The Chase bubble wasn’t a major area of focus entering the Oral-B USA 500 after Bristol seemingly divided the haves from the have-nots.
But as the Sprint Cup Series has shown, things can change in a hurry. After wild-card placeholder Clint Bowyer went to the Atlanta Motor Speedway garage, several drivers who were all but written off received new life, and then something highly unlikely happened – a driver outside the playoff picture rose to the occasion, grabbing an automatic berth that changed everything again.
This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not shows that a toppy-turvy night affected more than just those hoping for a last-second shot at glory. Up-and-down fortune was widespread, touching frontrunners and everyone else alike.
A regular season finale of epic proportions awaits at Richmond International Raceway, where upset-minded drivers will have one final chance to crack the field of 16, and a list of multiple-time winners look to gain separation over the competition with another winner’s circle celebration. Here’s where they stand entering round 26.
One of the joys of watching the buildup induced by the new Chase format’s win-and-you’re-in rule set is the risk that drivers are willing to take to get a WINNER decal. It was on display again over Labor Day weekend, as an attempted green-white-checker finish bred another after several drivers – including a dominant Kevin Harvick – got too aggressive, when Paul Menard couldn’t get going from the second position, and clashed going into turn 1.
Winless Kasey Kahne reemerged from the second GWC restart and went on to punch his playoff ticket. For Kahne, it was a trip down Victory Lane that almost never materialized, after a late-race caution erased a sizable lead and a rough final stop relegated him to fifth before the first attempt.
After qualifying 10th, the No. 5 team briefly lost touch with the Chevrolet’s setup, but found speed in time to savage what’s been a trying 2014 campaign. With only three top 5s to date, Kahne seems far from a championship favorite, but a plethora of playoff experience and a Hendrick Motorsports backing are beneficial.
While he couldn’t quite live up to last week’s Hot or Not measure, runner up and wild-card qualifier Matt Kenseth again gets a nod due to back-to-back top 3s and another favorable matchup. Since joining Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth has progressively improved his finishes there over three starts, from seventh to sixth to fifth in April.
Jimmie Johnson was on hand to congratulate Kahne during his post-race party alongside HMS teammates Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jeff Gordon. His presence there, while a nice gesture, isn’t the reason for his Hot or Not inclusion.
With three straight top 10s, including consecutive fourth-place finishes, Johnson has successfully broken out of the worst slump of his Cup career. This needed warmup was timed slightly earlier than last season’s pre-Chase turnaround. It began with Johnson’s MacGyver-esque ability to alter a broken shifter handle with nothing more than a pair of pliers and a vise grip while driving at Michigan, and continued at AMS after he stayed calm in the final hectic moments.
Johnson’s recent success gives him momentum and a Hot or Not mention even if his recent Richmond numbers aren’t overly impressive, but even with no finish better than 12th over his last four RIR starts, its hard to doubt his Chase readiness.
With a 42-point cushion over the cutoff, Ryan Newman simply needs to avoid complete disaster to make the playoff field. That leaves Greg Biffle (23 points ahead of Bowyer) in command of the last spot if the current scenario remains unchanged. While another driver outside the bubble could potentially ruin Biffle’s Chase aspirations, a win from someone already assured a spot is the more likely outcome.
Carl Edwards (two wins) will look to create a six-driver deadlock atop the playoff grid by adding another sticker to his collection in the regular-season finale. Edwards will arrive at RIR as the track’s hottest driver, with top 10s in eight of the last nine races.
The twice-mentioned Clint Bowyer finally gets a few words all to himself, but unfortunately this isn’t where he wants to be. Bowyer had managed to make himself relevant again in July without mustering a win. However, since finishing 27th at Watkins Glen, his season has quickly unraveled; even so, he entered AMS with a slight advantage in the wild-card battle, but a broken shifter – similar to Johnson’s – coupled with Kahne’s berth pushed him back outside the cutoff.
Bowyer returns to the site of the infamous Spingate conundrum as a center of attention once again, only this time he’s trying to fight his way into the Chase and not finding a way out of it. Bowyer’s RIR resume includes two wins, and he’ll likely need a third to make the playoff roster. That’s bad news, given Michael Waltrip Racing’s average-looking RIR numbers since Bowyer handed the organization its last win there in 2012.
Holding true to his sponsor’s marketing slogan, MWR teammate Brian Vickers was owning it entering the summer months, but as the temperatures have risen, he has cooled down. Once a possible Chase qualifier, Vickers stumbled down the stretch, recording only two top 10s over the past 13 races.
Now 18th in the standings, Vickers will need a win to make the Chase, and although he is something of a short-track dynamo, RIR hasn’t been especially kind on him, with three finishes of 24th or worse over the last four visits there.
This spot could be reserved for one or more of a group of drivers who sit on the wrong side of the Chase bubble and lack the RIR results to make a win a likely possibility. Of those realistically capable of performing at the level needed to do so, drivers like Jamie McMurray, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Martin Truex, Jr. lack the statistical backing and Austin Dillon performed like a rookie (27th).
Any one of them could be written off in more detail, but that would leave little room for Kyle Busch. Busch’s appearances in the cold category are redundant, but he keeps finding new ways to make the bad list.
Busch’s first AMS incident occurred when he misjudged the gap between the No. 18 Toyota and Tony Stewart‘s No. 14 Chevrolet. Stewart’s damage and later a blown tire ruined his comeback from a three-race absence.
Busch then was involved in an altercation with Truex that overflowed into the area behind pit road after the checkered flag.
There’s a reason he earned the nickname Rowdy, but lately, Busch has taken his antics to a new level. When he’s on there are few drivers more capable of winning, and when he’s slumping there are few drivers worse. The latter has held true, as Busch fell from sixth to 17th in the standings over a five-race span from Indianapolis to Bristol. To make things worse, the list of drivers who could be looking for payback come Chase time continues to grow.
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