With just one race remaining in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, it is “Do or Die” time for a number of prime contenders.
The championship picture has become more clear with every passing week, until now, every contender knows exactly what they must do to be a part of the championship field at Chicagoland Speedway in two weeks.
|Logano: "We're in this together."|
As long as there is no new winner – or Joey Logano does not repeat his earlier encumbered victory at Richmond this weekend -- Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray will qualify for the 2017 playoffs on points. Elliott, Kenseth and McMurray remain winless in 2017, and left the Lady In Black seventh, eighth and ninth in the championship standings, separated by just three points. If a new winner goes to Victory Lane this weekend — or Logano returns there with no technical issues -- only two of those three drivers will qualify for the playoffs.
Logano was once again a step behind at Darlington Sunday, running in the back half of the Top-10 for most of the night before fading to 18th at the drop of the checkered flag. Logano’s Shell-Pennzoil Ford team has never recovered from that encumbered win at Richmond in the spring, and the Connecticut native currently does not appear to have the off-the-truck speed necessary for contend for either a Richmond win, or the MENCS championship.
This is the same Logano, however, who pulled a rabbit out of the hat twice in recent playoff runs, claiming “must win” victories in the final race of a playoff round to keep his title hopes alive. Crew chief Todd Gordon is one of the most aggressive pit bosses in the game, and will absolutely roll the dice on strategy if necessary, to put his driver in position to steal a win.
“We’re going through a little bit of a downturn right now,” admitted Logano last week. “It’s obvious, and it’s something as a team that we haven’t gone through together, But we’ve all gone through it individually before and we’ve all come out of it.
“These are the moments that are a true test of your character and who you are; the way you handle these situations internally in your team. And it’s time to step up and be a leader.
“Is this the easiest time? No. (But) we do this together. We’re in this together.”
|Jones: Poised to play the spoiler|
Logano admitted that his Team Penske organization has struggled to keep pace with the Toyota-backed Furniture Row and Joe Gibbs Racing teams.
“Let’s face it, the things that we’ve done in the past to be successful are not working,” he said. “You have to understand what’s going on; take a step back and reevaluate. We have to go back through things to find speed in our cars… compared to the Toyotas.
“Let’s be honest, those are the fastest cars right now, every single week. Obviously, we have to take big steps to catch them. That’s not to say we can’t catch them, we will catch them. Racing goes in cycles, it always does. It’s just a matter of weathering the storm and staying together as a team.
“I feel confident that we will get through this.”
Logano is not the only driver capable of summoning the spirit of Jeremy Mayfield and claiming a last-second playoff berth by winning Saturday night’s regular-season finale. Chief among them is Furniture Row Racing rookie Erik Jones, who followed up a stellar, runner-up finish to Kyle Busch at Bristol Motor Speedway two weeks ago with an equally impressive fifth at Darlington.
“We had a good car for sure,” said Jones after bringing his Toyota Camry home from a 500-mile bout with the Lady In Black without a scratch. “And for my first time here, I thought we did a good job. We’ll fight hard at Richmond like we always do, and who knows? Maybe that first Cup win will also get us into the playoffs.”
|Last chance for Bowyer|
Fellow freshman Daniel Suarez had less luck at Darlington, crashing en route to a 38th-place finish. But like Jones, he has shown sufficient speed to win this weekend, if all the cards fall his way. Trevor Bayne, three-time Richmond winner Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Paul Menard and Ty Dillon would also contend for a win, with a little luck, as could Clint Bowyer, whose playoff hopes suffered a major blow Sunday when engine issues ended his evening after just a handful of laps.
“It just blew up,” said the Stewart Haas Racing driver afterward. “It’s a pretty inopportune time to have it happen, but it’s never a good time. Doug Yates and all the guys over at his shop do such a good job of bringing us reliable, good horsepower and it was just my time. It was my turn and there isn’t much you can do about it.” Bowyer now must win this weekend at Richmond to earn a spot on the 2017 playoffs.
“We’re not out of this thing,” Bowyer said. “We’ll just go (to Richmond), do the best we can and put all the cards on the table.
“You come to all these race tracks with an urgency to win, just like we did at the Daytona 500. Richmond is a good track for us. We’ll go there and do the best we can.”