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Battle for Chase gets even tighter
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y.
The carousel at Watkins Glen wasn’t the only place that sent drivers spinning Sunday.
The Sprint Cup points standings revolved as well. By the time the race concluded, four drivers had moved four positions. For Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr., who finished second and third and vaulted into the top 10, life was good. For the Hendrick duo of Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon, the day was simply disappointing.
With 24 points separating eighth-place Keselowski and 13th-place Gordon, the next four weeks will be a battle for those drivers and the competitors in between looking to jockey for the 10 Chase seeds and two wild-card positions.
A rundown of their race for the Chase:
Brad Keselowski, eighth place – Though Keselowski hasn’t won this season, he has two wins and three top-five finishes at Bristol and two top 10s in four starts at Atlanta. The defending Sprint Cup champion and Michigander is decent at his – and team owner Roger Penske’s – home track. In fact, Keselowski finished second and third in the last two August events on the 2-mile course. Though his performance at Richmond has improved over the years, his 33rd-place run there in the spring was Keselowski’s worst since his rookie debut.
Greg Biffle, ninth place – Chances are that Biffle didn’t expect to gain ground entering Watkins Glen, where he had just one top-five finish in 10 starts before Sunday. But his 16th-place result elevated Biffle from 10th to ninth, seven points behind Keselowski, with Michigan – his best track on the circuit – on tap for Sunday. Biffle has won the past two races at Michigan and has four career victories there. His crew chief, Matt Puccia, built two new cars for Indianapolis and Pocono and will bring new cars for Michigan and Bristol as well. The team is holding back one of its tests for Richmond if Biffle’s points situation becomes dicey before the Chase. His earlier win at Michigan at least offers a solid shot at a wild card should he fall out of the top 10.
Martin Truex Jr., 10th place – In the past 11 races, Truex has fluctuated from eighth to 17th in points. As is the case with Biffle, having a win offers the No. 56 team a bit of security over the next four races. Truex finished a solid third at Michigan in June and 10th at the track last August, when he led 12 laps. Among the other remaining tracks before the Chase, Bristol, where he won in the Nationwide Series and has an average finish of 18.3, is probably Truex’s best track.
Kurt Busch, 11th place – Before Busch finished ninth Sunday, he appeared to be a contender in the race. Still, the misfortunes of Kahne and Gordon allowed Busch to move from 13th to 11th in the standings – just two points outside of the top 10. Busch has yet to win a race in 2013. However, he has multiple victories at three of the four remaining tracks leading up to the Chase and one win at Richmond. His best career track has been Bristol, where he has won five times – but not since 2006. Still, the summer run has been solid for Busch with seven top-10 finishes in 10 races.
Kasey Kahne, 12th place – Despite Kahne’s wreck Sunday, his insurance policy for the Chase is his wins at Bristol and Pocono. Kahne leads the wild-card standings and is a lock for the playoffs. He’s three points outside of the top 10 and has a 12-point cushion between himself and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon. With wins at the final four tracks prior to the Chase, the No. 5 team has absolutely nothing to worry about.
Jeff Gordon, 13th place – Sunday’s wreck was more devastating to Gordon’s Chase hopes because he’s winless in the first 22 races and 15 points outside of the top 10. Though the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team pulled off the Hail Mary at Richmond to make the 2012 Chase, the four-time champ’s playoff hopes are dwindling. Of the bubble boys, Gordon has by far the most wins (14) over the next four races, but the six DNFs the team has endured this season have really taken a toll. If Gordon perseveres and qualifies for his ninth Chase, the scenario will likely be similar to last year, when his team’s energy was exhausted simply fighting to get in.
Stewart-Haas Racing competition director Greg Zipadelli would like to have a substitute driver for the No. 14 Chevy in place for Michigan this weekend by sometime Monday.
SHR worked through the weekend to narrow the list of candidates to fill in for driver-owner Tony Stewart, who was released from a North Carolina hospital Sunday following a second surgery to repair his broken leg.
Although it might be impossible to run just one driver in the car for the remainder of Stewart’s recovery, Zipadelli believes that for the sake of consistency “and trying to build some chemistry with the crew and the crew chief” that is the best route to take. There still is a Sprint Cup owner’s championship to consider, and the No. 14 car remains 11th in points after Max Papis finished 15th Sunday at Watkins Glen.
In addition to Regan Smith, other names that have surfaced over the weekend include Austin Dillon and SHR test driver Scott Riggs. Like Smith, Dillon, the Nationwide Series points leader, has a conflict this weekend with the race schedule at Mid-Ohio. Riggs, however, competed for Gene Haas’ team prior to the merger with Stewart and has tested the No. 14 for the past several seasons.
In response to Kasey Kahne’s Twitter ire Sunday night, his buddy Denny Hamlin offered some support:
10 – Track qualifying records – among 12 total at Watkins Glen – set by Toyota (5) and Chevrolet (2) drivers. Two were established by Fords.
27 – Wins in 315 Sprint Cup starts – or on every 11.6 starts – for Kyle Busch after his Watkins Glen victory.
87.5 – Percent of his total laps raced this season that Matt Kenseth has run in the top 15, the best mark in the Cup series.
Keselowski on the temptation to wreck a driver for the win:
“Well, there's always temptation, yeah. You're a married man. I'm sure you look through Maxim magazine. It's no different. Maybe something a little more vulgar than Maxim magazine. But I'm just saying there's always temptation, but I'm just saying (you) probably (have) looked at a magazine with a girl that looks really hot. It doesn't mean there isn't temptation, but there's a level of respect and a code of honor that you have to have as a man.”