NASCAR’s new Chase format was designed to make the regular season finale a “can’t miss” on anyone’s calendar. With 16 postseason slots available, chances are at least one would be available at Richmond, and with any driver inside the top 30 Chase eligible under the rules, one upset victory is all it would take to shuffle up the final drivers in the field.
So why, in the moments following Kasey Kahne’s upset victory, did the balloon seem to pop on Sunday night? Kyle Larson said his Chase chances were “pretty much over… unless we win” at Richmond. Only two spots — currently held by Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle — are left available and either one would need a catastrophe, some type of flat tire or mechanical failure, to fall outside the 16-driver field. In fact, only two — Larson and Clint Bowyer — can overtake them on points this Saturday night.
Sure, some driver 24th in the standings can catch lightning in a bottle and win at Richmond. (Larson did take the pole in the spring). But do you really see a Casey Mears, where a top 10 is a good day for his single-car team, suddenly shocking the field? How about a Marcos Ambrose or a Paul Menard, neither of whom have won a short track race in their Cup careers?
Therefore, the best hopes to shake up the field lie with Larson and Bowyer. But Bowyer, on the one-year anniversary of “Spingate,” seems to have had karma come back around, as a broken shifter in Atlanta took him out of the Chase grid on points. So in a surprising turn of events, the field seems set — to the point Richmond could be … shall I say… run-of-the-mill?
It’s a short-term gain for NASCAR that Kahne’s thrilling two-lap dash to the finish at Atlanta raised eyebrows. Just don’t expect the ticket sellers at Richmond to be sending his team any thank you cards.
“Through The Gears,” post-Atlanta, we go …
FIRST GEAR: Kahne is able at Atlanta
Kasey Kahne has to be breathing easy just one week after his career low with Hendrick Motorsports. Screaming over the radio at Bristol, one of the longest driver-crew chief partnerships on the Cup circuit appeared to be broken to pieces. Handling problems, which doomed his Thunder Valley effort, despite leading a small chunk of the race, eventually put Kahne many laps down; a broken right front wheel sent him behind the wall. Losing valuable points to Clint Bowyer and others, it appeared the Chase was a long shot, at best. How does a team — one with just two top-5 finishes — with the backing of the strongest and deepest organization in the sport explain missing the postseason?
For Kahne to turn right around, putting together one of his finest performances at Atlanta was a gutsy effort. Crew chief Kenny Francis, with perfect strategy, got the No. 5 car out front at the race’s penultimate caution via fuel-only stop with fresh enough tires where clean air could hold off a dominant Kevin Harvick. Then, the driver had to take center stage, surviving not one but two green-white-checker finishes where one final pit stop left him stuck in traffic.
“I just kept telling myself, ‘Do not spin the tires. Whatever you do, coming up second and third gear, don’t spin the tires, just take your time on the throttle. And if you do that, you’re going to have a great opportunity here.’”
The first restart was fortuitous for Kahne, as Harvick got wrecked while the No. 5 Chevy slid to third in the running order using the inside line on a night where the outer groove was toast. He was able to build momentum from there, sneaking through the middle on a second G-W-C restart and wheeling door-to-door, pedal-to-the-floor, with Matt Kenseth until the No. 20 car finally relented.
“That was a race-winning move,” said owner Rick Hendrick, who now has all four cars in the Chase. “Just glad to see these guys have some good luck. They have had a tough year. … Something about Kasey when the sun goes down on a mile-and-a-half track.”
Whatever it is, the knack for intermediates has Kahne back in the playoffs once again. And while a Final Four slot may be a bit of a stretch, keep in mind his three HMS teammates are all favorites to win the series title. Can Kahne shock us all in November? Probably not. But I’d be shocked if he’s eliminated before the Elite Eight.
SECOND GEAR: Stewart’s roller coaster return
No mention of Atlanta could go by without discussing Tony Stewart’s return to racing. After three weeks off following the tragic death of sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr., Stewart made a prepared statement on Friday, one in which he looked ready to burst into tears before stepping into his Sprint Cup machine. Multiple shows of support ensued, from random crew members hugging it out at the No. 14 hauler to a heartfelt, unrelenting show of written support from Bass Pro Shops owner Johnny Morris.
