E.A. Sports Today

The Chase is really on now

A driver-by-driver look at Sunday’s 12 contenders in The Chase; who’s moving on, who’s out

Ryan Newman (31), Kevin Harvick (4), Joey Logano (22) and race winner Brad Keselowski (2) all advanced to the Eliminator round of the Chase for the Cup. (Staff photos)

Ryan Newman (31), Kevin Harvick (4), Joey Logano (22) and race winner Brad Keselowski (2) all advanced to the Eliminator round of the Chase for the Cup. (Staff photos)

By Matthew Gruber
For East Alabama Sports Today

TALLADEGA – And then there were eight.

After the sixth race of the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup, the championship dream ended for four drivers, while eight more will fight on with visions of hoisting the championship trophy at Miami-Homestead clearly in their sights.

Here is a breakdown of how the Chasers fared in Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, the final race of the Contender Round, and who is in and who is out of the Eliminator Round.

WHO’S IN

1. Joey Logano

Logano was one of two drivers to enter Sunday’s race with no pressure to win – or even finish.

By virtue of his win at Kansas two weeks ago, Logano was an automatic qualifier for the next round. That must have been to tremendous comfort to him when Jamie McMurray cut down a left rear tire and spun in front of him on lap 60, snapped around and collected him, forcing the No. 22 Ford into a long slide through the grass below the track apron.

“We got crashed there and it wasn’t anyone’s fault,” Logano said. “It was just one of those situations, but we were able to recover.”

Logano, who had been running up front all day after qualifying 40th, didn’t make any other contact and received repairs to his car and re-joined the race. He was instrumental in pushing his Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski to a must-win victory before the two were separated and Logano came home 11th.

“At that point I was kind of on my own,” Logano said. “(Brad) was in good shape, but I was in bad shape where I was, and that’s why we lost a bunch of spots there at the end.”

2. Kevin Harvick

Like Logano, Harvick was under no pressure Sunday, having already punched his ticket to the Eliminator Round with his victory at Charlotte last Saturday night. Rather than running in the back as many Chasers chose to do, Harvick rolled the dice and kept his No. 4 Chevy near the front all day.

His fortunes took a turn for the worse with 15 to go, when he was hit from behind by Michael Annett as the two cars were attempting to enter pit road. Harvick had no choice other than to sit facing the wrong way until the field had passed.

He rallied to a ninth-place finish.

3. Ryan Newman

Can a team have six Cup titles and still be considered a Cinderella story? In his first season with Richard Childress Racing, the team that powered Dale Earnhardt to six of his seven Cup titles, Newman may be the most unlikely driver in the field of eight, but he is clearly peaking at the right moment.

Perhaps no driver who advanced flirted with disaster Sunday more than Newman. After entering the race fourth in points and starting 11th, Newman lost the draft after a mistake on pit road during the first round of green-flag pit stops. After struggling to get going after his stop, Newman’s crew had to push the Chevrolet in order to get it going, costing Newman valuable time and a place in the all-important draft.

He was all by himself on the track — some 30 seconds back of the draft — when the race’s first caution flew on lap 60 – a huge break that allowed Newman to catch back up to the pack. Once back in the draft, he was largely content to cruise in the back with other Chasers.

Newman avoided potential elimination again during the race when he sustained a flat tire during the melee on lap 103. He gained valuable track position when the yellow flag flew on lap 170 while he was on pit road. Newman restarted first thanks to the well-timed caution and was able to keep his No. 31 Chevrolet near the front.

“I caught a break on pit road there when that caution came out; that really gave us the lead,” Newman said.

Newman led a total of 10 laps and finished fifth, his third top five this year.

4. Denny Hamlin

Hamlin had a quiet day, hanging in the back and flirting with the cut-off line misfortune that found his teammate. Hamlin managed to climb to 18th in the final race standings, good enough to keep the title hopes alive for a driver who missed a race earlier this year due to illness and is considered by many to be the most talented Cup driver without a championship.

5. Matt Kenseth

Kenseth, who has quietly become one of the elite drivers at restrictor-plate tracks, ran in the back all day after an engine change and starting the day right at the border of elimination, but a late-race surge pushed the No. 20 to a second-place finish and a spot in the next round.

“It was different than any Talladega race for me,” Kenseth said. “We started in the back, and we just hung back waiting around for the big wreck … I hate riding in the back. We were leaving pit road when the caution came out so we re-started 12th and then had a couple of good restarts. We were in the right place at the right time and got a good finish.”

6. Carl Edwards

Edwards was another driver who largely chose not to press the issue Sunday. Edwards advanced with a lackluster 22nd-place finish, but it was mission accomplished for Edwards, who is in his final month with Roush Fenway Racing.

“We knew we couldn’t wreck and it ended up playing out exactly as we had planned,” he said. “We stayed out of wrecks and made it in, but that was nerve-wracking.”

