CONCORD, N.C. — As smoke poured from his engine and the leaders sped away, Denny Hamlin lamented his fate.
“Denny Hamlin luck in the Chase,’’ he radioed his team. “That gets you every time.’’
Just when it seemed as if the top eight Chase drivers could relax after four foes suffered misfortune Sunday, Hamlin saw his comfortable points bulge waste away quicker than a before and after picture.
He was one of five Chase drivers to finish 30th or worse at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He became the oddity that could throw this Round of 12, which includes a cutoff race at Talladega Superspeedway, into chaos.
Before Hamlin’s woes, it appeared the top eight Chase drivers would hold a healthy advantage on the four — Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick — who suffered from miscalculations, miscues and mischievous machinery.
Just before Hamlin’s engine blew while running second, he had a 31-point lead on those outside a transfer spot.
At that point, it appeared as if Dillon and Elliott would be 19 points out of the cutoff spot. In the two previous years of the elimination format, only one driver more than 15 points out of the final transfer spot after the opening race in the second round advanced. That was Brad Keselowski. He did so by winning at Talladega in 2014. No one so far back made it on points.
After Hamlin’s woes put him in the final transfer spot in the standings, Dillon and Elliott found themselves only three points behind him.
Now, there are two Chases. Those in the top seven can take fewer risks because the penalty of losing points could be critical with Talladega looming in two weeks. The bottom five, including Hamlin, are in a race among themselves for the final transfer spot if they can’t win this weekend at Kansas or the following week at Talladega.
“All I can do is try to run as fast as I can,’’ Hamlin said. “I won’t be able to control what any of my competitors do. All I can do is try to go to Kansas and try to win, go to Talladega and try to win.’’
Last year, Hamlin’s luck saw him fail to advance from the second round. He entered the cutoff race at Talladega second in the standings, 18 points ahead of the cutoff. He failed to make transfer after an issue with the roof hatch and then was collected in a last-lap crash.
Teammate Kyle Busch had it worse in 2014. Busch was second in the standings, 26 points ahead of the ninth place, the first driver outside a cutoff spot entering Talladega and was eliminated after a crash when hit from behind by Dillon.
Logano, who finished 80 laps behind the leaders Sunday after suffering two tire issues and slamming the wall twice, joked that if he had finished only two laps down, “I could have had a good points day.’’
Had he done so, he would have finished 23rd instead of 36th and those extra 13 points would have put him in the final transfer spot instead of Hamlin.
That’s how volatile Sunday was for some Chase contenders. Now, it impacts decision drivers and crew chiefs will make the next two weeks.
“We’re not in must-win, but we’re in can’t-screw-up mode,’’ Logano said.
Blake Koch thought he’d have some fun after making the inaugural Xfinity Chase.
He decided to mimic hockey players who grow beards during the playoffs and do it for NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.
Truth be told, Koch, figured he’d have the beard for only the first three races and then could shave, but he’ll keep it going after advancing to the Round of 8 after Sunday’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I’m a pretty optimistic person, but I expected us to make the Chase, not to really transfer to the next group of eight,’’ he said. “That’s really tough to do. If I would have known that, I wouldn’t have set to growing this Chase beard because it’s going to get long now.
“I thought it was going to be a three-week beard. It’s going to be an eight-week beard, at least, maybe nine weeks.’’
Koch advanced with a team that has 16 employees and moved shops during the season. They prepared cars for Dover in May with flashlights because their new shop didn’t have power yet.
“I think that’s definitely the biggest story of the first round, Blake and his guys making the second round,’’ said Elliott Sadler, who advanced to the Round of 8 via his win at Kentucky Speedway. “The start-up team and where Blake came from last year to this year, congratulations, that to me is a job well done.’’
— Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski are tied with the best average finish in the eight races on 1.5-mile tracks. Both have a 7.0 average. Keselowski finished seventh on Sunday; Busch eighth. Three of the last six races, including the season finale at Homestead, are on 1.5-mile tracks.
— For the first time in this Chase, there were multi-car accidents. In the first three Chase races, there were seven cautions for spins or accidents. All had been single-car incidents. Sunday, two of the five cautions for accidents featured multiple cars, including the 12-car incident off a restart.
— Last year, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick were 1-2 in the points after the opening race in the second round. This year, they are 11th and 12th.
— Kasey Kahne’s third-place finish was his best result since his win at Atlanta in Sept. 2014 — a span of 77 races.
— Danica Patrick’s 11th-place finish Sunday was her best result of the year. Her previous best was 13th at Dover in May.
— Five of the top-10 finishers Sunday were drivers not eligible for the title. They were Kasey Kahne (finished third), Ryan Newman (fourth), Kyle Larson (fifth), Tony Stewart (ninth) and Jamie McMurray (10th).
— Tony Stewart’s ninth-place finish snapped a streak of seven consecutive finishes of 13th or worse.
— Michael McDowell’s 14th-place finish was his second top-15 result in his last four starts.