Last chance to qualify for Chase

Winning at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night is the only chance for several drivers to reach the Chase for the Championship. (AP Photo/Chet Strange)

Joey Logano’s situation is clear: He has to win Saturday night at Richmond Raceway or he won’t be in the Chase for the Championship next week.

 

The same goes for Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Trevor Bayne, Danica Patrick, Paul Menard and anyone else in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series without a victory this year.

Since Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth tentatively have qualified for the playoffs on points, the 400-lap race at the three-quarter-mile speedway will be one of strategy and stress.

They will have their own race within a race to make sure they aren’t the lowest of the three in the rankings in case a non-winner takes one automatic spot with a victory at Richmond.

Logano talked briefly of his precarious position following a 18th-place finish Sunday night at the Darlington Raceway. While his answer was short, it spoke volumes.

“It’s pretty simple,” he said. “You could almost write an article without talking to me. We’re on to the next one.”

The playoffs were created to generate interest during the football season. The win-and-you’re-in format forced teams to take more chances with race strategies.

In the process, it created some unexpected winners that locked up automatic spots in the Chase like Austin Dillon at Charlotte, Kasey Kahne at Indianapolis, Ryan Newman at Phoenix and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at Talladega and Daytona.

That leaves some of the sport’s biggest names are in trouble to be relevant in the final 10 races of the season.

And none of those names are bigger than Earnhardt, the sport’s most-popular driver for the past 13 years. Since his car has lacked speed most of the year, he seems to have accepted the fact his final 10 races before retirement won’t be under the spotlight.

“I’m not overly worried, I mean, it will either work out for us or it won’t,” he said. “I have been in this situation before and I have certainly come to terms with how my season has went.

“Am I happy about it? No. Am I satisfied? No. What we are as a team trying to steer ourselves in the right direction positively. With a good attitude. I have seen this situation in the past and teams that I’ve even been in fall apart and it just goes worse and spirals out of control. So, we are dumping buckets of water out of this ship trying to figure out how to get going and get it right.”

Bowyer’s hopes to sneak in on points went up in smoke – literally – Sunday when his engine blew up after just 18 laps.

Like everyone else in his situation, he knows the only way to consider 2017 a success is to win at Richmond.

With two career wins in 23 starts at Richmond, he’s reaching deep to be optimistic.

“The way the playoffs look right now, we’re not out of this thing,” Bowyer said. “We’ve still got a good race track coming up for us. We’ll just go there and do the best we can and put all the cards on the table over there.”

What also works against many of the non-winners is Toyota’s late-season surge. Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch have combined to win six of the last eight races. Bowyer and Bayne drive a Ford – a company that hasn’t won since Stenhouse at Daytona on July 1 – while Earnhardt hasn’t had a top-10 finish since June 25 on the road course at Sonoma, Calif.

Jones and Suarez both are in Toyotas, but both are series rookies.

Elliott is 14th in points, followed by Kenseth and McMurray. All three are separated by just three points.

“Well, you are never comfortable,” Elliott said. “We are certainly in a tight spot. I don’t exactly know 100 percent where we are, but I know we are one of the last few spots of non-winners that are still in. That is not a comfortable position to be in because there is always an opportunity for a guy on the outside to win a race and bump you back another position. So, it’s tight for sure where we are at.”

The feeling of desperation is shared by so many other drivers.

“You come to all these race tracks with an urgency to win, just like we did at the Daytona 500,” Bowyer said.

But unlike Daytona, there won’t be any other chances after Richmond to qualify for the playoffs.

 

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