Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in gas conservation mode during the final 100 laps Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway. But when several other Chase for the Championship contenders were swept into a multi-car crash, he suddenly shifted to playing defense.
The race to make the Chase turned some teams into counterpunchers. Decisions this time of the season often are the result of what others do, not what’s best for a particular team.
Earnhardt proved that at Bristol.
Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Earnhardt all were trying to stretch their final tank of gas to 134 laps on the half-mile short track. Brian Vickers then bumped Denny Hamlin to trigger an eight-car accident with 52 laps to go that involved Truex, Keselowski and Newman. Suddenly, the plan not to lose ground to other contenders turned to making sure he finished the race.
So he stopped for gas.
“Just a risk we couldn’t take,” Earnhardt said. “Gave up about maybe five points there and hopefully just making sure we got the fuel to finish the race. Getting a 10th-place finish will pay off for us here in the next couple of weeks.”
Earnhardt was running third when he stopped, and he wound up finishing 10th. More important, he remained seventh in the standings, knowing the top 10 drivers automatically make the cut for the playoffs.
There are two races remaining in the regular season – Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway and the Sept. 7 race at Richmond International Raceway.
Kurt Busch, Keselowski and Truex took huge hits in their Chase hopes at Bristol. Busch had trouble with a rear wheel hub; Keselowski and Truex both crashed. Keselowski and Busch both dropped three spots in the standings to fall out of the top 10, while Truex fell two spots to be 14th with two races to go in the regular season.
Everyone near the Chase bubble will continue to pay as much attention, if not more, to the competition as the playoffs approach.
But once the Chase starts, everyone will go back on offense.
Until then, everyone expects a lot of back-pedaling.
“If we were past Richmond, Steve (Letarte, crew chief) said we would have gambled and went for it,” Earnhardt said. “I believe that. If it was earlier in the season we would have gambled and went for it. But under the circumstances we didn’t have the freedom to do that and as much. I hate to say what could have happened maybe we could have finished in the top five or top three even.
Busch lost 24 laps while his team repaired the damage for leaving the lugs loose. He returned and gained 10 spots after others dropped out in the big crash.
Those 10 spots translate to 10 points. And while he’s 12th in points, he’s only six points from 10th-place Joey Logano to get back inside the cut line for the playoffs.
“Yeah, it’s just never give up,” Busch said. “You feel like going back out sometimes is really just a hazard, but guys had trouble towards the end and we might of actually passed a couple of them. Again, we are down, but we are not out.”
Compounding the pressure for Keselowski, Busch and 13th-place Jeff Gordon is the fact none have a victory this season, which means they don’t qualify for one of two wild card entries into the Chase.
“Every team is worried and concerned,” Keselowski said.
“If you’re not in right now, I don’t care if you’re running eighth or you’re running 13th, every team is worried and concerned - not just mine.”