With three races left, will non-Chasers have a big say in who winds up as Sprint Cup champ?


Next to Talladega, Martinsville Speedway is arguably the second-biggest (in importance, not size) wildcard track in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Anything can happen at the half-mile bull ring – and usually does, much like we saw in Sunday’s race there.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win there was well-deserved, no question about it. Unfortunately for Junior fans, it came one race too late.

Otherwise, he would be part of the Eliminator Round right now, rather than being one of the eight drivers that have been eliminated from the Chase thus far.

Still, Junior deserves the kudos and accolades he received. But at the same time, could the way Sunday’s race played out overall also be a harbinger of things to come in the remaining three races of the season?

I’m talking about the fact that five of the top-10 finishers at Martinsville were either now-former Chase contenders or never made the playoffs to begin with.

We start with Earnhardt, then Tony Stewart, who tied his season-best finish with a fourth-place showing in arguably the best race he’s driven this season.

And then there were Clint Bowyer (7th), AJ Allmendinger (9th) and David Ragan (10th).

We can even extrapolate that a bit further: From 11th through 20th, there was only one Chaser, as Carl Edwards came home with a 20th place showing).

Go even further than that, and the two remaining Chasers finished 31st (Brad Keselowski) and 33rd (Kevin Harvick), respectively.

Again, this was Martinsville. It’s totally unlike the next racetrack on the schedule, this coming Sunday at Texas. But you could draw some comparisons between Martinsville and the one-mile relatively flat track at Phoenix, a place oftentimes called Martinsville on steroids.

Could the eliminated or non-Chasers potentially wind up stealing the show from here on out with three races left for the championship?

I’m not saying that’s likely, but it is something to be taken into some serious consideration. If guys like Junior, Stewart and Bowyer continue their prowess and momentum gained at Martinsville, the championship could ultimately see a significant part of the way it plays out directly decided by the Chase have-nots rather than the haves.

And I haven’t even broached the subject that as of right now, two of the four top-ranked drivers remaining in the Chase (Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth) still have yet to win a race in 2014.

If the current standings hold serve through Texas and Phoenix, we potentially may have a four-time champion (Gordon), two non-winners this season (Newman and Kenseth), two potential first-time champions (Newman and Logano) and one other former champion (Kenseth, 2003) who has waited nearly as long as Gordon has for another title, as the makeup of the final four in the season finale at Homestead.

In other words, we won’t have a Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt, Kurt or Kyle Busch, Stewart, Kasey Kahne in the running for the championship, and with the potential of Keselowski and Harvick out of it if they can’t right their suddenly listing ships in the next two races.

We’ve seen some pretty crazy racing in this year’s reformatted Chase, particularly the last two races.

But if Talladega and Martinsville are an example of what’s to come, this Chase is going to get a lot crazier before a sane champion emerges.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

April 9 in Motorsports History: Al Unser Jr. gets sixth Long Beach win

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The list of winners in the Grand Prix of Long Beach is a ‘who’s who’ of open-wheel racing.

Mario Andretti won at the famed street course four times. His son Michael won there twice.

Paul Tracy is also a four-time winner at the beach. Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais, and Alexander Rossi also have won at the famed course multiple times.

But there is only one “King of the Beach”: Al Unser Jr.

The winningest driver in the race’s history, Unser won at Long Beach four consecutive times from 1988-91. He won again in 1994 and entered the 1995 edition as the race’s defending champion and the defending CART champion as well.

Starting fourth, Unser made slight contact with Gil de Ferran when he passed the Brazilian on Lap 3. He then continued to move up to the front, taking the race lead from Teo Fabi on Lap 30.

Once he had the lead, Unser ran away from the field, winning by more than 23 seconds over Scott Pruett.

Unser’s victory was such a familiar scene that after the race, CART news manager John Procida began the winner’s news conference with the following statement: “Well, we have a very familiar face on the top rung of the podium. As we listed on the prerace press release, this seems to be the Al Unser Invitational.”

Indeed it was. Unser’s victory was his sixth at Long Beach, and the 28th of his career. overall. While it would be his last win there, Unser continued to race at Long Beach through 1998 before missing 1999 with a broken leg and moving to the Indy Racing Leauge in 2000.

In 2009, Unser was inducted into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame, which honors significant contributors to the race and California motorsports community.

“It truly is just an honor to be mentioned with the names and the legends that have already been put into the sidewalk,” Unser said during the induction ceremony. “To have Brian (Redman, the inaugural winner of the race) and Parnelli (Jones) is really an honor and just to be in their company is very, very special.”

Also on this date:

1971: Jacques Villeneuve was born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Canada. The second-generation driver was one of the best in open-wheel racing during the 1990s, winning the Indianapolis 500 and CART championship in ’95 and becoming a Formula One champion two years later.

1989: Rick Mears dominated CART’s Checker Autoworks 200 at Phoenix International Raceway, leading every lap from the pole and lapping the field.

2011: Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas won the Porsche 250 at Barber Motorsports Park, their sixth consecutive victory in Grand Am competition. Their lengthy win streak, which started on Aug. 7, 2010 at Watkins Glen, prompted Grand Am to offer a $25,000 bounty for any Daytona Prototype team that could beat the dominant duo. The Action Express trio of Joao Barbosa, J.C. France, and Terry Borcheller finally unseated Pruett and Rojas in the series’ next round at Virginia International Raceway.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994