Looking ahead: Who could be headed to Chase and who could be disappointed

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With NASCAR halfway to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the pressure builds on drivers who have yet to win and all but secure a chance to race for the title.

There have been nine different winners this season (compared to 10 a year ago), leaving seven spots for the Chase to be determined by points – at this time.

Last year, there were 13 winners when the Chase began, leaving three spots open for those via points. It likely will be about the same this year.

So, as the series heads to Pocono Raceway to begin a stretch of 13 races in 15 weeks, here’s a look at who is in contention for those final Chase spots and the chances they have of making it.

 

MARTIN TRUEX JR.

Chase appearances: 2 (best finish 11th in 2007 & 2012)

Points position: 2nd (ranks first among winless drivers)

Notable performances: Has led the most laps in last three points races but did not win any of those.

Why he’ll make Chase: Clearly has one of the fastest cars and even if he doesn’t win, he should make it via points.

Why he won’t make Chase: He and team decide to take four-week summer vacation and miss a few races. Would have to be that drastic.

 

JAMIE McMURRAY

Chase appearances: 0

Points position: 7th (ranks second among winless drivers)

Notable performances: Has an average finish of 9.7 at the seven tracks the series has run that will host a Chase race.

Why he’ll make Chase: It’s amazing that the former Daytona 500, Sprint All-Star and Brickyard 400 winner has not made the Chase in his career. Everything finally goes his way.

Why he won’t make Chase: Can’t afford a number of poor finishes. If only three drivers make the Chase on points as happened last year, he could be teetering on the edge if he doesn’t win a race.

 

KASEY KAHNE

Chase appearances: 5 (best finish 4th in 2012)

Points position: 8th (ranks third among winless drivers)

Notable performances: 4th at Phoenix and Dover.

Why he’ll make Chase: Should score a win to secure a spot. Could come this weekend at Pocono where he won in 2013 and has two top-two finishes in last five starts there.

Why he won’t make Chase: He didn’t win until Atlanta last year – two races before the Chase cutoff. That race moved, so he won’t have that track to bail him out if he doesn’t have a win that late in the season.

 

JEFF GORDON

Chase appearances: 10 (best finish 2nd in 2007)

Points position: 9th (ranks fourth among winless drivers)

Notable performances: 3rd at Bristol. Led 87 laps in Daytona 500 but was collected in last-lap wreck.

Why he’ll make Chase: There could be no worse disappointment than not to make the Chase in his final full season. If things get hairy, the full resources of Hendrick Motorsports will be focused on getting him in the Chase, much like how Kasey Kahne won late to make last year’s Chase.

Why he won’t make Chase: If he has more speeding penalties on pit road at the wrong time. One such penalty likely cost him a shot to win at Martinsville.

 

ARIC ALMIROLA

Chase appearances: 1 (best finish 16th in 2014)

Points position: 10th (ranks fifth among winless drivers)

Notable performances: 5th at Dover

Why he’ll make Chase: He’s been steady all season with no finish worse than 26th and only two finishes of 20th or worse. He’s maximizing what the car and team are providing.

Why he won’t make Chase: He’s about two poor finishes from falling too far out of the third spot among winless drivers – the likely cutoff for winless drivers to make the Chase – if he doesn’t score a victory.

 

PAUL MENARD

Chase appearances: 0

Points position: 12th (ranks sixth among winless drivers)

Notable performances: 3rd at Talladega and 4th at Auto Club Speedway

Why he’ll make Chase: He’s been steady for much of the season with only one finish worse than 25th. He needs to be even stronger. Has led only one lap this season, so unless something changes, winning will be difficult to achieve.

Why he won’t make Chase: If one can’t lead laps, they can’t win. If he has a couple of bad performances, he likely won’t be able to overcome that to make it via points.

 

RYAN NEWMAN

Chase appearances: 6 (best finish 2nd in 2014)

Points position: 13th (ranks seventh among winless drivers)

Notable performances: 3rd at Las Vegas and Phoenix

Why he’ll make Chase: He’s doing the same thing as he did last year with consistency. He has eight top-10 finishes this season compared to four at this point a year ago. He’s used to the pressure – just recall his last-lap move on Kyle Larson at Phoenix to make the Chase finale last year.

Why he won’t make Chase: Consistency only gets one so far. It may not be enough this time.

