By Jared Turner
After a wild and unpredictable finish to last weekend’s opening round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup at Chicagoland Speedway, the Sprint Cup Series heads to New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend with a lot on the line for a lot of drivers.
In by far the most coveted position among the 16 championship-eligible drivers is Denny Hamlin, who with a win at Chicagoland punched his ticket to the next round of the Chase, formally known as the Contender Round.
But with only races at New Hampshire and Dover still to be run in the Challenger Round, several drivers have major work to do but not much time to do it.
In the most precarious position of all is reigning Sprint Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick, who win a wreck and resulting 42nd-place finish at Chicagoland finds himself in last place among the 16 Chase drivers.
To make it into the Contender Round, Harvick will need to either win one of the next two races or move into the top 12 in points, since the bottom four Chase drivers – assuming none of them win in the Challenger Round – all fail to advance.
Harvick currently sits 22 points behind Jeff Gordon, who is 12th in the standings and would be the last driver to make the cut for the Contender Round.
Rest assured Harvick understands the magnitude of the task that lies ahead for him over the next two weekends, especially in light of the fact that New Hampshire and Dover – host of the Challenger Round finale – are not among his best tracks.
“We’ve just got to go win one of these races,” Harvick said before leaving Chicagoland.
Sixteen points ahead of Harvick and also on the outside looking in is Clint Bowyer, who is two points behind 14th-place Paul Menard. The first driver on the outside of the 12 drivers in position to advance is 13th-place Jamie McMurray, who is just one point ahead of Menard and three behind Gordon.
Gordon, who lined up second on the final restart with five laps to go at Chicagoland, faded to 14th after being one of three drivers not to head to pit road for fresh tires under the final caution. Although the strategy backfired, Gordon was happy to run up front – he led 41 laps – and feels good about his prospects of reaching the next round after having such a solid car at Chicagoland.
“That thing was fantastic,” said the four-time Sprint Cup Series champion, who is in his final season. “I’m very encouraged about how the Axalta Chevrolet was, the whole team, and that’s what we’ll be bringing every single week. Hopefully we won’t have to worry about some of these late cautions ruining our day like that.”
Gordon admitted to being “very encouraged” by his Chicagoland performance.
“Everybody at Hendrick Motorsports has been collectively working together, and I think it showed with our No. 24 car today,” said Gordon, still winless in 2015.
Hamlin, meanwhile, left Chicagoland happiest of all, knowing that nothing is riding on where he finishes over the next two weekends. No matter if he finishes first or 43rd, he’s guaranteed to be among the 12 drivers who advance to the next Chase round.
“It feels great,” said Hamlin. “We’ll go have fun the next couple weeks, but the stress never ends of this Chase. You still have a long way to go.”
But with Sunday’s win, Hamlin can breathe a sigh of relief, if only for a couple weeks.
“It’s big,” said Hamlin, who picked up his second victory of the season and first since late March. “We find ourself, no matter what year we’ve had, in an advantage over everyone right now. We’re very proud of that.”