By Jared Turner
Where’s the reset button? That’s the question at least five of the dozen drivers in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup are asking after a problematic Sunday afternoon in Sunday’s rain-delayed Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
In a race originally scheduled for Saturday night but postponed due to the effects of Hurricane Matthew ravaging the North Carolina coast, nearly half of the competitors in the hunt for the 2016 Sprint Cup title endured a major setback to their championship hopes.
The only silver lining for those who enter Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway in a less-than-ideal situation? They’re in good company.
While just 17 points separate points leader Jimmie Johnson from seventh-place Martin Truex Jr., the gap from seventh place to eighth place – 16 points – is almost as large. The five drivers in real trouble – Denny Hamlin, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick – are essentially fighting it out for one spot – eighth place, the final transfer spot – if none of them win or none of the Chase frontrunners has something go terribly awry in the next two races.
Of course a victory either Sunday afternoon at Kansas or the following weekend at Talladega Superspeedway by any of the Chase drivers not named Jimmie Johnson would punch their ticket to the Round of 8 – regardless of how bad of a position they might be in at present.
“Luckily some others (in the Chase) also had trouble at Charlotte, so we’re not out of it,” said Denny Hamlin, whose day ended in an engine failure.
Joey Logano, in a predicament similar to Hamlin’s, holds a similar sentiment.
“We’re not out by any means,” said Logano, 11th among the 12 Chasers. “Things happen. It’s part of racing, but we’re not out. We’re not gonna die. This team is resilient. We’ve proved it before, and we’ll just have to go out and prove it again. We just have to have two flawless races.”
Johnson, meanwhile, could take the next two weekends off if he wished (he won’t) after scoring a convincing triumph at Charlotte where he became the first driver to lock himself into the next round.
“I don’t know what our plan would be at Kansas, but it certainly opens up the book, whatever opportunities may present themselves,” the six-time Sprint Cup champion said. “It lets me go to Talladega and not worry about anything, which is fantastic. I can just get up in the race and mix it up, and race hard. We have to take it one day at a time and one race at a time, and I still feel like we can bring better cars to the racetrack. Right now we’ve hit on some things and we still have more ideas and we feel like more opportunity ahead of us.
“We can’t sit back and celebrate too much on this. We’ve got to buckle down and get to work tomorrow and keep advancing our race cars. But this does buy us a couple weeks of freedom.”
While Johnson can enjoy the freedom of knowing his place in the Round of 8 is sealed, everyone else – especially the five drivers who had major problems at Charlotte – find themselves in a major pressure cooker heading into the second of three races in the Round of 12.
“It just sucks,” Dillon, a first-year Chase driver, said after getting wrecked by Truex on a restart at Charlotte. “We will have to work hard the next two weeks to get the points back. You just hope (what happened at Charlotte) doesn’t happen, obviously. I got to third gear without spinning the tires, and I felt like we got contacted. We will just go on to next week.”