Brad Morgan · Tuesday September 3, 2013
The AdvoCare 500 did everything possible to setup an exciting regular season finale at Richmond International Raceway.
While Kyle Busch led the field to his fourth victory of the season, other potential Chasers also left their marks on Atlanta Motor Speedway. Rain threatened the race before the drop of the green flag, but the weather did little to dampen the drama that unfolded over 325 laps.
With one race remaining before the Chase there are still five spots up for grabs, setting up a high stress/high reward race in Virginia. This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not proves that a young gun and a one car team can outdo former champions and Sprint Cup superstars even as the pressure mounts.
The No. 18 M&M’s machine wasn’t the fastest car at the track early on during the AdvoCare 500, but crew chief Dave Rogers made the right calls down the stretch, giving Kyle Busch the car he needed to win.
Rowdy accomplished more than just burnouts as a result of his fourth victory of the season. The win ties him with Jimmie Johnson for the second most in Sprint Cup, meaning that he would start out ahead of many other Chase drivers once the 10-race playoff begins. Busch also locked himself into one of the 12 slots, joining six other drivers who have also secured a spot before the Richmond cutoff.
That is the Joe Gibbs driver’s second trip to victory lane over the past four races, setting him up nicely for success going forward. He has also benefitted from finishes of 12th or better in 11 of the past 13 races.
This one didn’t come as easily as some of those other helpful finishes for the Las Vegas native, as he struggled mightily with handling early on after qualifying ninth. But, quick pit stops and solid adjustments gave Busch the opportunity to take the lead on Lap 290 and hold it for the final 35 trips around AMS.
Team efforts like these over the past few months have been enough to give Busch an advantage over the field with one race remaining before the Chase; but, there is one other driver who is possibly hotter heading into the most important race of the season thus far – Joey Logano.
Logano ranks among the best of the best for the third consecutive race because he has simply been that good during a highly crucial stretch. The No. 22 team was among those on the outside looking in only a few races ago, but Logano has delivered time and time again and now enjoys the eighth spot in points.
At Atlanta, Logano drove from 11th spot on the grid to the lead in time for the lap-25 competition caution. Later, the Penske Fusion was forced to pit off sequence because of a loose wheel, but Logano was later able get back into a normal pitting schedule and finished runner-up to Busch.
With another conservative top 10 effort, Dale Earnhardt Jr. went from red alert mode to an almost breathable position in the standings. Junior got exactly what he needed from the 1.5-mile track on a night when many of his closest competitors struggled. The No. 88 team’s clutch factor is enough to keep their driver inside the Chase bubble even while the points race has tightened up over the past weeks.
Even so, Earnhardt Jr. is seventh in the standings, but he is by no means locked into the Chase. It would appear that he only needs not to DNF at Richmond because he is 37 points ahead of teammate Jeff Gordon in points. Gordon is 11th in the standings and like Junior, doesn’t have a win.
In the battle for the final non-wildcard spot, history seems to side with the more bearded of the Hendrick Motorsports drivers. Junior doesn’t have a DNF at Richmond since joining the elite organization and sports two top 10s in the past three races there.
Gordon won’t have his aim on overtaking Junior at the Virginia short track, however. Instead he’ll target Kurt Busch, who stayed ahead of the No. 24 in points after a needed rebound at Atlanta.
Busch’s race and Chase hopes seemed on the verge of collapse Saturday night before the No. 78 team finally found it stride during the late goings. His fourth-place finish was highlighted on a lap-293 restart when Busch moved from 11th to second through the first two turns after the green flag waved.
The newly signed Stewart-Haas Racing driver will now have a chance to make history with Furniture Row Racing before he parts ways with the Colorado based organization. If Busch can maintain his current position in the standings (10th) at Richmond, he’ll become the first driver to qualify for the Chase with a single-car team in the history of the championship format.
Carl Edwards appeared to be the driver to beat very early at Atlanta, but his team later gambled on a risky strategy and never recovered. The No. 99 Fusion finished 18th, one lap down, making for two consecutive disappointing races for Edwards.
The decision to make aggressive changes proved costly because the Roush Fenway Ford was easily faster than Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski, who were next behind Edwards for much of that period.
After finishing 39th at Bristol, Edwards needed a better result to maintain momentum heading towards the Chase, but he only created controversy in yet another letdown event. Jeff Gordon was furious with Edwards over the way he handled a late-race restart and went as far as to cuss him out over the team’s radio.
Edwards will need another win to start the Chase ahead some of the drivers that he has already beaten in the standings, but a brush up with Gordon at Richmond would end those hopes.
Kasey Kahne entered Michigan on a roll, but damage to the front and rear of the No. 5 Chevrolet forced him behind the wall for repairs after the restart for the competition caution.
Swift moves up and down the Hot or Not board have become the norm for Kahne in a year when his hot streaks have come to inconsistent ends. Which driver is he, the one who had consecutive top fives at Pocono and Indianapolis and top 10s at Michigan and Bristol, or the one who exited early at Watkins Glen and Atlanta in between the good races? If he continues to follow this trend it will not matter, because finishes of 34th and 36th have never boded well for drivers in the Chase.
The Hendrick star is already locked into the playoffs, but in order to compete for the championship he’ll need to display a level of stability over the final 11 races that hasn’t been present this year.
Last weeks cool drivers took a step back at Atlanta and find themselves down a level at one of the worst possible times.
Jimmie Johnson took his pre-Chase struggles to another level because of involvement in the same Turn 1 melee that put teammate Kasey Kahne in the garage area. After repairs, Johnson raced the Lowes Chevrolet back inside the top 25, but another accident, this time with Jeff Burton, served as the final obstacle for the five-time champion en route to a 28th-place finish.
The only things going for Johnson right now are his lead in the standings, which miraculously expanded after Clint Bowyer blew an engine, and the four wins he has collected during the current campaign. Those achievements won’t mean much after Richmond if Johnson cannot turn things around there. After 23 starts in the Old Dominion Johnson has three wins, but hasn’t been at his best lately with finishes outside of the top 10 in the last two races.
Because of a faulty engine, Brad Keselowski will need a perfect race to qualify for the Chase and defend his Sprint Cup title.
The defending champion appeared poised to claim his first win of the year until lost cylinders slowed the No. 2 Penske machine and eventually prevented it from finishing better than 35th. An untimely DNF dropped Keselowski to 15th and places him on the brink of missing the playoffs.
Keselowski must win and overtake Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr. in the points to make the Chase at this juncture. At Richmond, he has no wins and two top 10s in eight career starts. Is a Keselowski appearance in the Chase possible?
Yes, but right now, it looks highly unlikely.
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