By Jared Turner
For several drivers, last Sunday’s opening race of the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs did not go as they had hoped or expected.
The good news?
An opportunity for redemption awaits in Sunday’s ISM Connect 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
With only seven points separating 12th-place Austin Dillon (the last driver in position to advance to the next playoff round) from 16th-place Ryan Newman (who is last among the four drivers on the wrong side of the cutoff), no one needs a miracle to keep their hopes of advancing alive.
A solid run by any playoff driver on Sunday afternoon could go a long way toward helping him secure a berth in the Round of 12, which commences October 8 at Charlotte. So, there’s no reason for anyone to beat himself up over what happened on Sunday at Chicagoland.
“We went the wrong way on our last adjustment and that hurt us, unfortunately,” said 11th-place finisher Ryan Blaney, who will arrive at New Hampshire eight points to the good of the cutoff for reaching the next playoff round. “We can’t hang our heads about that. A lot of other cars had problems today. It stinks we didn’t get any stage points, but maybe next week.”
Dillon, the driver on the Round of 12 bubble, has the same number of points as Kurt Busch but would advance on a tiebreaker if the field for the Round of 12 had already been set.
“It’s just frustrating,” Dillon said after finishing 16th at Chicagoland. “I put ourselves in a hole speeding on pit road and just trying to get too much. You talk about not making mistakes, and we made one. We had a really good race car, truthfully. It was a top-10 car for sure, maybe top-five. We got behind. We were two laps down. We got one back.
“Racing the No. 18 (Kyle Busch), he’s a hard one to beat for the Lucky Dog. I had him for a long time. But, there were just no cautions today. We needed more cautions. It went green a lot.”
In 11th place and only five points ahead of Dillon is Chip Ganassi Racing driver Jamie McMurray, who in each of the past two years has just barely failed to make it to the Round of 12. McMurray was thankful to come out of Chicagoland with a 10th-place finish and, more importantly, on the right side of the cutoff line.
“There were a lot of issues for people in the playoffs, it looked like,” said McMurray, who bounced back from an incident with Newman at Chicagoland. “I don’t know what happened on the backstretch. I think I just didn’t give the No. 31 (Newman) enough room and it got me turned around. We were lucky the caution kind of fell right, and then we had a pretty fast car as well. We were faster probably at the beginning than we were at the end, but overall it was a good way to start the first (playoff) race.”
Of course, the driver who started the playoffs in the best spot of all was Chicagoland race winner Martin Truex Jr., who by virtue of his victory has already clinched a berth in the Round of 12.
While Truex’s fellow playoff drivers are keeping close tabs on the points at New Hampshire, the only points Truex will be thinking about are the extra playoff points he can add to his total for upcoming rounds.
“Once you win that (playoff) race, you’re locked in, but that doesn’t stop you from trying to go win again because of the points, the bonus points,” he said. “You want to get as many of those as you can.”