|Harvick was out early Sunday...|
The Opening Round of the 2016 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup was a relatively mundane affair, with drivers utilizing conservative strategies to advance safely – and unremarkably -- to the Round of 12.
Sunday’s Bank Of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway was anything but unremarkable, however, with no less than five title contenders suffering major setbacks and finishing in the bottom quarter of the 40-car field.
Defending winner Joey Logano cut a pair of tires Sunday and spent multiple laps in the garage making repairs. Just two weeks removed from a dominant win in New Hampshire, former series champion Kevin Harvick was also a non-factor Sunday, as engine woes ended his day with a 38th-place finish. Now 11th and 12th in the championship standings, Logano and Harvick find themselves teetering on the brink of elimination, just two weeks before the Chase field is trimmed to eight drivers at Talladega.
“I hate it for everybody on our team,” said a disconsolate Harvick Sunday night. “They made some great adjustments today and got our car where we needed to be to run up front. Everything was going fine, (but) lots of things can go wrong. And today, they did.
|...as was Logano.|
Logano and Harvick weren’t the only ones to find themselves in trouble Sunday.
On Lap 259, Chasers Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott were sidelined in a grinding restart crash triggered when Dillon – who had taken just two tires on a pit stop moments before -- was slow to accelerate, He was clipped by the trailing car of Martin Truex, Jr. and hammered the inside wall, while Elliott got turned into the outside SAFER barrier. They finished 32nd and 33rd, respectively, and also find themselves behind the eight-ball heading to Kansas.
“This has been a troublesome day for a lot of guys,” said Elliott afterward. “Hopefully, we can have another car like we had today and not make any mistakes next week.”
Denny Hamlin also stumbled Sunday, retiring just 26 laps from the finish when his engine expired while running second. While disappointed with a 30th-place result, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver insisted that he is “not out of it by any means. We just have a little hole we have to dig out of.
“Each race, you’re going to have a handful (of drivers) that are going to have issues,” he said. “I don’t think Kansas will be any different, and Talladega we know will be crazy.”
|Hamlin ran well...|
With the exception of winner Jimmie Johnson, every Chase contender dealt with some degree of drama Sunday.
Runner-up Matt Kenseth started at the rear of the field after his team made unapproved, post-qualifying adjustments, then overcame a midrace penalty for a crewmember that went over the wall too soon.
Kyle Busch lost a lap after pitting under green with a tire problem, was penalized for a crewman over the wall too soon and an uncontrolled tire, and suffered damage in the Dillon/Elliott melee. He finished sixth.
Brad Keselowski also paid the price for an early-over-the-wall crew, but fought back to seventh at the finish.
Kurt Busch suffered damage same crash as his brother, but recovered to finish eighth.
Truex suffered a clutch failure on his final pit stop while running in the Top-5, stalled the car and eventually finished 13th.
It was as if suddenly, nobody wanted to win the 2016 championship. And in the aftermath of a tumultuous Charlotte race, the stage is set for even more drama in the weeks to come.
|...before Johnson prevailed.|
With Talladega looming ominously on the horizon, this weekend’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway feels an awful lot like an elimination race. For Harvick, Logano, Dillon, Elliott and Hamlin, another poor result in the Jayhawk State will almost certainly push their championship dreams to the brink. There is no room for error, no margin for any further mistakes.
“We’re not out of it by any means,” insisted Logano Sunday. “Things happen. It’s part of racing, but we’re not out. We’re not going to die. This team is resilient. We’ve proved it before and we’ll just have to go out and prove it again. We just have to have two flawless races. It’s something we can make up.”
"We would all love to tell you that we aren't thinking about Talladega,” said Cole Pearn, crew chief for Martin Truex, Jr. “But we definitely know it's out there. You’re never totally in control of what might happen… and at Talladega, you have way less control than anywhere else."
"It's weird how each round of this thing kind of takes on its own personality," said a grim-faced Hamlin Sunday night. "So many of us moved on into this round because we were consistent. Now, there are so many of us who left early today. Winning becomes even more important than it already was. Some guys will be hanging it out at Kansas."
"We'll see guys making mistakes behind the wheel because they are pressing so hard,” predicted 12th-place Charlotte finisher . “We'll see pit crews making mistakes… and we'll see equipment breaking down because teams are pushing the limits. I can't imagine what the last lap at Kansas is going to be like. I can't imagine what the last lap of Talladega is going to be like. Every lap matters more than the last one did. It's hard to describe.
“Stress, pressure, fun... I don't know what the right word is."