After New Hampshire, all Chase drivers are back in the game

Wide open.

That’s an apt description of Sunday’s action at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where a succession of on-track dust-ups and hold-your-breath restarts played havoc with the fortunes of Chase drivers who entered the Sylvania 300 feeling relatively secure about their prospects of advancing to the second elimination round.

Wide open.

That’s also an apt description of the state of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. One by one, Chase drivers and their teams made mistakes or fell victim to accidents on the track.

Fifteen cautions—two short of the track record—punctuated the action, with 13 yellows coming in the final 131 laps of a scheduled 300.

Loose lug nuts. Loose race cars. All contributed to the construction of an unlikely scenario that now finds each of the 16 Chase drivers with a realistic chance to advance to the next elimination round after next Sunday’s race at Dover.

The Sylvania 300 made prophets of both Aric Almirola and Denny Hamlin. Almirola was running sixth late in the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway before an engine failure seemingly KO’d his title chances.

“We’ve got to hope that the guys that are already down in points run 20th to 25th,” Almirola said on Friday before the New Hampshire race. “I think right now we’re 23 points out of 12th, so if we run fifth and Carl (Edwards) runs 20th, that’s 15 points, and that puts us within seven going to Dover. That makes it a reality getting to Dover, but we’ve got to take a big chunk out here.

“What we can’t do is come here and run 25th. I think the writing would be on the wall that we’d just have to go to Dover and win, so it is what it is.”

As it turned out, Edwards ran 17th. For his part, Almirola avoided a 25th-place finish—by a bunch. The driver of the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford finished sixth, and though he didn’t get within seven points of 12th place, he came close.

Almirola is 16th in the standings, as he was after Chicagoland, but he’s now only 10 points behind Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman, who are tied for 11th. There’s a 12-point spread between Almirola and an eighth-place tie between Edwards and Matt Kenseth.

The bottom line is that, for Almirola, the Chase is not over. Another sixth-place finish at Dover would go a long way toward sending him from the Challenger Round to the Contender Round.

Similarly, after a huge issue with the fuel probe on his No. 11 Toyota and a crash that cost him 34 laps on Sunday, Hamlin seemed resigned to the status of a Chase darkhorse. In fact, as he stood in the garage as his team repaired the car, Hamlin characterized his prospects of advancing to the next round as “a long shot at best.”

That was before Hamlin’s next utterance came true.

“You just try to do the best you can to get the best finish and for some help,” Hamlin said. “It’s a long way to go in this race. I hate to say it, but maybe some guys get some trouble and let us back in it.”

That’s exactly what happened. Kurt Busch cut a tire and clobbered the Turn 3 wall on Lap 221, joining Hamlin near the bottom of the box score. Kenseth ignited a wreck on Lap 188 that collected the cars of Chase drivers Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman.

Though Kenseth survived that wreck with minimal damage, he suffered his own Waterloo when Paul Menard spun to his inside on Lap 270 and knocked Kenseth into the Turn 4 wall.

Now that the dust has settled, a 12-point spread covers the last nine drivers in the Chase standings. With Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano having punched their tickets with victories, Dover will determine which of the remaining 14 drivers advance to the next round and which four are eliminated.

The only real loser at New Hampshire was conventional wisdom. The rule of thumb in the Chase has always been that a driver can’t afford a catastrophic problem, and that was certainly the case with the old format—a prime example being Dale Earnhardt Jr. last year at Chicagoland.

This year, however, Almirola, Hamlin and Kurt Busch already have had catastrophic issues, and all three are still viable as Chase contenders.

So, of courses, is everyone else. That’s what promises to make next Sunday’s race at the Monster Mile every bit as captivating as New Hampshire just was.