Why the pressure is on as the second round of the Chase opens

BY foxsports • October 6, 2016

When NASCAR created the current elimination format for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in 2014, Chairman and CEO Brian France said he wanted NASCAR's version of the playoffs to deliver "Game 7 moments."

And over the first two years, it certainly has done that, with a host of dramatic moments, controversies, fights and even a suspension.

Truth be told, though, the first round of the 2016 has not produced a whole lot of high drama. That should change -- and change dramatically -- when the second round of the Chase begins Saturday night with the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Recall at this race two years ago, all hell broke loose after the cool-down lap, when Brad Keselowski's car rammed Matt Kenseth as Kenseth was unbuckling himself on pit road. Incensed, the normally mild-mannered Kenseth rushed Keselowski in the garage and threw him in a headlock.

No one knows whether there will be a fight on Saturday night, but the intensity is about to ramp way up and here's why:

Good is no longer good enough

In the first round of the Chase, 12 of the 16 drivers advance. To make it out of the first round and into the second, drivers didn't need to win races or even post top fives. All they needed to do was stay out of trouble.

Austin Dillon had an average finish of 12.67 and never led a lap in the first round, yet he made it to the second round. That won't cut it this time. This round is going to require better finishes to advance, which means more pressure for everybody -- drivers, crew chiefs and crewmembers including.

The weak links are gone

Granted, even making the Chase at all is an impressive accomplishment. But none of four drivers who got knocked out in the first round of the Chase was expected to contend for the championship. No disrespect to them, but finishing in the top 12 in a 16-driver field wasn't that tough.

Collectively, Tony Stewart, Kyle Larson, Chris Buescher and Jamie McMurray won three races this season. Larson began the Chase as the No. 10 seed, best among those four.

The 12 remaining drivers still alive in the Chase hunt include the sport's true heavyweights. Collectively, they have won 26 races this season. Six of those 12 are past champions, winning a total of 11 championships. Advancing to the Round of Eight will require beating some of the very best drivers and teams in NASCAR.

A huge sense of urgency

All 12 Chasers know that getting off to a great start in this round is critical to their ability to advance. It's not like they weren't racing hard before; they were. But now, the pressure ratchets up exponentially,  and here's why: First off, only eight drivers advance this round, whereas 12 did in the first round.

But there's a much bigger problem and it gives drivers and crew chief heartburn and heartache: The final race of this round -- the elimination race -- is at Talladega Superspeedway, where no one is safe and anything can happen.

In 2014, Kyle Busch opened the Round of 12 with finishes of third and fifth. At Talladega, he drove out back for most of the race but still got caught in a wreck, finished 40th and was knocked out of the Chase

In 2008 at Talladega, an ill-timed late-race bump draft by Carl Edwards on then-teammate Greg Biffle took out half of the drivers in the Chase.

Nobody is ever safe at Talladega -- not on the first lap or the last lap.

With that in mind the priority at Charlotte and next week at Kansas isn't just a good points day, it's win a race so you're locked in no matter what happens at Talladega.

The bottom line? The boys are about to have at it and the fireworks should begin at Charlotte on Saturday night.

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