The mission is simple for Chase contenders Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Jimmie Johnson tonight at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
For these three drivers, only a win in tonight’s Bank of America 500 will erase their wrecks during last weekend’s Contender Round opener at Kansas, which have put them at the bottom of the Chase Grid.
Failing that, a Top-5 finish may be enough to at least put them closer to where they need to be.
Kasey Kahne is also below the cutoff with them at eight points behind Jeff Gordon. But it’s Keselowski (-22 points), Earnhardt (-25 points), and Johnson (-27 points) that will have the majority of the attention throughout tonight.
It’s likely safe to assume that not many of us were thinking the latter three – Keselowski and Johnson, the last two Sprint Cup champions, and Earnhardt, the sport’s most popular driver – would be in a spot like this during the Chase.
Many of us were thinking these three would do enough to be part of the final four in the Championship Round at Homestead. And that could still happen.
But right now, the citizens of Brad Nation, Jimmie Nation, and Junior Nation are sitting on pins and needles.
As for their drivers, they know how big tonight is.
“For us, this is a very Homestead-like weekend,” Keselowski said on Thursday after qualifying. “We need to perform. This is our last chance to really control our destiny in the Chase for this round and we want to make the most of this opportunity.”
Out of Keselowski, Earnhardt, and Johnson, the Team Penske driver may have the best chance tonight to win and advance.
He is the defending champion of this race and in 2014, he’s shown that he can win anywhere, at any time, with that No. 2 Team Penske Ford.
On the other side of the coin, Earnhardt’s never won a points race at Charlotte and Johnson’s still hunting for that extra burst of performance that will put him back on form.
However, Earnhardt is the only one of the four Chasers currently below the cutoff that will have a Top-10 starting position tonight (Earnhardt, 9th, Keselowski 17th, Kahne 19th, Johnson 21st).
The finish is what counts, of course, but Junior fans should keep this stat in mind: 75.6 percent (84 of 111) of all the Cup races at Charlotte have been won from a Top-10 spot on the grid. And considering that he’s in go-for-broke mode, he figures to have a say in the outcome.
That brings us to Johnson. He won the Coca-Cola 600 in May, and we know better than to count out a seven-time victor at Charlotte.
But he’s starting from mid-pack, and he had another problem on Friday when he scraped the wall during final practice. Johnson avoided having a backup car called in for him, but can he move forward tonight from 21st?
Then there’s the one issue that could potentially impact everyone on the grid: Tires.
Keselowski and Earnhardt had tires fail on them before they crashed at Kansas, and they weren’t the only ones to suffer failures last week. Speeds are up at Charlotte this weekend over those from May, and that’s caused Goodyear to warn the teams about putting too much load on the right-front tire.
It will be interesting to see how the teams react. If they heed Goodyear’s warning, how much more conservative will they be with air pressures and set-ups? Or will they continue to aggressively push the envelope?
Keselowski’s spotter, Joey Meier, may have provided the answer from the 2 team’s perspective this morning on Twitter: