Allen Lessels on Motor Sports: With Chase spots on the line, drivers are hungry
LOUDON -- Here they come.
NASCAR’s Sprint Cup stars wrapped up their rain-delayed Fourth of July weekend stay in Daytona with a rain-shortened and topsy-turvy Coke Zero 400 on Sunday. Next stop: Loudon.
Fans in campers started checking in to New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s camping areas over the weekend, vendors are setting up shop at the track now, and the colorful Sprint Cup team haulers will be wheeling in for Thursday night’s FanFest that helps kick off Sprint Cup weekend.
Let’s start from the back end of the weekend.
The Camping World RV Sales 301 is set or Sunday at 1 p.m. — the Speedway announced on Monday that New England Patriot Julian Edelman will drive the pace car to start the race — offering drivers one more in a dwindling number of chances to secure a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
Eighteen races are down in the Cup season, and eight remain before the Chase begins at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept 14. (Race No. 2 is back at NHMS on Sept. 21.)
The rules have changed for Chase qualifying. This year, there are 16 slots available, and the top priority for securing spots is winning races. Aric Almirola survived a couple of crashes that took out several top contenders and won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona on Sunday in the No. 43 Ford of Richard Petty Motorsports to become the 11th different Cup winner this year.
Good for him to collect his first Cup win and the first for the famous No. 43 since 1999.
Not so good for the rest of the field. Almirola was 23rd in points going into Daytona and likely grabbed one of the Cup spots.
It’s likely because if there are more than 16 different winners during the season, the race for spots will come down to points, too.
What probably will happen is that there will not be 16 winners, every driver with a win will get in, and there will be a few spots open for drivers to get in on points.
Bottom line: There is a bunch of drivers who will be looking for a win on Sunday to nail down a spot in the Chase.
The new format ups the ante on each race, especially a race that also appears later in the season on the Chase schedule.
“It’s more important,” said Jeff Gordon when he was at NHMS practicing with his Hendrick Motorsports teammates last month. “Way more important. I mean, it’s a win. It’s a win, and it’s in the Chase. To me, every racetrack, especially if it’s in the Chase, is far more important. You come here, you perform well. Whether it’s a win to get you your second or third win, or whether it’s a win to get you into the Chase. The fact that if you ran well here, it bodes well for you for when the Chase starts.”
Gordon (one win) and Hendrick teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. (two wins) and Jimmie Johnson (three wins) lead the point standings coming into this weekend and are locks for the Chase.
If the Chase started this weekend, Matt Kenseth (fourth in points), Ryan Newman (eighth), Paul Menard (10th), Clint Bowyer (12th) and rookie Austin Dillon (13th ) all would make the Chase.
But none of those five drivers has a win at the moment. Greg Biffle, Brian Vickers, Kyle Larson and Kasey Kahne don’t have wins, either, and all are within 12 points of Dillon in the standings.
Should make for an exciting Sunday.
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SUNDAY’S race concludes a busy weekend schedule.
Thursday’s free FanFest event gets things going. It runs from 5:30 to 10 p.m. outside the tunnel that goes into the track and includes the Cup hauler parade, an autograph session with K&N Pro Series East drivers and a Jimmy Lehoux concert at 8 p.m.
Friday is Oxford Casino Pole Day and features the new knockout-elimination style Sprint Cup qualifying at 4:35, as well as a new Whelen All-Star Modified Shootout along with the K&N Pro Series East race at 6 p.m.
The final Sprint Cup series practice is 11:30 a.m. to 12:25 p.m. on Saturday, to be followed by the Whelen Modified Tour Sunoco 100 at 1 p.m. and the Nationwide Series Sta-Green 200 at 3:30.