KANSAS CITY, Kan.—There’s one gigantic mulligan available on Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway—just one.
And three drivers in particular will be fighting tooth-and-nail to take advantage of it.
At Kansas Speedway, in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400, the Wheel of Ill Fortune landed on “Wipeout” for Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and turned the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup inside-out.
Keselowski and Earnhardt finished 36th and 39th, respectively, after blown right front tires sent their cars on a collision course with the outside wall. Earnhardt was leading when he wrecked. Keselowski had just passed Jamie McMurray for fifth place.
Running mid-pack early in the race, the result of a poor qualifying effort, Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet was collected in a pinball-style wreck on the backstretch. Johnson finished 40th, matching his worst-ever showing in a Chase race (2005 at Homestead).
The stark facts of life are as follows: Two races down the road, on Oct. 19 at Talladega, the Chase field will be trimmed from 12 to eight drivers. Keselowski, Earnhardt and Johnson, in that order, are 10th, 11th and 12th in the Chase standings, 22, 25 and 27 points behind eighth-place Jeff Gordon.
With only two races left in the Contender Round of the Chase, the probability of all three drivers advancing to the Eliminator Round after Talladega is just about nil.
But there’s a quick fix to the problem: just win at Charlotte on Saturday night. Any Chase driver winning the Bank of America 500 gets a golden ticket into the Eliminator Round, just as Joey Logano did for his win at Kansas on Sunday.
You’d think Johnson would have a leg up at Charlotte, where he won the Coca-Cola 600 in dominating fashion earlier this year. Of late, however, the No. 48 Chevrolet hasn’t been able to match the speed of Keselowski, Logano, Kevin Harvick or Jeff Gordon.
Seven races have passed since Johnson last led a lap, and unless he rediscovers his Chase magic at Charlotte, he will be in precisely the position he dreads—heading to Talladega needing a victory or perhaps a top five to survive the Contender Round.
Keselowski and Earnhardt, 10th and 19th, respectively, in this year’s Coca-Cola 600, are in the same position, but at least they have shown speed of late. Keselowski has five wins this season, his most recent coming at 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway in the first Chase race.
Earnhardt set a blistering pace at Kansas and led 45 laps before he hit the wall. On the other hand, those were the first laps the No. 88 Chevrolet had led since August at Michigan, and Earnhardt hasn’t been to Victory Lane at a 1.5-mile intermediate speedway since 2005 at Chicagoland.
Obviously, winning one race when you have to win it is a daunting task for any driver.
And there’s another factor to consider. Drivers who survived Kansas with their Chase hopes intact have a huge incentive to prevent Johnson and Keselowski, in particular, from taking the checkered flag. Collectively, those two drivers have won seven of the last eight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships—Johnson six and Keselowski one.
The prospect of eliminating contenders of that caliber (along with Earnhardt, who is enjoying his best season since 2004) must be a delightful one for the likes of Harvick, Logano and Jeff Gordon.
To state the obvious, the path to a title becomes considerably less arduous when several of your most formidable potential challengers are eliminated.
Under those circumstances, drivers comfortably inside the Chase bubble have almost as much reason to go for the win at Charlotte as Johnson, Keselowski and Earnhardt do.
And that could make for a scintillating race on Saturday night.