When you think about how a clutch works for a vehicle, when a driver pushes it down, while at the same time shifting gears and accelerating, most of the time it means it’s go time. That’s the case at this point in the season for the Sprint Cup Series. It’s go time and the teams that can perform best in the clutch will be the ones to make it to Homestead with a shot at the title, and the ones who don’t will be left thinking about what might have been.
When it comes to needing to win races, the No. 4 team understands what performing in the clutch is all about. Kevin Harvick has been wildly inconsistent in the Chase so far, but in the first two rounds, he’s won the second race both times. Consistency consmichtency. That means Harvick, along with Jimmie Johnson, who won at Charlotte, has guaranteed himself a spot in the Round of 8. And with Talladega looming Sunday, where anything can and often does happen, anybody is capable of winning. That means those two will be the only Chase drivers who can breathe a little easier when they are racing inches apart from the competition at nearly 200 mph.
There’s no question that Chase Elliott is a very talented driver, and the fact he seems to have a calm demeanor in the midst of what has been a bit of chaotic couple of races for him and the No. 24 team will undoubtedly help him on the long run. As for the short run, though, Elliott is learning it’s just not easy to win races in the Sprint Cup Series. He had one of the fastest cars Sunday, one fast enough to contend for the win, but multiple issues left him three laps down and in 31st place. Sometimes teams, and especially young drivers, have to take some hard lessons, sometimes at no fault of their own, before they can visit Victory Lane. Elliott is 25 points out of the eighth and final spot transfer spot heading into Talladega, so he and his team would love for that first victory to come this weekend.
While it’s true that Chase contender Brad Keselowski is 18 points out of the eighth and final Chase spot after an accident brought an early end to his day Sunday, what he said after a 38th-place finish on Sunday makes me give him a big thumbs up here. He noted that he could have ridden around, played it safe and had a good points day. But he also noted that he hates points racing because that’s not really racing. And yes, some would say that would have been the smart and prudent thing to do, but race car drivers, or at least good ones, are in it to win it. And give Keselowski credit for running hard and trying to get the best finish possible, instead of just riding around out there.
It’s true that Ganassi teammates Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson had solid seasons, each making the Chase. But now in two of the last three races, they’ve each encountered problems and left them with finishes of 30th worse. So give those teams a little credit for making it to the Round of 16, but if Ganassi wants to see his teams truly reach the elite level, they, like the Harvick and Johnson teams, will need to learn to perform in the clutch. That’s the next step for a team that has been making gradual progression.
Austin Dillon squeezed into the second round of the Chase by finishing in the 12th and final transfer spot after the first three races. Now, thanks to a sixth-place finish that saw him passing for all the positions he could in the final laps, he’s living on the edge again. Dillon is tied with Joey Logano in points, but he could lose out in a tiebreaker right now, putting him in that precarious ninth position. The fate of Dillon will certainly be one of the storylines to watch at Talladega, and wouldn’t it be something if the No. 3 rolled into Victory Lane at the end of the day and into the Round of 8? Stranger things, and I mean much stranger things, have happened at Talladega before.
HOT AND NOT
I love the new rule changes for next year. The more outcomes put in the drivers’ hands the better. . . . Roush-Fenway did make progress this year, but when you see highlights from the past of Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards and Mark Martin winning so many races, it’s hard to believe it’s the same team. . . . Alex Bowman hasn’t been considered a big up and coming name, but he’s been very steady driving the No. 88 and deserves a good ride sometime in the very near future. . . . We’re halfway through the 10-race Chase and there have been no fights or feuds break out yet. How disappointing.
While there has been some unpredictable stuff happening in the last two races, everyone knows the real wild-card in this scenario will come at Talladega on Sunday. A driver who has been quite good there recently, and will need to be again Sunday, is Brad Keselowski and he’s my pick to win. The deep sleeper underdog who you might or might not think about pick is Danica Patrick, because you know she will have a good car and teammates who will help her as well.