly take himself out in the process. Meanwhile, he recovers to come to pit road, where Kenseth is nearly stopped and unstrapped from his No. 20 Toyota, and he runs into him, which then leads to incidental contact with Tony Stewart. Stewart then throws his car in reverse while Keselowski tries to leave, and nails him square in the nose.
Keselowski then proceeds to burn tire on his way to Hamlin’s garage stall, leaving tire marks all through pit road and the garage area. Hamlin gets out, and is pulled away from confrontation, but manages to throw a towel in Keselowski’s direction.
Finally, while Keselowski tries to get to the team hauler and lounge, Kenseth sprints like a track runner and gets his hands on Keselowski, sparking a fight between teams that leads to a few members to the NASCAR hauler after the race.
This new Chase format as I’ve said previously has changed how everyone attacks the final 10 races. It’s no longer looking at the entire Chase and know where you can do well at, it’s looking at three races and making sure you either win to guarantee you move on, or run extremely well so that the bottom four spots are not even a thought. When teams are battling this close, this hard, and one incident creates something bigger, emotions are going to go up, and will eventually erupt.
The biggest issue in this case is what Keselowski did on pit road and in the garage. One thing that NASCAR does not tolerate is incidents where it’s putting people in danger. Keep in mind a few years ago, Kevin Harvick (who in all this chaos was celebrating his win this weekend) got out of his car on pit road at Darlington to confront Kyle Busch, and in return, Busch pushed Harvick’s un-manned car into the pit wall, risking crewmen, media and fans injury.
This incident on Saturday night takes it further since it happened both on pit road and leading into the garage, to the point where competition director Robin Pemberton actually took photos with his phone of the tire marks in the garage area and on pit road. He wasn’t doing it for memories, those are going to be used for documentation to what penalties, if any, are levied for the incident.
Whatever penalties come will be announced on Tuesday, but it goes to show that the pressure to make the next round of the Chase, and any incident that makes getting there harder now turns up even more heat.
One race remains before the Contender 12 are reduced to the Eliminator Eight. Get ready for an intense race next Sunday.
RESULTS: 1-Harvick 2-Gordon 3-McMurray 4-Logano 5-Kyle Busch 6-Kyle Larson 7-Newman 8-Edwards 9-Hamlin 10-Kahne
NOTABLE FINISHES: 16-Keselowski 17-Johnson 19-Kenseth 20-Earnhardt Jr.
CAUTIONS: 8 for 39 laps. Lap 27-30 (Competition), 97-100 (Oil on track from #15), 137-143 (Oil on track from #27), 222-226 (Oil on track from #98), 238-242 (#55 spin-T2), 247-252 (#10, 22, 31 accident-T4), 268-271 (Oil on track from #7), 329-332 (Oil on track from #55).
LEAD CHANGES: 32 among 14 drivers. Kyle Busch 1-13, Gordon 14-27, Annett 28, Earnhardt Jr. 29, Kyle Busch 30-36, Gordon 37-74, Kurt Busch 75, Earnhardt Jr. 76, Keselowski 77-78, Gordon 79-97, Earnhardt Jr. 98-99, McMurray 100-104, Harvick 105-139, Gordon 140, Harvick 141-187, Gordon 188, Keselowski 189-190, Harvick 191-222, Larson 223, Harvick 224-237, Dillon 238-242, Kyle Busch 243-263, Larson 264-267, Keselowski 268-271, Hamlin 272-293, Harvick 294-310, Gordon 311, Kurt Busch 312, Dillon 313, Newman 314, Edwards 315, Allgaier 316-317, Harick 318-334.
TIME OF RACE: 3 Hrs, 26 Mins, 49 Secs.
AVERAGE SPEED: 145.346 MPH
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 0.571 Seconds
CHASE FOR THE SPRINT CUP: 1. Logano, 3088 points*; 2. Kyle Busch, -6; 3. Harvick, -7*; 4. Newman, -11; 5. Edwards, -12; 6. Gordon, -14; 7. Hamlin, -15; 8. Kahne, -31; 9. Kenseth, -32; 10. Keselowski, -50; 11. Johnson, -57; 12. Earnhardt Jr, -57; 13. Allmendinger, -946; 14. Biffle, -961; 15. Kurt Busch, -979; 16. Almirola, -992.
*Already advanced to Eliminator Round