ONE: ONE TO GO: RICHMOND
And then there was one. Just 300 miles and 400 laps at Richmond International Raceway separate us from the end of the regular season and the start of the newfangled Chase for the Sprint Cup format. Kasey Kahne became the 13th driver to win a race this season at Atlanta grabbing his berth in the playoffs. So, with winless Matt Kenseth locked in based on his position in the points, two spots are still up for grabs. Ryan Newman (up 42 points) has one essentially locked up so it looks as if we’ll have a three-way battle between Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer (23 points back on Biffle) and rookie Kyle Larson (24 points back), who is looking to become the first rookie to make the Chase since Denny Hamlin in 2006.
It is somewhat interesting that Bowyer is one of the drivers on the bubble given the controversy he ignited this time last year at Richmond, but unless Bowyer or a hitherto winless driver can win, a solid points day will do it for Biffle.
The better story would unquestionably be Larson making the final field of 16, but after 26 races things even themselves out and if it is to be Biffle he’s well worthy of a place in the playoff field.
TWO: 750 UP FOR JEFF GORDON
Sunday night’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway was a milestone of sorts for Jeff Gordon, who completed the 750th Cup race of his storied NASCAR career.
In a nice piece of symmetry, Gordon also made his Cup debut at Atlanta all the way back in 1992; a race also famous for being the King, Richard Petty’s last at the top echelon.
“That is a big number. I hadn’t thought about it a whole lot until I saw a decal with it made up,” Gordon said on Saturday. “I thought, ‘man, that is a lot of races, especially in a row’. Really proud of that, it’s been an amazing career in the Cup Series. It seems like it was yesterday that it started right here over 20 years ago.”
In the landmark race, Gordon ran well for the first 75 of the scheduled 250 laps before cutting a tire and slamming into the outside retaining wall. His crew managed to patch up his ailing Toughbook Chevy and the former Boy Wonder finished up in a ho-hum 17th place.
The 23-year veteran has three wins already this season, and given his average finish of 10.3, eight top 5s, 16 top 10s and 545 laps led. looks certain to be a huge factor in the new look =Chase. Could this be the year he finally gets his drive for five done? You’d be hard-pressed to argue he doesn’t have an excellent shot.
THREE: CUP RACE NO. 1 FOR TY DILLON
And on the opposite end of the spectrum at Atlanta was 22-year-old Ty Dillon, who started his first ever Sprint Cup race.
Following in the pedal steps of his older brother and 2014 Rookie of the Year candidate Austin Dillon, Ty started 29th and finished 25th, three laps off the pace in a respectable first effort racing at the Cup level.
Dillon currently sits in third place in the Nationwide Series, 35 points from leader Chase Elliott and just 20 markers behind second place driver Regan Smith with one win (the Brickyard), four top 5s, 17 top 10s and an average finish of 9.4.
Dillon might not emulate Gordon’s sterling efforts at the Cup level but if he continues to grow and develop as a driver will certainly be a fixture on the Sprint Cup circuit for years to come. He’s one to watch, for sure.
FOUR: POWER UP
After eight years of writing a column on this fine site I know that I supposed to remain scrupulously impartial, but I can’t help but break that to say how absolutely delighted I am to see Will Power finally win the Verizon IndyCar championship he so richly deserves. Saturday night’s ninth-place finish in a grueling, sweltering 500-mile race at Auto Club Speedway was enough for the Australian to finish atop the standings after missing out on the title with three straight runner-up finishes between 2010-2012.
In the seven years he’s raced in the series, Power has been lightning quick, winning 22 races and 31 poles not to mention 39 podium finishes, but until Saturday, he had never managed to win the big prize his immense talent suggested he deserved. At Auto Club Speedway, Power – at long last – put that right in style.
FIVE: KAHNE SALVAGES A DISAPPOINTING SEASON (SO FAR)
What a win that was for Kasey Kahne at Atlanta, salvaging what has been a disappointing season to date by his own very high standards.
With Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. all locked into the Chase already, Kahne became the fourth and final member of the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut to make the playoffs. Based on Kahne’s points position coming into the race, the win was absolutely vital.
“I told a couple friends or a friend of that this week, like I just kept saying, I have to win. I have to win Sunday night,” he said. “That was, it was all that I could think about. I knew Atlanta was a better opportunity for myself to win at than Richmond.” And so it proved.
Now the question becomes can Kahne parlay this hugely morale boosting result into a solid run in the Chase. Based on what we’ve seen so far this year, I’d say not likely but don’t rule him out just yet. Kahne might just get on a roll that takes him all the way to Homestead-Miami Speedway.