 

CLINT BOWYER

Chase appearances: 5 (best finish 2nd in 2012)

Points position: 17th (ranks eighth among winless drivers)

Notable performances: 7th in Daytona 500

Why he’ll make Chase: Likely will have to win to do so.

Why he won’t make Chase: Team hasn’t shown it’s strong enough to challenge for a victory. Has led just two laps this season and has eight finishes of 20th or worse. That won’t cut it if he can’t score a win.

 

DANICA PATRICK

Chase appearances: 0

Points position: 18th (ranks ninth among winless drivers)

Notable performances: 7th at Martinsville

Why she’ll make Chase: Will need to win a race somewhere.

Why she won’t make Chase: Hasn’t been in position to win a race. That likely will continue, keeping her out of the Chase.

 

GREG BIFFLE

Chase appearances: 7 (best finish 2nd in 2005)

Points position: 19th (ranks 10th among winless drivers)

Notable performances: 2nd in Coca-Cola 600

Why he’ll make Chase: Nearly stole a win at Charlotte on fuel mileage. If he can do it somewhere else, he’ll be in.

Why he won’t make Chase: While his car showed it was better in the Coca-Cola 600, there’s still a long way to go for Roush Fenway Racing to compete for wins. Until it does so, RFR won’t have a driver in the Chase.

 

KYLE LARSON

Chase appearances: 0

Points position: 20th (ranks 11th among winless drivers)

Notable performances: 3rd at Dover

Why he’ll make Chase: Team picks up performance and matches the potential of this driver in the final 13 races before the Chase field is set.

Why he won’t make Chase: This team has been off at times this season with six finishes of 25th or worse. If that continues, he won’t make the Chase.

 

TONY STEWART

Chase appearances: 8 (won title in Chase format in 2005 & ’11)

Points position: 28th (ranks 19th among winless drivers)

Notable performances: 6th at Bristol

Why he’ll make Chase: Must win. Best bet is Daytona, Bristol or maybe the road courses.

Why he won’t make Chase: Although scoring better finishes lately compared to start of the year, this team has not shown the speed to compete for a win that it must have to make the Chase.

 

KYLE BUSCH

Chase appearances: 7 (best finish 4th in 2013)

Points position: 40th (ranks 31st among winless drivers)

Notable performances: 11th in Coca-Cola 600

Why he’ll make Chase: He’s been fast in his first two races back and put himself in position to have strong finishes until some late issues.

Why he won’t make Chase: Can’t overcome deficit of missing 11 races.

 

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.

Talladega jumbles Cup playoff grid heading to elimination race

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In an unpredictable season and topsy-turvy playoffs, it only made sense that Talladega would deliver a wildcard result.

A playoff driver won a playoff race for the first time this season. How about that?

Chase Elliott’s victory moves him to the next round, the only driver guaranteed to advance heading into Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric are tied for the last transfer spot, but Briscoe owns the tiebreaker based on a better finish in this round. At least for now.

Hendrick Motorsports will have its appeal this week on the 25-point penalty to William Byron from the Texas race. Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega, but if the team wins the appeal and he gets all 25 points back, Byron would be back in a transfer spot and drop Briscoe below the cutline.

 

XFINITY SERIES

AJ Allmendinger became the second driver to advance to the next round, winning at Talladega.

Ryan Sieg finished fourth and holds the final transfer spot heading into the elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock). Reigning series champion Daniel Hemric is six points behind Sieg. Riley Herbst and Brandon Jones are each 10 points behind Sieg. Jeremy Clements is 47 points behind.

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

Matt DiBenedetto’s first career Camping World Truck Series victory didn’t impact the playoff standings after Talladega since DiBenedetto is not a playoff driver.

Reigning series champion Ben Rhodes holds the final transfer spot. He leads Christian Eckes and Stewart Friesen by three points each. John Hunter Nemechek is five points behind Rhodes, while Grant Enfinger is 29 points behind Rhodes. Ty Majeski is the only driver guaranteed a spot in next month’s championship race.

The Truck Series is off this weekend. The next Truck race is Oct. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

 

Winners and losers at Talladega Superspeedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway:

WINNERS

Chase Elliott — After a rough race at Texas, Elliott returned to the role of championship favorite Sunday with a victory. He takes the point lead to Charlotte and, with Sunday’s win, is locked into the Round of 8.

