Danger zone: It’s time for several Chase drivers to step on the gas
As the Sprint Cup Series prepares to roll into New Hampshire Motor Speedway for Race Two of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, several drivers are under enormous pressure to deliver a standout performance.
A bad or even mediocre result in Sunday’s Sylvania 300 will render their already long odds of advancing from the Chase Challenger round to the Chase Contender round even longer.
In short, it’s put up or shut up time for Aric Almirola, Greg Biffle, AJ Allmendinger and Ryan Newman — all four of whom, as it stands now, wouldn’t be among the 12 Chase drivers still championship-eligible when the Contender Round commences Oct. 5 at Kansas Speedway.
Facing by far the tallest task is Almirola who, after suffering a blown engine while running in the top 10 during last weekend’s Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway, sits last among the 16 Chase drivers and 23 points in arrears of 12th-place Carl Edwards — who holds the final transfer spot.
Almirola’s best option for advancing to the next round is winning this weekend at New Hampshire or next weekend at Dover.
A victory by any Chase driver in the first three Chase races guarantees automatic entry into the Contender Round.
"Last weekend was so heartbreaking, but it confirmed what we already knew in that we belong in this Chase," said Almirola, who finished 41st. "Now, we have to regroup and change our goal to winning. There is a possibility of getting in on points, but it is slim, so we need to focus on winning. New Hampshire isn’t our best track in The Chase. I don’t think we learned much in the July race that we can transfer to this weekend. We really need to start fresh."
Fourteen points ahead of Almirola but still on shaky ground is Biffle, who may not need a victory to reach the Contender Round, but certainly has major ground to make up in the next two weeks.
"We are bringing a car with a different front suspension package to Loudon this weekend," said Biffle, who struggled to a 23rd-place finish at Chicagoland. "Everybody is working hard to get our cars back to where they were. This is a car like we won with and finished top five a few races in a row, and I feel good about it."
Just four points ahead of Biffle, and also on the outside of the top 12 looking in, is AJ Allmendinger, who finished one spot ahead of Biffle last Sunday.
Like Biffle, Allmendinger wasn’t happy with his car in Chi-Town.
"Man, Chicago was just rough and there was nothing really good about it, but at the same point we’ve said all along we’ve got to maximize those kind of days — and we did," Allmendinger said. "Even though we didn’t have a good finish, we were the highest-finishing car on our lap, and we beat Biffle. We didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot. We know we have got to run better whether we make it into the next group (the Contender Round) of the Chase or not. We have two good tracks coming up (New Hampshire and Dover) that I like, and the guys at the shop are working really hard."
Of the drivers outside the top 12, Newman is in the best position — in more ways than one.
Four points ahead of Allmendinger and just one point behind bubble man Edwards, Newman is a three-time winner at New Hampshire and is always considered a favorite when the Sprint Cup Series visits the flat 1.058-mile oval.
"Going back to Loudon, it is one of my best racetracks," Newman said. "It’s a track where I have my most wins and led a lot of laps. I’ve won a bunch of poles there. I also enjoy racing the modifieds up there, and I really look forward to racing there. I think it’s a good track for usm especially leading into Dover, the final race of the Challenger Round."
Edwards, meanwhile, isn’t about to get comfortable, as he knows there are several drivers breathing down his neck for the coveted final transfer spot.
"We struggled at Chicago, but we stayed inside the top 12 for points," said Edwards, who finished a lap down in 20th. "We’re gonna focus on getting a good qualifying position, starting up front and hopefully building on (teammate) Ricky Stenhouse’s good run at New Hampshire in one of our Roush Fenway Fords last time we were there. We feel like our short-track program, our flat-track program is one of our strong points, so hopefully we can go have a good solid run."