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XFINITY

Sadler Comes Short With Late Race Gamble

So close, yet so far.

That was the case for Elliott Sadler, who came up just short of winning his first XFINITY Series Championship, after finishing second in Saturday’s Ford Ecoboost 300.

Overall, the day didn’t start off as Sadler would’ve hoped. After starting second, he found himself falling back from his season-best qualifying effort quickly. By halfway, the veteran driver was outside the top-10, and in a hole he’d need to find a way out of.

Despite his struggles in the first half of the race, he and his team wouldn’t give an inch, with the final 100 laps being the opposite of the first. The 41-year-old  battled his way back to the top-five and right in the thick of the Championship battle. Unfortunately for him, he’d fall out of the top-five just as quickly as he entered it after making contact with the wall. There would be no significant damage to the car but, with ten laps to go, Sadler was out of the top-10 needing to make a big strategy play if he wanted a chance at the championship.

During the race’s final caution and everybody’s last pit stops, Sadler’s crew chose to go with only two tires while the rest of the championship contenders went with four, allowing him to gain crucial track position.

He restarted second and made his way to first but, ultimately wouldn’t be able to hold off eventual race-winner and Champion, Daniel Suarez.

“Yeah, you know, it was not exactly what we wanted. We had to fight back there at the end,” Sadler said post-race. “We had to make a pit strategy call and put two tires on, and was looking forward to just trying to get some clean air and then try to dictate the restart and see if I could hold these guys off with four tires there at the end, and you just — the 14 (Cole Whitt) didn’t go, so I hesitated a little bit, and Daniel did a good job and got a good run on me. I just kind of made a little bit of mistake there on the restart.”

With the second-place finish, he will end the season second in the points standings, capping off what was one of his best in his career with three wins, 14 top-fives, and a career high, 29 top-10’s.

“I don’t think it’s anything negative we can take from it other than not hold a trophy. I felt like our team did what it was supposed to do. It gave us, the drivers, a legitimate shot of winning a championship, and that’s all we can ask for,” Sadler said. “From Dale and Kelley all the way down through everybody in the shop, they work their butts off to make sure we had a legitimate shot at holding up that trophy tonight, and that’s what hurts the most is you don’t know until the checkered flag if you’re going to hold the trophy or not.”

Mitchell Breuer is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist

EMAIL MITCHELL AT mitchell.breuer@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @MitchellB66

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Harvick’s Championship Hopes End in Phoenix

Despite being 18 points outside the Chase cutoff, many still considered Kevin Harvick a favorite to make the Championship 4 as the last track in the Round of 8 was one of Harvick’s best. In the last eight races at Phoenix, the 40-year-old had won six of those, which included this year’s spring race.

It seemed the odds were in his favor which made it all the more surprising when at the end of the 312-lap race, Harvick was eliminated from championship contention.

Throughout the weekend it just seemed the 2014 Sprint Cup Series Champion struggled to find right package, as he and his team failed to place inside the top-five in any of the practice and qualifying sessions. The problems continued during the race, as he’d fall outside the top-10 with a free racecar and then be trapped a lap down after a caution had fallen after he had made a green-flag pit stop. After taking the wave-around, it’d take Harvick over 50 laps to return to the top-10.

It’d be late in the race before the No. 4 got to the top-5 and showed signs of being a contender, but ultimately it’d be too little, too late. He and his team would end the day fourth, 20 points outside the Chase cutoff.

“We just started way too far off on Friday. We never got a handle on the racecar. They made it a ton better in the race, and we were in contention there at the end and just came up short.” Harvick said post-race. “That’s a huge credit to the race team and the guys there in the end. We had a chance and could take a swing for it. We just didn’t quite have it all weekend. We made the car a ton better as we got into the race. So I’m proud of everyone for that.”

Being that he made the Championship 4 in the last two years, Harvick’s departure will mark his first elimination in the newest format of the Chase.

“It was a very challenging Chase for us for all the mechanical failures and situations that we had going on,” he said.We kept rebounding and winning races, and today we were a lap down and came back to have a chance at the end. That says a lot about the character of our race team and we just came up short this year.”

Mitchell Breuer is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist

EMAIL MITCHELL AT mitchell.breuer@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @MitchellB66

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Commentary

THREE TAKEAWAYS: Striping Technology 350 at Texas

With three races left in the season, the action ramped up at the Texas Motor Speedway. From non-chasers dominating early to a familiar face ending the night in victory lane, the Striping Technology 350 provided a lot to talk about.

