Second place really is the first loser. We hear that cliché overused in sports, and the last two weeks in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series have taught us the consequences of settling for runner-up. Last week there Jeff Gordon, seemingly in control of his Chase destiny until a late-race Pocono caution set up a green-white-checker finish with Kasey Kahne. The No. 5 car got the jump entering Turn 1, cleared his teammate through the Tunnel Turn and — voila! — Gordon’s victory vanished.
On Sunday at Watkins Glen, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch battled mano-a-mano for the big trophy. For Keselowski, it was the third time in three years he’s finished the race in second place. Glued to Busch’s rear decklid for the final two laps, he had every opportunity to move the No. 18 Toyota and change that. Maybe he felt sorry about what happened last year, when contact between the two led to Busch being the odd man out. Maybe he was worried about his reputation as the defending Sprint Cup champion (unlikely). Or maybe he felt like bumping someone out of the way to earn his first win of the season wasn’t the “right way” of going about obtaining it.
“I could have definitely dumped Kyle and won the race,” admitted Keselowski. “That stuff goes back and forth, and I'm sure someone in the tabloid side of the media will make a big deal about that, but it won't be me because I know I did the right thing.”
Only Keselowski knows what was really in his mind. Whatever the case, both he and Gordon now enter the final four regular season races on edge. Just one bad break — a Bristol wreck, a blown engine at Michigan or poor handling at Atlanta — leaves them on the outside looking in at the Chase. For Gordon, who wrecked on his own Sunday, it would be his first missed appearance since 2005. For Keselowski, it would be the first time a reigning champ missed since Tony Stewart in 2006. Both are history-making moments neither one wants to repeat. Either could have settled it with their front bumper.
In the end, both took the ethical high ground. But neither escaped that haunting cliché about second place ... and the millions in potential money lost that comes with it.
In this week’s “Through the Gear” we go post-Watkins Glen …
FIRST GEAR: Kyle’s climb back into contention
For most of the summer, we’ve heard Hendrick, Hendrick and more Hendrick. Other than Matt Kenseth’s win at Kentucky — gift wrapped in the form of a Jimmie Johnson spin — Joe Gibbs Racing has been assuming the role of second fiddle in the Cup Series.
Not Sunday. Kyle Busch earned his first Cup win since Texas in April, holding position over the final 29 laps after a caution put him out front following his final stop under green. On road courses, drives rarely lose a lap while pitting under green, so when the other leaders hit the pits under yellow, Busch was the benefactor. More importantly, he reestablished confidence in the Toyota program and himself after a self-induced, Lap 1 wreck in the Nationwide Series race the day before.
“Last couple years here have been tough,” he said, and it’s true; Busch led 92 laps of 182 in 2011-12 but failed to win. “Today, it could have been tough again, but we were raced clean and we put on a good show, I felt like. We've had fast cars here. I wouldn't say we deserve it, but we felt like we deserved to win here and just haven't quite been able to put it all together when it matters.”
A solid road racer, Busch’s third career road-course victory was also his third of the season. While it seems like he’s on another planet compared to Jimmie Johnson in the standings, the win leaves him just three points behind the five-time champion if the Chase reset were to happen today — not a bad place to be.
SECOND GEAR: Marcos’ last stand?
For Marcos Ambrose, who led a race-high 51 laps, a third-straight Glen win looked like a good possibility — until the aforementioned caution. That trapped him back in the pack, in 12th for the restart, and the No. 9 car never could quite move back up. It seemed like aero made much more of a difference at Watkins Glen than Sonoma, trapping fast cars behind traffic, and Ambrose never cracked the top 5 again. Adding insult to injury, a parts failure shortly after the restart opened the door for a Max Papis tap, turning his Ford around in the closing stages and leading to an ugly DNF.
