Racing still tight for non-contenders

BY Jeff Hammond • October 13, 2011

After the race at Kansas Speedway on Sunday, we have seen a couple more teams fall back and probably out of the championship hunt.

With the NASCAR points the way they are, such guys as Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are really behind the eight ball in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

That doesn’t mean their 2011 season is over. They won’t just throw up their hands and say, “It is yours for the taking, boys.”

These guys will try to make life as hard as they can for the others who are still in the hunt. Hamlin, for instance, knows he can’t fall any further than 12th in the season’s final points.

So Hamlin has nothing to lose. He and crew chief Mike Ford can now take all the chances they want on pit calls. They can roll the dice if it comes down to it and try and steal a win on fuel mileage or pit strategy. If Hamlin were to dive underneath Jimmie Johnson, for example, to go for the win, Johnson isn’t going to bang fenders with him. Johnson has too much to lose, and Hamlin has nothing to lose.

So that makes those guys in the back dangerous, again because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. You also have two guys — Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne — who, while not in the Chase, still have nothing to lose. Bowyer is moving to Michael Waltrip Racing next year, so he wants to go out a winner at Richard Childress Racing. Kahne, as everyone knows, is taking over the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports car next year so, like Bowyer, he wants to win a race for his current team and go out a winner.

Since we are in the baseball playoffs on FOX, I will use a baseball analogy. These guys can basically take the mentality in these last six races to swing for the fence on each pitch. So the handful of drivers still with a shot to win it all have to be very mindful of where these guys are at all times. They could mess up your day and your season really quickly.

These guys that are too far back are still racing for pride, if nothing else. They will enjoy their role of spoiler if given the chance. You also can’t lose sight of the fact that finishing strong in 2011 gives you and your team momentum entering 2012. If you don’t believe me, go ask Carl Edwards. He won the last two races of 2010 and finds himself atop the leaderboard entering the race Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The luxury of having nothing to lose also affords you and the team the opportunity to try things that possibly could pay off in the next six races or carry over to next season. Why not try a different engine combination? Why not try a different chassis combination? As long as everything is within the NASCAR rules limitations, why not try it?

If it works, then you and the team look like heroes to your owner, sponsor and the fans. If it doesn’t work and you fall on your face, what have you lost? Nothing.

So there is still a lot on the line for the guys who no longer have a shot at the championship. They aren’t going to turn into start-and-park cars. They aren’t going to simply pull into the garage after the green flag to claim last-place money. These guys will race just as hard as if they were racing for first place. Their role is obviously different as they become the wild cards who can still have an impact — literally and figuratively — on the 2011 NASCAR Chase.

Every race is important. The day that it becomes not important is the day these guys are done as race car drivers. Beating the entire field, whether it is the first race of the year, the last race of the year or the other 34 races in between is what motivates drivers.

Racers run for the trophy, the check and the celebration in Victory Lane. That’s what they are and what they do.

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