Mayhem unfolded at Kansas on Sunday as three of the four top-seeded drivers entering the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup hit the wall on separate occasions, ruining their afternoons and damaging their championship hopes.
The victims, and a bunch of key numbers: Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson, who finished 36th, 39th and 40th, respectively. In the same order, they sit 10th, 11th and 12th on the Chase Grid – 22, 25 and 27 points behind eighth-place Jeff Gordon for the final spot in the Eliminator Round. With a mere two races remaining in the Contender Round, they find themselves in grave danger of being eliminated from the Chase entirely.
Fortunately for the popular trio, a win in any Chase round automatically advances a championship-qualifying driver into the next segment – in this case, the eight-man Eliminator Round. The three drivers enter Saturday’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on ABC) desperately needing to rebound to keep their championship dreams alive. With Talladega, a track notorious for its randomness and treachery, a strong Charlotte finish is essential.
Keselowski has to like his chances of winning at “The Beast of the Southeast.” He captured the checkered flag in last October’s Bank of America 500 and ranks tied for first in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with five victories. At Kansas, he was running in the top five when he wrecked, so speed is not an issue for the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford driver.
“It does feel as though Homestead came early this year – subsequently we need a big weekend in order to keep our season alive,” Keselowski said. “This team thrives with adversity, and I am not one to back down when challenged, so I feel as though we are ready for this one.”
Off to an even better start then Keselowski, Earnhardt was in first and led for 45 laps when he hit the wall on the 122nd go-around. He showed a powerful car for the first time since his fifth-place finish at Michigan in August. NASCAR’s 11-time most popular driver has not won at a 1.5-mile intermediate speedway since his 2005 victory at Chicagoland, but the rejuvenated Earnhardt has won more races this year than in his last seven seasons combined.
The No. 88 Chevrolet driver seemed undeterred following his tough-luck Kansas performance.
“That’s the speed we need to give ourselves a chance to make the next round in the Chase,” Earnhardt tweeted after the race. “Charlotte Motor Speedway is next. Let’s go get it.”
Johnson didn’t display nearly the amount of speed Keselowski and Earnhardt showed at Kansas, starting 32nd and trying to navigate through the middle of the field before his accident on Lap 84. He can never be counted out in the Queen City though. The six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion owns Charlotte Motor Speedway’s all-time record with seven wins and found Victory Lane in the Coca-Cola 600 at the 1.5-mile quad oval in May.
“Well, it just means we’ve got to be on our game at Charlotte and Talladega,” said Johnson when asked how his Kansas performance affects him going forward. “There is still a lot of racing left. Stuff can happen. We’ll see how the other Chasers fare. If I can get taken out today, somebody else can later in this event or at Charlotte. We’ll do our best to get on track and then certainly need W’s, I would assume, going forward.”
Team Penske in the hunt for three titles
Team Penske owner Roger Penske can achieve a feat across motorsports that no owner has accomplished – win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series crown, NASCAR Nationwide Series owner title and IndyCar Series championship all in the same season.
Penske captured the IndyCar Series championship behind the driving of Will Power and now he only has two more to go. On the Sprint Cup side, Joey Logano has already advanced to the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup by winning at Kansas and five-race winner Brad Keselowski looks formidable. In the Nationwide Series, Penske’s No. 22 Ford leads the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in the owner points standings by 27 with just four races left.
“We just want to win,” said Logano, co-driver of the NNS No. 22 Ford team. “Yeah, obviously the IndyCar side, they did their job already, and they’re done. They’ve done a great job. Now it’s our job. We have two more championships to win. Not just the Sprint Cup championship but we want to win that Nationwide owner’s championship too. We’ve got to keep plugging away.”
Keselowski, the 2010 NNS champion will take the wheel of the No. 22 Ford in Friday’s Drive for the Cure 300 Presented by Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina at Charlotte Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2). He has been dominant in his eight NNS starts this season. The 30-year-old owns three victories, three runner-up finishes, a third-place showing and a fourth-place output.
“I’ve only run eight races this year and this team is leading the owners’ points – that is a testament to the quality of this team and my teammates, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney,” Keselowski said.
Keselowski and the No. 22 will likely face its stiffest competition from Kyle Busch and the No. 54. Busch, the all-time winningest driver in NNS history, won at Kansas last week and will attempt to defend his Charlotte victory from last October.
Penske spoke publicly about his chances at a “three-feat” following Logano’s NSCS win at Kansas.
“Look, from an overall standpoint, I’m focusing race to race, and we’ve got some things, we’ve got the owner’s championship in Nationwide, we have got this (the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup) obviously, but they’re ours to lose,” he said.