One thing that the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup has engendered, through trial and error, is the feeling that you have in a deciding game. You know the feeling. “We’ve got to win this one or we go home, so let’s pull out all the stops…”
In previous editions, the first five races didn’t seem to matter as much as they do now. You had a mulligan, and if the other Chasers suffered, you might have two. Now, the entire 10-race slate seems to have that Game 7 feeling.
In other words, you can go from the penthouse to the outhouse in just one weekend.
Take Tony Stewart, for example. He won the first two races of the Chase, at Chicagoland and New Hampshire, and was sitting on top of the world with tons of momentum. His cars were good, handled well, had good balance, were fast and they made great mileage.
At Dover, the operative words were “none of the above.”
“[It was] just the whole package,” Stewart said after finishing 25th, two laps down to winner Kurt Busch. “Even when we got the balance halfway decent it didn’t have speed. So we just missed it.”
Pretty simple, really. And it didn’t hurt him horribly in the points. He went from leading by seven after New Hampshire to trailing Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards by nine, a 16-point swing. Bad news, but it’s not unreasonably hard to make those up.
Dropping the two spots was not the problem; losing the points is. With one point per finishing position all that’s available, it is a worry but not a season-killer.
Kyle Busch, along the same lines, finished sixth and dropped two spots, but trails by just 15 points in eighth.
That was the key, he said.
“It’s deceiving, because you shave points off, but then you lose two spots,” Busch said. “It’s all right — it’s the margin. You’re [further] back, which is all that matters. We’re still in the thing, so you keep fighting and keep doing what you know how to do and hope that your Michigan setup works pretty good at Kansas [next Sunday].”
Considering that the top four drivers in the standings — Harvick, Edwards, Stewart and Kurt Busch — are separated by nine points, it’s shaping up to be Game 7 the rest of the way. Harvick and Edwards are tied atop the standings with 2,122, while Stewart and Busch are tied for third with 2,113 each, and that means that positions will swap most every race. When others begin to fall out — Denny Hamlin is already toast and Ryan Newman is an inch or two from sliding into that abyss — the jumble should calm a bit.
But that could take weeks.
The big winners on Sunday were Kurt Busch and Johnson, who each advanced five spots by finishing 1-2 at Dover. Edwards jumped two spots by finishing third. Harvick, by virtue of his 10th-place finish, jumped to the top spot after trailing Stewart last week.
On the flip side, there was no joy in Mudville for Jeff Gordon, who slid four spots to ninth after finishing 12th.
“Well, we gained on some and lost on some others,” he said later. “It’s so tight right there; all the way back to ninth or 10th. Kansas is a great track for us. I can’t wait to get there. If we can run the way we ran there earlier in the year, we’ll make up a bunch of those points that we lost today.”
Gordon was in trouble after qualifying, where he posted only the 34th-fastest time.
“I knew it was going to be tough,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how good your race car is; well, unless you’re Carl Edwards. They had an awesome race car. But you’ve got to have position here. It wasn’t so much the 34th. We actually took off there at the beginning and made some good passes but as the race went on, the restarts just killed us. The front tires just would not hook up.”
“We salvaged something out of it. It could have been a lot worse.”
Still, in the midst of that disappointment Gordon said something very key to how this thing will eventually play out. In every individual race, where the focus might be on Victory Lane it’s how the ups and downs even out after ten races that matters in the points.
“It all depends on the average finish,” he confirmed. “So that means we have to go and perform better. Every time we have a finish like this, it means we’ve got to perform that much better in the next couple of races.”
The only drivers who seemed backed into a corner, struggling to piece together momentum are the final three. Newman had handling issues Sunday and finished 23rd, putting him 41 points back of the leaders with seven to play. Hamlin finished 18th and dropped to 68 points behind; his Chase is in serious trouble. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., with several years’ worth of struggles at Dover was 24th and he’s now 34 behind Harvick and Edwards.
Earnhardt had sway bar issues early, then had to pit for a loose wheel late in the race, despite having what he considered a top-10 car. With bad luck biting him at the start, he’s stepping toward the win-or-else strategy from here on out.
“Just try and win a race and see what happens,” is what he said in response to a question after the event. “See if you can knock it in half, who knows? You can’t quit. You have that opportunity there and we have a hot pass to the garage area and you are going to go in there and check it out.”
“We have an opportunity to race in the Chase and we are still alive and we will keep racing as hard as we can until the last lap at Homestead. One of the things I learned a long time ago was that if you wreck out or something you go back out there and finish the race and run as hard as you can. It’s really hard to look yourself in the mirror when you don’t and when you don’t give it your all even when it doesn’t look great and your opportunity to win a championship doesn’t look great. It’s hard to look yourself in the mirror when you don’t try hard every time and every lap.”
In other words, play like it’s Game 7, every week from here on out. Stewart boiled it all down when asked what he thought about the points after three of 10 races.
“Well, we’ve got seven weeks to worry about it. So we’ll see.”
Good luck battling through the stress…
“Contact Ron Lemasters”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/34178/
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