 

Sauter Doubles Down in Texas

One week following his big win at Martinsville, Johnny Sauter decided one win would not be enough in the Round of 6, as he went back-to-back in Texas. It marks his third win of the season as well as keeps anyone from locking into the Championship Round with him early.

For Sauter it was a relatively quiet night; he positioned himself in the top-five for the majority of the race but seemingly couldn’t find a way to the lead.

That changed during the last round of pit stops, as the No. 21 team won the race off pit road. Despite falling back on the restart, Sauter fought back and passed Matt Crafton with three laps to go to come home with the checkered flag.

 

Making the Best of a Bad Situation

Following an altercation with Ben Rhodes last weekend at Martinsville, Ben Kennedy desperately needed a good day in Texas.

Unfortunately, that would not be the case for the 24-year-old.

Early on in the event, he began to report motor issues under the hood of his No. 33 Chevrolet, forcing the team to assess the situation and lose several spots in the process. Fortunately for Kennedy, he would be able to continue the race, on the lead lap, and capture a 13th place finish.

Well it may not have been the night he had hoped for, Kennedy will walk out of Texas just 13 points out of the cutoff, allowing him a chance to get in at Phoenix possibly.

 

 

Out of the Chase, Not out of the Game

They may no longer be in the hunt for a championship, but that didn’t stop Daniel Hemric and Spencer Gallagher from having a great night in Fort Worth.

Despite not coming home with the win, the two showed they shouldn’t be written off just yet, leading a combined 126 of the 147 lap race. Gallagher set a career-high in laps led at 88 laps led, but fell short of winning due to a slow pit stop late; he finished seventh. Meanwhile, Hemric tied his best at 38 en route to finishing third.

They may not be in the title picture, but they made themselves the focus in the Lone Star State.

 

Mitchell Breuer is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist

EMAIL MITCHELL AT mitchell.breuer@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @MitchellB66

Categories
News

Keselowski’s Chase Hopes Go Away in Smoke

Engine issues are a part of the sport in NASCAR.

Almost every team will face at least one throughout the year and prove to be a major blow to a team’s chance at success, more times than not.

Just ask Brad Keselowski.

Keselowski, who entered the day needing a solid performance following his troubles in Kansas last weekend, looked to be in good shape during Sunday’s Hellmann’s 500. He had qualified second and remained in the front for the majority of his time on the track

“We had a fast Miller Lite Ford and that kind of ended our day. It was a lot of fun to be leading at Talladega.” Keselowski said post-race. “We were doing the best we could to make a show of it and have some fun and lead some laps and just happy and proud to have a fast car.”

The 32-year-old, who’s been dominant at restrictor plate tracks before, showed strength this weekend. He led a race-high 90 laps and seemed to be able to do whatever it took to stay out front and be on pace to make the next round of the Chase.

Then on Lap 144, his day turned into a bad one in the blink of an eye. Moments after getting a piece of debris off his grill for the second time during the race, his engine expired. It’d end his day and cease his championship aspirations.

“I’m pretty confident I lost a rod or something in the lower end. That’s just the way it goes.” Keselowski said. “I don’t know. I’m not an engine guy, but the car was really strong, and we definitely kept finding debris. I thought I got it cooled off and only got it slightly over, but I don’t know.”

The 2012 Sprint Cup Series Champion settled for a 38th place finish.

With four races remaining and officially out of championship contention, Keselowski’s goals are simple for the remainder of the season.

“Win more races.”

 

Mitchell Breuer is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist

EMAIL MITCHELL AT mitchell.breuer@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @MitchellB66

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Commentary

THREE TAKEAWAYS: fred’s 250 at Talladega

The final race in the Round of 8 provided plenty of drama for the Camping World Truck Series as they took to the track at Talladega Superspeedway.

Grant Enfinger came home with his first win, while,  John Hunter Nemechek and Daniel Hemric were eliminated from the Chase.

 

GMS Success

When you head to a track as unpredictable as Talladega with a multi-truck team, you have to worry at least one of your drivers will get involved in an accident. That was far from the case for GMS Racing.

Not only did all four of their trucks finish, but all inside the top-seven, with the No. 24 coming home with the checkered flag.

