In his post-race interview after blowing an engine at Atlanta, Carl Edwards said all he could do to get in the Chase was win at Richmond on Saturday and hope for a miracle. The reality is, unless Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch get involved in a melee from Talladega Nights, Edwards isn’t going to make the playoffs.
With three superstar drivers looking at the Chase from outside at the beginning of the summer, it was pretty clear that Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Edwards weren’t all going to claw their way back in. After engine problems at Atlanta, Edwards has one nail left on the claw and is hanging from a ledge.
So, which superstar will be next to fall? Gordon and Busch have both had trying seasons, but a spot in the playoffs could cure all. Busch leads Gordon by 12 points heading to a track where he’s finished in the top 10 in 13 of his 15 starts. However, it’s still difficult to predict what will happen Saturday. What if Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano or Ryan Newman gambled on strategy, won the race and stole the last spot in the playoffs? Gordon, Busch and Edwards all would end up outside the cutoff. Did I just blow your mind?
Here is who’s hot and who’s not heading into the final race before the Chase.
*Denny Hamlin* is proof of how quickly situations can change in the Sprint Cup Series. Two weeks ago, Hamlin was 10th in the standings and declining at such a rate that he might need a wild card spot to get in the playoffs — meaning his wins would have been worthless.
A win at Bristol and another at Atlanta, and now we’re talking about Hamlin as the current No. 1 seed in the playoffs (four wins) and as a serious championship contender. On top of that, Hamlin already has a pair of wins at the next stop on the circuit, Richmond.
I like to throw a lot of stats out to back up statements in this column each week, and this is the one I was most impressed by after Atlanta. *Brad Keselowski* has six top 5s in the last nine races. He was in the top 10 in two of the other races. If it hadn’t been for hiccup at Bristol, the No. 2 team could be looking at nine consecutive top 10s.
Keselowski has three wins this year, but has put himself in position to win much more often, including four of the last five events. He was the car directly behind Jimmie Johnson when he spun at Pocono, the leader on the last lap at Watkins Glen, the driver who made a run at Greg Biffle on the final lap at Michigan and the man lingering in the shadows behind Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon on Sunday. I’m not betting against him at Richmond.
*Martin Truex Jr.* was a caution away from earning his first win since the Reagan administration on Sunday night. It hasn’t quite been quite that long, but it has been five years, and Truex Jr. is hungry for it.
If he keeps running like he has in the last six races, it’ll be just around the corner. Truex Jr. has five top 10s in the last six events and his other finish was 11th. His fourth-place results marked his sixth top 5 of the season, more than he had combined in 2009-11.
*Paul Menard* was a win away from entering The Chase conversation this summer. He’s been steadily in the 12th to 16th range in the standings all season, but he hasn’t even been close to winning. After 25 races, he is yet to score a top 5.
Menard has been building some momentum as of late, though. He has top 10s in three straight races and was 11th and 12th in the two events before that. On Sunday, he ran up front for most of the night and finished eighth. His fluorescent yellow/green Chevrolet caught me off guard a couple of times. There were two separate incidents where I thought, “Wow, Danica is really getting the hang of this,” and then went, “Oh, that’s Paul Menard.”
*Joey Logano* was in the final Chase spot after winning at Pocono on June 10 and Joe Gibbs was talking about extending the contract of the young driver. Since then, Logano’s posted three top 10s in the last 11 races, including only one in the last seven, and Gibbs is about to give Matt Kenseth the keys to the No. 20.
Logano wasn’t feeling well on Sunday, but that doesn’t explain his performance since being thrown into the hunt for the playoffs in June. But as I said in the intro, a win at Richmond could solve all his problems.
It has been agonizing watching *Carl Edwards* this summer. Edwards has had the points to be a wild card candidate, but not the win. Each week in interviews, Edwards led us to believe a win could happen that race. Well, it never did.
Here is where irony could come into play. Edwards is capable of, and very well could win at Richmond and get the win he has been in search of all season, but then still fall short of the playoffs because of his engine problem at Atlanta.
An average finish of 21.3 and two top 10s in the first 25 races wasn’t what Richard Petty Motorsports thought it signed up for when it brought in *Aric Almirola* to replace A.J. Allmendinger in the offseason. It was a perplexing move because Almirola was yet to prove himself in the Nationwide Series before his promotion. Well, he might be headed back there soon.
Almirola had mechanical trouble at Atlanta (32nd), but didn’t crack the top 15 in his prior 11 starts to that. RPM is losing factory backing from Ford next season and Richard Petty was mum in a recent interview about his driver lineup for 2013. With Brian Vickers and Kurt Busch both out on the market, it doesn’t make much sense to stay behind a driver who is yet to prove anything at each of the top two levels.
*Stewart-Haas* looks a lot like Haas CNC did before the Stewart was added in 2009. Let’s sum up the team’s run at Atlanta: Danica Patrick still thought she was at Bristol (six laps down). Ryan Newman crashed and now must win at Richmond to qualify for the playoffs (by the way, he is losing his primary sponsor at the end of the year). And best of all, days after finding out his primary sponsor also wouldn’t be back (at least not primarily) in 2013, Tony Stewart finished a lap down and two spots behind Landon Cassill (22nd).
The good news for Stewart is, he’s been through it before, and knows it can turn around in an instant. All he has to do is look at last year. I guess the only question is can Stewart win the Chase after another dismal entrance?
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