All those words may mean nothing when the Ontario County, N.Y., investigation concludes, a matter that’s not expected to subside for at least another two-to-three weeks. From that point on, the simple act of explaining himself allowed Stewart to return to racing. He had some special incentive, too, armed with a controversial special exemption from NASCAR that would allow him in the Chase with a victory at Atlanta or Richmond.
Unfortunately for the No. 14 bunch, Atlanta wasn’t the place to cash in, as contact from Kyle Busch was followed by a blown right-front tire which ultimately shelved his evening. Stewart’s quest for redemption must now wait for Richmond, but more than likely he’ll be on the outside looking in on the Chase.
“It’s really good to have him back,” crew chief Chad Johnston said, despite the 41st-place showing.
It was a sentiment felt by all.
THIRD GEAR: Danica’s career night
For some, a sixth-place effort is just another week. But for a slumping sophomore? It means the world, and then some. NASCAR’s “First Lady” of Sprint Cup navigated beautifully through a series of late wrecks, using track position, tires and a quick pit crew to work her way as high as fourth for the final restart. While missing out on a top-5 finish after sliding back, the run was still one of the most consistent Danica Patrick has put together all year.
“Man, that race felt like it was 700 miles,” she said afterwards. “Sometimes, when you are running well they feel like that because you are hoping it stays there, keeps going well, and you keep improving and don’t lose it.”
The run now gives Patrick two career top-10 Cup finishes on intermediate tracks. That bodes well for upcoming trips to Chicagoland, Charlotte and Kansas — all tracks where this run can translate. Team co-owner Stewart’s return was a boost to the program, along with Tony Gibson’s gentle push on the radio. While Patrick needed two “Lucky Dogs” early, she is developing a habit of being at her best during a race’s final segment. Should Patrick get better — say, within the first 100 laps — there’s a shot she’ll have plenty more finishes like these.
TALIAFERRO | Kahne grabs Chase bid; Richmond showdown set
FOURTH GEAR: Harvick’s troubling take
Kevin Harvick led 195 laps and dominated the race only to see it end in disaster. A late stop left him back in the pack, butchered by the fuel only strategy call that put Kasey Kahne out front. But a series of poor pit stops — compared to Joe Gibbs Racing — also cost the No. 4 car track position at every turn. It’s a phenomenon Harvick couldn’t keep quiet about as the TV booth buzzed (correctly) about the different, in-house manufactured air guns utilized by JGR that are saving its three-car operation up to a second’s worth of time on pit road.
“Our cars are really fast and doing all the things we need to do but we lost control every time we came to pit road tonight,” Harvick said. “I thought we had that better but we got just absolutely murdered on pit road every time we came down by the 11 (Denny Hamlin) and the 20 (Matt Kenseth). Those guys are obviously doing a good job and we have known that all year and need to fix it.”
Harvick’s momentum, so critical for a first-year team, suffered a major blow instead of a third win. While Richmond is historically one of Harvick’s best tracks (three wins, 11.3-place average finish in 27 Cup starts), is the Bob Knight coaching method necessary from a driver trying to “set his pit crew straight”? I still maintain that the crew itself, if not properly adjusted or set on the same page as Harvick, could rebel against its own driver at some point during the Chase.
Kyle Busch, whose incident with Martin Truex Jr. brought out the caution flag with two laps left, could not have had a worse month of August. In summary: blown engine, wreck, wreck, wreck, wreck. Tumbling to 17th in points, he obviously doesn’t believe in momentum pre-Chase and has made a lot of enemies in just the last few weeks. Truex, who he tangled with at Watkins Glen, leaned in Busch’s window after the race while several drivers who lost positions (and cars) on the green-white-checker ending could indirectly blame Busch. … Ty Dillon should be commended on a respectable Cup debut, running 25th, three laps off the pace. Future races this season have not been announced but owner Richard Childress envisions a limited Cup schedule in 2015. … Atlanta’s attendance appeared up from last year but that boost could be short-lived. NASCAR is moving the race date to its second weekend of the year in 2015, one where it could easily still be snowing in northern Georgia.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.