Also, GMS’ Ben Kennedy and Johnny Sauter both advanced to the second round of the Chase with solid runs on Saturday.

 

No Quit for Daniel Hemric

Yes, Daniel Hemric was one of the two drivers eliminated from the Chase following the race at Talladega.

But, the 25-year-old wouldn’t go down without a fight.

Despite being involved in two multi-car incidents and spinning out late, he and his team not only made enough repairs finish the race but would also be able to keep in a position where he could either stay on the lead lap or capture the free pass to remain on the lead lap.

After all was said and done, Hemric finished 11th, on the lead lap, just 13 points short of the cutoff.

 

The Big One Strikes Again

As to be expected with this type of racing, a big multi-truck crash took out several competitors during Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

This time, the accident was caused by contact between Timothy Peters, and Ben Rhodes at the head of the pack, sending Rhodes into the wall and eventually spinning into the oncoming traffic.

In total, 14 of the 32 trucks entered in the race were involved in the massive pileup.

 

Mitchell Breuer is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist

EMAIL MITCHELL AT mitchell.breuer@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @MitchellB66

Categories
Commentary NASCAR Cup Series

RAPID REACTION: Daytime Drama

CONCORD, N.C. – The Chase’s lone night race turned into a midday melee at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Questionable weather conditions force the sanctioning body to move the Sprint Cup Series event to Sunday afternoon for the second year in a row. This decision threw teams for a loop and led to plot twists no one expected.

As Jimmie Johnson outran Matt Kenseth for the coveted Chase-securing victory, others didn’t fare as well. For many, the first race of round two raised more questions than it answered. That makes the next two weeks kind of interesting.

Here are some rapid reactions from Charlotte’s Chase race.

Pencil in some cautions?

Moving the race to the daytime was a decision NASCAR had to make to keep fans safe. Good karma repaid them with a chaotic event, which had a total of eight cautions. The move to Sunday afternoon made every team’s setup useless, and it was all about who could adapt the best.

The current aero package doesn’t favor night races, and Sunday proved that. Afternoon heat caused a lot of side-by-side racing, yet some weren’t impressed with the action.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said, “I thought it was going to be a lot better, but it wasn’t actually much fun. It was single-file, much like a night race here.”

Nevertheless, it was an entertaining afternoon, to say the least.

Rough start to Round of Twelve

No Chase driver was safe from Charlotte’s wrath; five championship-eligible racers suffered issues, ranging from accidents to blown engines.

Kevin Harvick locked himself into round three with his New Hampshire victory, and good thing, too. The No. 4 team’s day started off strong but came to a screeching halt when problems with the electronic control unit arose. The finished relegated the 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion to a 38th-place finish.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver fell off the pace on lap 155, but Joey Logano hit the wall as the caution flew. It was the second time the No. 22 got in the wall – but the Team Penske car could not fix the damage. Logano finished 36th.

Two other drivers – Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon – ended up in the garage as well; Martin Truex, Jr. hit Dillon’s bumper on a late restart and caused an accident that involved 12 cars. The No. 3 collected others, including the No. 24. Elliott and Dillon’s days were decent in their respective ways, yet their Chase hopes are now hanging by a thread.

Denny Hamlin is no stranger to playoff season issues, and he joined other Chasers in battling harsh circumstances; while running second with less than 50 to go, his engine failed. It was a shocking development, given Joe Gibbs Racing’s dominance throughout the season. The 2016 Daytona 500 champion and four fellow competitors find themselves in compromising positions just one race into the second round.

Chasers who?

With various championship contenders struggling, the door opened for under-the-radar drivers to pull off strong days.

Kasey Kahne, who’s found consistency as of late, credited crew chief Keith Rodden with his third-place finish, saying, “We were bouncing a bit, so we struggled with that. Keith made the right adjustments to get me off my right front, and that helped a lot during the last three or four runs of the race.”

Larson is still fighting for wins despite his elimination from the Chase field. His attributes the No. 42 team’s speed for the top five effort.

“We’ve had fifth to 10th place speed the last couple of months, but we haven’t had the luck to go with it,” he said, adding, “Today was good; we got some bad luck in the beginning of the race when our tire came apart, but we fought back to the lead lap and got a top five. I’m good with that.”

Ryan Newman failed to make the Chase Grid but keeps pulling off impressive finishes; he brought the No. 31 home fourth. Other non-Chasers who filled out the top 10 include Tony Stewart and Jamie McMurray.