MORE: Talladega Cup results

MORE: Talladega Cup driver points

Ryan Blaney — Despite another tough race day and a second-place finish in a race he could have won, Blaney remains in good shape in the playoffs, even without a points win. He is second in points to Elliott, only two behind.

Denny Hamlin — Hamlin took some time off from leading the charge for changes in the Next Gen car to run an excellent race. He led 20 laps, finished fifth and is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all five playoff races. He gained a spot in points to fourth.

LOSERS

Christopher Bell — Bell zipped onto pit road with too much speed during a round of pit stops and slid to a stop, earning a speeding penalty. He is 11th in points.

Kyle Larson — Larson led eight laps Sunday but was not a part of the drafting mix at the front at the finish. He was 18th and fell three spots in points to sixth.

Joey Logano — Logano held the point lead entering Sunday’s race. At day’s end, he had a 27th-place finish and had fallen four spots to fifth.

 

 

End of stages at Talladega could have lasting impact in playoffs

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A spot in the next round of the Cup playoffs could have been determined in just a few laps Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

They weren’t the final laps of the race, but the final laps of Stage 1 and Stage 2. 

The end of the first stage saw a big swing for a couple of drivers that could impact on who advances and who doesn’t after next weekend’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval.

MORE: Chase Elliott wins at Talladega 

With six laps left in the opening stage, William Byron was second to Denny Hamlin.

Byron was in need of stage points because of the uncertainty of his place in the standings. NASCAR docked him 25 points for spinning Hamlin under caution last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Hendrick Motorsports is appealing the decision and will have the hearing this week. While car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday that he felt the penalty was too severe in a three-race round, there’s no guarantee the appeal board will change the penalty or reduce it. 

With such unknowns, Byron’s focus was scoring as many points as possible since he entered the race eight points below the cutline. Sitting second in that opening stage put him in position to score the points he needed.

But when the the stage ended, Byron came across the line 11th — 0.036 seconds behind Erik Jones in 10th — and scored no stage points.

“I was working well with (Hamlin),” Byron said. “I tried to work to the bottom and he stayed at the top and the top seemed to have momentum.

“I just made a wrong decision there that kind of got me in a bad position further. I was still leading the inside lane, but the inside lane wouldn’t go forward. That was just kind of weird. That was kind of the moral of our day — was just not being able to advance forward.”

Byron wasn’t in position to score points in the second stage, finishing 13th. That left him as one of two playoff drivers not to score stage points (Christopher Bell was the other).

“It was frustrating the whole time,” Byron said. “I felt like the race was just going away from us. We couldn’t make anything happen. We were just kind of stuck. I don’t know what we need to do next time.”

When Byron failed to score points in the second stage, it only added to a challenging day and put more pressure on a better finish.

He managed only to place 12th. Byron finished with 25 points. He outscored only three playoff drivers.

The result is that Byron is 11 points below the cutline.

While the first stage was a harbinger of Byron’s woes Sunday, that stage proved critical for Austin Cindric.

The Daytona 500 winner was 15th with six laps to go in the stage. He finished fourth, collecting seven points — despite suffering some nose damage in an incident earlier in that stage.

“Stage points are a big deal,” Cindric said. 

He got those with quick thinking.

“I think when everybody tries to scatter to do what’s best for them, it’s very important to be decisive,” Cindric said. “I was able to make some good moves and be able to be in some lanes that moved. I’d call it 50-50 decisiveness and 50 percent luck. 

“It certainly puts us in a good spot to race for a spot in the Round of 8 at the (Charlotte) Roval.

Cindric entered the race seven points out of the last transfer spot. While he didn’t score any points in the second stage, his ninth-place finish led to a 35-point day. 

That gives him the same amount of points as Chase Briscoe, who owns the last transfer spot because he has the tiebreaker on Cindric in this round.

For Briscoe, he earned that tie by collecting one stage point. 

In the first stage, he was running outside the top 10 when he sensed a crash was likely and “decided to bail” to protect the car and avoid being in a crash.

That crash didn’t happen and he was left without stage points. In the second stage, Briscoe was 14th with two laps to go. He beat Ricky Stenhouse Jr. across the finish line by 0.035 seconds to place 10th and score that one stage point.

“You don’t think that one (point) is important until you see that you are tied,” Briscoe said. “One point could be really, really important for us next week.”