7. Jeff Gordon

Gordon’s day was largely uneventful – but nonetheless unsettling. The four-time Cup champ entered Sunday’s race sixth in points and was content to ride at the end of the lead draft until a bad break on lap 170. Gordon was the only lead car that had not pitted when the caution flag flew, relegating the No. 24 to 21st place for the restart.

He never fully recovered and finished 26th.

“Those last couple of laps were the most nerve-wracking laps of my life, so I am glad they are over,” Gordon said. “If I never have to come back to Talladega, I’ll be fine with that.”

8. Brad Keselowski

Keselowski’s run was everything NASCAR hoped to create with the new elimination format. The 2012 Cup champ entered Sunday’s race basically needing to win to advance, and he turned in a daring, hard-driving performance that saw the No. 2 Ford surge to the lead late and hold off the field for his sixth win of the season – all after being hit in the right-side door early in the race.

Two subpar performances – including a blown tire while running in the top 5 at Kansas — almost negated what had been at times a dominant season for Keselowski.

“Everything just felt right today,” he said, “and we’re here as winners because of that.”

WHO’S OUT:

9. Kyle Busch
The biggest victim of the wild card that was Talladega was the No. 18 of Busch, who entered Sunday second in points and 25 points ahead of ninth-place Matt Kenseth.

Busch was among a group of potential chasers who rode in the back in an attempt to miss the Big One, but trouble found him anyway. On lap 103, Aric Almirola turned J.J. Yeley hard into the outside wall, triggering a 10-car pile-up. Busch attempted to slow, but heavy smoke obscured the view of Austin Dillon, who plowed into the back of Busch’s car, turning him down the track into A.J. Allmendinger’s car and into the inside retaining wall.

Busch’s Toyota sustained heavy damage to both the front and back of the car. He took the car to the garage where members of his crew and other Joe Gibbs Racing teams feverishly worked to repair the car.

“The rear suspension was broken, the track bar was messed up, the spindles were bent, the brake studs and the spindle broke, the right upper control arm was broke and then there was all the body damage,” crew chief Dave Rogers said. “There was just so much damage and the crew was spread so thin.”

Despite rejoining the race after spending almost 50 minutes in the garage, the damage was done. Busch was relegated to a 40th-place finish and an early exit from The Chase. He was not available for comment after the race.

JJ Yeley gets into the wall in the early stage of a wreck that eventually collected Kyle Busch and knocked him out of The Chase.

JJ Yeley gets into the wall in the early stage of a wreck that eventually collected Kyle Busch and knocked him out of The Chase.

10. Kasey Kahne

After looking like a shoo-in to advance all day — especially after Busch’s woes — Kahne found himself on the outside looking in along with two of his Hendrick Racing teammates when Keselowski rallied to win and Kenseth surged to second on the final lap.

Kahne’s 12th-place run simply was not good enough, and after squeaking into the Chase and then into the Contender Round, Kahne finally ran out of luck.

11. Jimmie Johnson

“Six-Time” will remain “Six-Time” for another year, as Johnson’s quest to tie Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty as NASCAR’s only seven-time Cup champions came up short.

Johnson was among the strongest cars all day, leading a total of nine times for a race-best 84 laps. But he was too far back in points for a good day to be enough. Barring extreme circumstances that never unfolded, Johnson found himself in a must-win situation, and he was shuffled back to 24th place in the scramble on the final lap.

“It feels relieving to go down swinging,” Johnson said. “The last two weeks were really poor. At least we went down swinging. I’ll take some pride in that.”

12. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Despite his best season in years, NASCAR’s 11-time most popular driver picked the wrong time to have a run of bad luck.

After opening the season with a win in the Daytona 500 and sweeping the two races at Pocono, the Contender Round was an unmitigated disaster, as Junior suffered a blown tire while leading at Kansas and had another rough night at Charlotte.

After leading 20 laps Sunday, Junior Nation had reason to be optimistic, but the late stages of the race saw the No. 88 shuffled to the back and unable to make up ground. Junior’s hopes were finally dashed for good coming to the white flag on the race’s first attempt at a green-white-checkered finish. David Gilliand clipped Greg Biffle who in turn hit Junior who then collected Paul Menard.

“I still really don’t know what happened,” Junior said. “I got with Biffle a little bit. I don’t know if I came down and hit him or what. I thought I was holding my line, but it got pretty tight back there.”

The crash effectively ended Junior’s chances of winning and his 2014 title hopes.

“The race is over. It’s time to go home,” he said.

Busch, Keselowski, Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. join A.J. Allmendinger, Biffle, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola as drivers eliminated from contention after qualifying for The Chase.

Jimmie Johnson (48) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) both had strong cars, leading a combined 115 laps, but neither will advance to the Eliminator stage of The Chase.

Jimmie Johnson (48) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) both had strong cars, leading a combined 115 laps, but neither will advance to the Eliminator stage of The Chase.



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