There is some history that you want to make. And then there’s some history you want absolutely nothing to deal with.
For four of the 16 Chase for the Sprint Cup contenders, the latter will be their fate at the end of today’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway – the finale in the Chase’s Challenger Round and the first-ever elimination race under the new format for NASCAR’s post-season.
As crazy as things got during last weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the Monster Mile could yield even more insanity as championship hopes receive new life and are snuffed out over the course of this afternoon’s race.
We all talk about how every athlete can only focus on the things he/she can control. But with an advance bubble this packed, such an imperative is going to be tough to follow.
Things are especially uncomfortable for everyone from eighth-place Carl Edwards all the way down the Chase Grid. You probably know the score by now: Edwards and Matt Kenseth are just eight points over the cutoff, while A.J. Allmendinger (+7), Kasey Kahne (+6) and Ryan Newman (+6) have even thinner margins for error.
And should any of them stumble today, those currently outside the Top 12 that will advance on to the Contender Round – Denny Hamlin (-6), Greg Biffle (-6), Kurt Busch (-8), and Aric Almirola (-10) – will have their opportunity to effectively extend their season another three races.
Some of the bubble drivers enter today by seemingly focusing more on the opportunity than the pressure. Allmendinger, for instance, was expected to be easy pickings for elimination yet he currently sits on the good side of the cutoff – albeit barely.
“No one really expected us to be here anyway, and to have a shot at making it to the next round,” he said Friday. “So, I’m just going to go out there and give it everything I have.”
Others, like Edwards and Hamlin, have acknowledged the pressure. During a test session earlier this week at Texas Motor Speedway, Edwards predicted today’s race to be “insane” while Hamlin has dubbed it the most important race of his Sprint Cup career.
That’s no doubt music to the ears of NASCAR CEO Brian France and his team, all of whom have doggedly searched for the key to bringing the sport back to its early-2000s glory.
They’re hoping that this latest iteration of the Chase, with three elimination races ultimately leading to a winner-take-all fight among four drivers at Homestead, will be just that.
As I touched upon in January, the other sports have a true “Game 7” playoff environment where drama reigns supreme as entire seasons of hard work threaten to get erased and underdogs stake their claim against the big boys. This is what France and Co. want.
Today, they just might get it.
Joe Gibbs Racing has Kyle Busch relatively safe at 28 points over the cutoff, but could see their other two pilots, Kenseth and Hamlin, eliminated. If Roush Fenway Racing’s duo of Edwards and Biffle falter, RFR may be knocked out of the Chase entirely.
On the other hand, how neat would it be if the Chase’s resident underdogs, Allmendinger and Almirola, somehow managed to crack the Contender Round with clutch drives today?
Whereas the regular season finale at Richmond – pretty much a de facto elimination race – proved disappointingly anti-climactic, something tells me we won’t have that problem today in Delaware.