Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win at Martinsville Sunday went a long way in showing that even though a Chase driver has been eliminated from the championship round, the motivation to win is as strong as ever. If the win had come at least one race earlier, he would still have been in the Chase but since it didn’t he becomes the latest Chase Buster.
Earnhardt’s trip to victory lane, where he was awarded a grandfather clock for the win, took away one of the eight remaining Chase drivers’ automatic passes to the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami with the opportunity to run for the title. Two races at Texas and Phoenix remain for one or two of the Chase drivers to punch their ticket to the final with a win or they must get in on where they are in the point standings after the Phoenix race.
Even though the eight remaining Chase drivers began the race on Sunday with identical 4,000-point totals, the results of just this one race has already separated the field and put some drivers on the so-called Chase-bubble. Jeff Gordon left Martinsville with a slim three-point lead over Ryan Newman thanks to his second-place finish. He was followed across the finish line by Newman in third and fellow Chase drivers Joey Logano in fifth, Matt Kenseth in sixth and Denny Hamlin in eighth.
Since this is the first race of the three-race Eliminator Round with five Chase drivers finishing in the top eight, the all-important points race that will now send at least three drivers to the final race of the season will be extremely tight heading into Texas this weekend. The first five spots are separated by only seven points with Denny Hamlin being the odd man out at this point in fifth, only two points from the final transfer spot in fourth.
The three remaining Chase drivers may now find themselves so far out of the fourth spot that their only chance of moving on may be by winning one of the two remaining races. Carl Edwards is 16 points out of the fourth spot in sixth, and he is followed by Kevin Harvick in seventh, who is 27 points out, and Brad Keselowski is 29 points out in eighth.
Winning is still the surest way of advancing into the final race with a chance to win the title, but just in the two three-race rounds proceeding this round, part of the field moving on will earn their way according to where they are in the point standings. Both of the previous rounds had Chase drivers winning all of the races that left five drivers moving on because of their points position.
This Eliminator Round that the schedule is in now only sends four drivers into the final race and with Earnhardt Jr.’s win, a driver’s best chance may be where he is in the point standings. Remember, bonus points are still collected for leading laps and leading the most laps and with only seven points separating the top five at this time, these points could decide not only who moves on but who wins the title.
Gordon, Newman, Logano, Kenseth and Hamlin will all be looking to take the win next weekend at Texas, but since they are all just separated by seven points they must be careful not to take a big hit in the points while trying to take the checkered flag. It sounds like what took place in both the Challenger and Contender rounds as you had part of the field having to race for the win and the remaining drivers trying to advance on their point totals.
PIT NOTES: Five organizations will be testing at Homestead- Miami Speedway this week in preparation for the Ford EcoBoost 400 on November 16. Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart Haas Racing, Team Penske, Roush Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing will all be in Miami and each of these organizations has at least one team still in the Chase. The only Chase team that will not be in Miami will be that of Richard Childress Racing’s Ryan Newman.
Event: AAA Texas 500
Track: Texas Motor Speedway (1.5-mile quad oval, 240 of banking in the turns)
Date: Nov. 2, 3 p.m.
Defending Champion: Jimmie Johnson