“I just couldn’t get going,” Ambrose explained. “I thought something was wrong. I was talking to the guys on the radio and we decided to stay out there just to see if it was gonna be drivable, but it wasn’t. I was in the way heading up the hill and got dumped by somebody. I’m not sure who it was and I just ended up in the fence.”
That all but wraps up any longshot chances for the Australian to make the Chase. Winless on ovals throughout his career, he sits 23rd in points, 110 markers behind 10th-place Martin Truex Jr. and without a top-5 finish. Even underdogs David Gilliland, David Ragan and Michael Waltrip can claim at least one of those. The third season with Richard Petty Motorsports has seen him regress, while teammate Aric Almirola has run decently. In the last year of his deal, could we be seeing the end of this overseas experiment with stock car racing?
THIRD GEAR: The wreck heard ‘round the Chase
How quickly fortunes can change in this sport. Hendrick Motorsports, which spent last week on top of the world with four HMS-powered Chevys in the top 5 — including Kasey Kahne in Victory Lane — watched helplessly Sunday as three of its primary cars were wrecked. While Jeff Gordon’s was his own fault, Kahne got some help, courtesy of Matt Kenseth as his car slammed into traffic through the esses. Teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. was just an innocent victim in that mess.
Why is this wreck more important than Gordon’s? Two reasons. One: it throws the winless Earnhardt back onto the fringes of the Chase bubble, just 47 points ahead of 11th-place Kurt Busch heading to Michigan, where the No. 88 team blew an engine in June. One more bobble and it’s not a nice place to be for a team that just will not win the race it needs to secure a spot.
The second problem for other Chase contenders surrounds Kahne’s two wins that just entered “wild card” territory. Now 12th in points, Kahne has been plagued by bad luck but has pretty much clinched a bid for the postseason by virtue of victories. One of the fastest cars all year, Kahne dropping into this realm is a surprise — and could cost a guy like Ryan Newman, sitting 14th with one win, should fellow one-timer-winners Truex or Greg Biffle fall out of the top 10.
It also cuts off longshots like Joey Logano, Jeff Burton or Juan Pablo Montoya — ranging 16th-22nd in points — who hoped one win would help them sneak in. A two-win “wild card” entry makes their bid all but impossible.
FOURTH GEAR: Road ringers? More like road rage.
NASCAR’s set of road course subs, picked for their right-turn prowess, had a few too many turns off the course Sunday. Papis, in a one-race deal for Tony Stewart, was the only one to finish inside the top 20 (15th), and even he had “metal” on his hands in the form of tapping Ambrose. Ron Fellows, one of the country’s premier road racers, caused a wreck; other subs Victor Gonzalez Jr. and Tomy Drissi got into it. Owen Kelly, making his debut for Phoenix Racing, was barely heard from (24th) and Boris Said (22nd) had early problems that cost him track position from which he never recovered.
On the flip side, small teams like Germain Racing’s No. 13 with Casey Mears (12th) and JTG-Daugherty’s AJ Allmendinger (10th) put together solid outings. With the Gen-6 car, maybe it’s better to leave a full-time Cup driver in the car instead of reaching for someone who hops in twice a year.
Austin Dillon will pilot Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 14 at Michigan while driver and team co-owner Tony Stewart recovers from injuries sustained in a sprint car crash last week. No plans for Bristol or any race following have been announced. Dillon shares SHR’s ties to sponsor Bass Pro Shops and manufacturer, Chevrolet. … Juan Pablo Montoya, overshadowed a bit Sunday, had a solid fifth-place finish. Not the day he was hoping for considering past performance at the Glen, but it’s his third top 5 of 2013 – more than he’s had the last two seasons combined. … It’s clear the Gen-6 car, while providing more speed, is aero sensitive on virtually every type of track. While Watkins Glen offered plenty of action, track position simply played more of a role in previous years; I don’t remember any time in the past several seasons where more drivers jumped out of a road course car and said it was “difficult to pass.”
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter:@NASCARBowles
Photos byAction Sports, Inc.