BRISTOL, Tenn. — It didn’t take long for Paul Menard’s race to go awry at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Flagged for speeding on pit road a mere 34 laps into Saturday night’s race, the penalty set the tone for a disappointing night for Menard and a handful of other drivers trying desperately to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
“Man, we’re giving it away right now for sure,” said Menard. “Just a bad night. Frustrating. If there is something that could have gone wrong, it did.”
Menard, who also ran into the back of Denny Hamlin as the two tried to avoid a wreck in front of them, finished 30th and dropped two spots in the standings to 20th. It’s a nightmare slide for a driver who just one month ago earned a breakthrough victory at Indianapolis to jump into the race for a Chase berth.
New NASCAR rules this season created two wild-cards into the 12-driver Chase field. The spots are designated for the two drivers with the most victories who aren’t already ranked inside the top-10 in points.
The format has created tremendous uncertainty as to who will make the Chase with two races remaining to set the field. Four drivers at the top of the standings — Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards — clinched Chase berths, but of the “bubble” drivers, only Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin did anything to help themselves.
Keselowski picked up his third win of the season, which should almost guarantee him one of the wild cards. It also moved him to 11th in the standings, and he’s only 21 points away from unseating Tony Stewart for the 10th position and locking in his berth.
“Who’s 10th? Is it Tony? Tony is pretty good,” Keselowski said. “Beating Tony Stewart by an average of 10 positions over two races, that’s going to be pretty tough to be honest.”
Try telling that to Stewart, who has run terrible of late.
A week after declaring his Stewart-Haas Racing team doesn’t deserve a spot in the Chase, Stewart backed it up with one of the most perplexing weekends of his career. He qualified last in the 43-car field on the same day teammate Ryan Newman won the pole.
Although he vowed in driver introductions not to stay in the back of the pack for long, he was lapped early and often as Stewart struggled to a 28th-place finish.
“It’s no different than it was last week,” Stewart said. “The feeling is the same — you still want to make it. We’re working hard at it.”
Clint Bowyer was just as bad as Stewart on Saturday night, even though Bristol is one of his better tracks.
Hoping to use his push to make the Chase as a distraction to his messy free agency, Bowyer instead ran in the back of the pack near Stewart most of the race and finished 26th. He dropped a spot in the standings to 12th, and because he’s winless this season, he’d be bounced out of the Chase by wild card drivers.
It’s got to have everyone at Richard Childress Racing on edge, especially since the team owner guaranteed one of his drivers would unseat five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson this year. Instead, Kevin Harvick struggled again and dropped two more spots in the standings to fifth, Bowyer put himself in a deep hole and Menard likely needs a miracle.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., meanwhile, was satisfied with his 16th-place finish. He held pat at ninth in points, but still needs good finishes at Atlanta and Richmond to ensure his first Chase berth since 2008.
“We struggled all night, really, trying to get a good car,” Earnhardt said. “We were just slow. We didn’t have enough grip. Just sliding around a whole lot. Thankful to finish where we did.”
Same goes for Hamlin, who nearly took the title from Johnson last year but has been a strong championship contender this year. His crash last week at Michigan dropped him to 14th in the standings and forced him into conservative mode to save his season.
But he’s been plagued by bad luck this season, and Saturday was no different when Menard ran into him to create considerable damage to the back of his Joe Gibbs Racing car. Crew chief Mike Ford was methodical as he dictated the repairs Hamlin needed and the time the crew had to complete the work, and Hamlin managed to stay on the lead lap.
He eventually rallied to a seventh-place finish — his first top-10 in five races.
Hamlin moved up to 13th in the standings, and would be the second wild card right now by virtue of his one victory this season.
“I feel a lot better,” he said. “It’s been a while since we’ve completed a race and been able to finish where we’re capable of finishing. We got hit and spun and I was like ‘Of course, it’s our luck.’ But we were able to make something of it and battle back.”