Years from now, NASCAR historians will tell a Pocono tale of one rain delay, two races, and three drivers getting some very lucky prayers answered by Mother Nature – and by their fuel tanks. Is that what’s supposed to be the deciding factor in who plays for the series title and who doesn’t? That’s not an easy question to answer; but right now, all one can tell you is Lady Luck has taken full charge of this playoff race, and she shows no signs of turning back anytime soon.
Indeed, the phrase “better to be lucky than good” was never more appropriate than on Sunday for several on the Chase bubble, with Richard Childress Racing lining up front and center to get a magical dose of much-needed good fortune. When the red flag came for rain around lap 131, the battle for 12th in the season standings was mired in mediocrity – teammates Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer, who stood just two points apart when the day began, were mired in 31st and 32nd. It had been the worst of days for both men: Harvick spent the first lap spinning through the tunnel turn following contact with Joe Nemechek, while an early pit stop for a flat tire left Bowyer languishing at the back of the pack. Perhaps their sole consolation at the time was their primary competition – Roush Fenway driver David Ragan – placed just ahead of them in 29th, himself suffering from a severe set of handling problems that threatened to permanently derail his own playoff chances.
The rest of Roush Fenway’s bubble contingent was in far better shape, though. Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle were second and fourth, respectively, both the beneficiaries of a timely pit strategy to stay on the racetrack rather than dive down pit road once the rains started pouring down after 4:00 ET. At the time, that seemed like the winning strategy, with another serious shower not long behind the first one and no promise of daylight longer than 8:00 ET.
But then, a funny thing happened – Mother Nature changed her tune. Racing resumed nearly one hour later, and the second weather cell threatening the track dissolved. That left a full 69 laps to be run with the benefit of just one caution flag, including the last 55 laps straight under green-flag conditions. The change of pace gave the backmarkers a surprise opportunity to stretch their fuel mileage to the fullest, and Harvick, Bowyer, and Ragan played the strategy perfect – all of them jumped up to dramatic top-10 finishes after most cars around them were forced to make an extra stop for gas.
“You just have to do whatever you can to get some track position [these days],” said Bowyer after coming home a surprising sixth. “Mother Nature kinda played a part of the race today. Gil [Martin, crew chief] made a good call.”
That’s putting it lightly; with a few extra drops of Sunoco, Bowyer suddenly had a finish he had no right snagging after scoring one top 10 (ninth at Daytona) in his last four starts in the Cup Series. The mini-slump had him on the outside looking in on the Chase, and at one point during this event, Bowyer and his teammate had fallen some 50 points behind 11th place. Now, the two of them are in 11th and 12th, with two of the last five regular season races right up RCR’s alley – the short tracks of Bristol and Richmond.
“There are some good tracks for us coming up,” agreed Bowyer. “We are excited about it. At least we have a shot at this thing, and that is all you can ask for.”
All in all, it was just another Sunday afternoon in the Cup Series in 2008, where track position, strategy and that unpredictable world called luck is shaping what’s going to be the 12-man Chase for the Championship. Heck, the competitors themselves even admit as much.
“The light is shining on us right now,” said Ragan after his own fifth-place run. “It’s close. All we can do is just go out and do what we’ve been doing – try to get top fives and top 10s, and if we continue to do what we’ve been doing we’re gonna win some races and make the Chase, and everything is gonna be great.”
That’s nice in theory, of course, but try telling that to Ragan’s teammate Kenseth – the man who should have been the real playoff winner in the last two weeks out on the racetrack. After the race restarted following the delay, Kenseth’s car remained solidly in contention for what should have been a top-five finish. There’s just one problem; he didn’t have quite the fuel mileage of some of the backmarkers who pitted later, allowing them to make the final 69 laps or so on just one more stop. That forced the No. 17’s hand around lap 185, as the team pitted for fresh tires and fuel to try and pick up as many spots as they could at the finish. Kenseth did battle hard to come home 11th, but that wasn’t enough; instead, the momentum of eight top-10 finishes in nine races has led to two straight shutouts and a drop to 13th in points.
“We knew when we stayed out there when it rained that we were about three laps short of making it on one stop,” he explained. “Unless we had more rain or more caution laps, we knew we were gonna be a little short. That’s just what we chose to do. I thought it was gonna rain one more time. We didn’t think it was gonna rain out, but I though there was gonna be another little delay and then we would have been able to make it.”
But the luck didn’t come through, much like last weekend at Indy where Kenseth was one of the few visible victims of the tire debacle in between NASCAR’s spate of competition cautions to control the carnage. Once his right rear exploded like a bomb had gone off on the backstretch, Kenseth’s top-10 run turned into a 38th-place finish, becoming the prospective nail in the coffin this team could look at if they’re on the outside looking in come Richmond in September.
And that’s where it all seems topsy turvy, for if the season ended now Kenseth’s team would be shut out in what amounts to more than a minor upset. With Childress’s program suffering to varying degrees the past two months – perhaps the pending fourth team has them off their game – Kenseth and Team Red Bull’s Brian Vickers have been the best cars capable of capturing those 11th and 12th spots. But both have been victimized by the type of bad luck that’s stripped top-five runs into 40th-place disappointments, leaving little they could do but a lot they can stew on with just a month remaining to jockey for position. To be fair, the No. 29 of Harvick was himself an innocent victim at Indianapolis last Sunday; but when you compare his top-10 finishes the last 11 races (two) to Kenseth’s eight – and 12 overall – you can see who’s in better position to be a championship challenger.
Personally, I like the idea of the most talented, best-positioned cars to win a title dueling side-by-side at Richmond in a slam-banging, sparks-flying run to the checkered flag. But the more likely scenario – as we’ve seen before – is that someone blows an engine or loses a cylinder, handing the playoff spot to the driver who’s simply able to survive the grueling Chase stretch run of August and September. For no matter what title system you have in place, could haves and should haves don’t give you any extra points, and Lady Luck has her own bucket of them reserved for drivers she deems capable of cashing in on strategy and gambling that leans in her direction. And as history has shown us, no car’s quite capable of winning a points title without the benefit of Lady Luck on their side.
More than ever, it’s who these drivers will be searching for – and trying to keep – these next five weeks.