Ordinarily when drivers are eliminated from championship contention, it happens one of two ways: a sudden crash or mechanical failure takes place, ending things in the blink of an eye; or a driver gradually loses points each week based on performance, meaning the team, driver and fans are able to brace themselves for falling short.
What happened to Denny Hamlin on Sunday was like nothing I’d ever seen. It was, in a word, agonizing. A number of factors came together to make it this way. Hamlin was at his best track and knew it was an opportunity to get to Victory Lane, closing the gap on Keselowski and Johnson.
More than anything, though, it was the way Hamlin’s car suddenly lost and regained power — inspiring hope and then taking it away again. Sound familiar, Denny Hamlin fans?
The event was a rollercoaster, much like Hamlin’s year in general and like the season for all three of the Joe Gibbs Racing cars. For every dominant performance at New Hampshire, there was a dismal one at Kansas, followed by a mechanical failure at Martinsville.
So, it was a fitting ending to see lights flashing on Hamlin’s dashboard as if there was some sort of emergency, while everyone at Gibbs felt helpless as they watched the championship slowly fall through their fingers, yet again.
*Jimmie Johnson* winning the fall race at Martinsville was about as surprising as seeing the Pittsburgh Pirates miss the playoffs. You might root against it, but it’s almost inevitable at this point. Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne are still in the championship fight, but they are each going to have to step it up if they want to stay in it.
Johnson is doing exactly what he has done in all of his championship years — he is top-fiving everyone to death. He has placed fourth or better in five of the seven Chase races and has 17 top 5s on the year, four more than any other driver.
*Kyle Busch* clicked off his fourth top 5 of the Chase on Sunday, but isn’t in contention for the title after his summer of self-sabotage. If a non-Chaser is going to win a race before the year is out, the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is probably going to be the guy to do it. I’m not going to rule out David Stremme, but I’m leaning towards Rowdy.
It’s amazing to think that Busch has only one win this season across all three divisions of NASCAR. He is certainly going to be hungry to change that in the next three weeks.
While we were all watching Martinsville aces Jeff Gordon, Johnson and Hamlin, *Clint Bowyer* almost came in and stole the show again. He led 154 laps, and while he didn’t have the championship day that was hoped for (actually lost a point) he is still in the mix because of consistency, week in and week out.
Bowyer has three top 5s and six top 10s in the Chase. Talladega remains the only blip on his radar, and if he finishes the Chase where he is right now, he is going to be thinking about that last lap (remember, the No. 15 was in front, coming to white flag) all offseason.
*Kasey Kahne* wrecked everything he drove in the first four races of the year. I even heard he was responsible for the Juan Pablo Montoya jet-dryer incident at Daytona. But the No. 5 team is finishing up on a much better note. Kahne (third) recorded his fourth top 5 of the Chase at Martinsville and third straight top 10.
Bowyer and Kahne are going to need a little help to catch Johnson and Keselowski, but I see no reason it can’t happen. At Kansas, Johnson wrecked himself and Keselowski was a bump from his teammate away from getting caught up in Kyle Busch’s wreck. It can happen.
You know it’s tough to get a seat in the Sprint Cup Series when *Brian Vickers* had to settle for a nine-race deal with Michael Waltrip Racing for 2012. MWR was lucky that Vickers was still around after what he has done in No. 55 car this season. His finish of eighth on Sunday was third straight top 10 and fifth in only eight starts this season.
In eight starts, Vickers has led more laps (158) than Ryan Newman, Paul Menard, Jeff Burton, Juan Pablo Montoya and Bobby Labonte combined. All five drivers have run all 33 races each.
*Jeff Burton* has become NASCAR’s magician in recent weeks. He captures our attention with fast practice speeds and strong starts to races (racing to the top 5 early at Kansas and Martinsville), but then, like any good David Copperfield, he disappears and doesn’t reveal how he did it (28th at Kansas and 22nd at Martinsville).
Burton’s been a disappearing act for all of 2012, and for much of the two years before that. He’s not fully to blame, as Richard Childress Racing (see cold) isn’t the top-tier team it was even a couple of years ago. But Burton — one of the best in the late ’90s and early 2000s — has become an afterthought, and has many questioning when Childress is going to make a move. _Editor’s Note: That move happened Monday, with a crew chief change: Luke Lambert will be atop the No. 31’s box full-time in 2013._
Martinsville marked only the second time *Kurt Busch* has cracked the top 15 in the finishing order since giving Bowyer all he could handle for the win at Sonoma. That was 18 races ago. During that span, Busch had seven finishes of 30th or worse.
The driver switched teams three races ago at Charlotte (from Phoenix Racing to Furniture Row), but there hasn’t been a drastic change in results. In the last three races, Busch was 21st, 25th and 15th. The No. 78 is a much more reliable car right now than the No. 51, but it is still is an underfunded team and it’s still going to be an uphill battle — one that will probably boil over into some profanity-laced tirade early next season.
Where is Darian Grubb when you need him? We need him to plug in that Martinsville setup from last fall on the No. 14. Wait, *Tony Stewart* fired him? Didn’t they win the championship together last year?
It turns out, Stewart’s playoff run under crew chief Steve Addington hasn’t been all unicorns and rainbows like it was with Grubb last year. That was evident at Martinsville, a track Stewart won at last season. This time around, he finished two laps off the pace in 27th. It was his third finish of 20th or worse in the last five races. Darian, are you interested in coming back?
*Kevin Harvick* was on the way to scoring his first top-10 finish of the Chase, and then his engine blew, leading to a 32nd-place result. Martinsville was only the second time this year Harvick wasn’t running at the finish, one of the few good stats in a disappointing year. It hasn’t necessarily been bad luck as much as bad performance that has hindered the No. 29 team, and it has to be frustrating to finally have a top 10 within reach only for the car to suffer a rare mechanical failure.
The question remains, with three races to go, will Harvick set a new mark for futility in NASCAR’s playoffs and not even score a single top 10?
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