Hendrick power shines again

If anyone doubted Johnson would be a major player for the 2016 championship, he proved them wrong on Sunday He took Hendrick Motorsports to victory lane after leading 155 laps throughout the afternoon. The Chevrolet organization is flexing its muscle at the right time, with its other three cars also recent contenders. Elliott led 103 laps before the wreck, Kahne finished strong, and Alex Bowman was in the top 10 when his accident took place.

You can say HMS was sandbagging throughout the entire regular season. You might be right – but they call it “strategy,” and it’s a strategy they do very, very well. All four cars have the ability to win in the next six races, and that should scare the other 36 cars on the track.

EMAIL KRISTEN AT kristen.schneider@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KristenS_Writes

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Commentary

Drivers, Championship Format Increase XFINITY Competiton

The NASCAR XFINITY Series is finally living up to its slogan, “Names are made here.”

Amid the hectic atmosphere surrounding the inaugural Chase field, four series regulars have won in the past five races. Daniel Suarez extended the streak during the impromptu doubleheader at Dover International Speedway. Last season, series regulars took home five trophies throughout the whole season. This competitive season could eclipse that statistic.

Although many variables are surrounding the XFINITY Series, two stand out when asking what changed between 2015 and now, the drivers and the championship format. Significant alterations to these factors have jacked up the competition level and are pushing the entire series in a whole new – and needed – direction.

Silly season was extra chaotic for a few drivers in the Chase field, and two of them didn’t have a ride until JR Motorsports solidified their 2016 lineup. After a disheartening Sprint Cup Series stint with HScott Motorsports, Justin Allgaier, and JRM team owner Dale Earnhardt, Jr. struck a deal for Allgaier’s XFINITY return. The No. 7 team has benefited from his talents, with 12 top fives and 23 top 10s in 28 races. The same can be said about Elliott Sadler; his contract with Roush Fenway Racing left him without a XFINITY seat until Earnhardt called. The partnership has led to three victories, as well as 11 top fives and 25 top 10s.

Allgaier and Sadler’s move isn’t the only change that has increased someone’s title chances. After a successful rookie season, Daniel Suarez refuses to fall victim to the “sophomore slump.” The Joe Gibbs Racing driver claimed his first XFINITY win at Michigan International Speedway and backed it up with the Dover trophy. The equipment at JGR has significantly improved, but so has Suarez’s abilities. His aggressive style takes center stage when the No. 19 is fighting for positions.

These are more changes on the driver spectrum, such as Brennan Poole’s full-time status with Chip Ganassi Racing and Kaulig Racing aligning with Richard Childress Racing to give Blake Koch stronger equipment. However, the three drivers mentioned earlier are currently making headlines under the Chase format, which has led to some improvements of its own.

When NASCAR first announced the Chase format for XFINITY, the initial reaction was negative; the low competition level in the series prompted many to assume top dog Erik Jones would run away with the championship. That is currently not the case whatsoever, with Jones struggling to piece together an entire race. The other 11 drivers’ execution emphasizes the No. 18 team’s missteps and increases everyone else’s chances at the title; when there is blood in the water, the sharks start swarming. This title hunt is fierce, and various drivers are experiencing the championship battle for the first time. That leads to aggression and desire, forgotten elements that are now making a resurgence.

For the first time in ages, the race for the XFINITY Series championship is unpredictable. The new Chase format clicks with new driver relationships and mentalities, creating one of the most competitive seasons in series history. This trend of series regulars finding winning races is good for XFINITY, which has struggled to find a unique identity over the past few years. Despite initial reactions, the championship system is working very well – and making the most of what XFINITY has to offer.

EMAIL KRISTEN AT kristen.schneider@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KristenS_Writes

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Commentary

‘Win and You’re In’ Delivers For Fans in Kansas

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Win and you’re in.

That’s the key component to breeding drama for NASCAR’s Chase format. If you need a win, you’re more inclined to take risks. But by the same token, if you’re already in the Chase, that’s an invitation to take chances, too — much like what Denny Hamlin did on lap 239 of Saturday’s Go Bowling 400 at Kansas Speedway.

https://vine.co/v/iQraFdXtZt3

Hamlin restarted in sixth after a two-tire pit stop. Entering Turn 3, he darted his No. 11 Toyota between Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson. His aggression cost him and several others, though, as he got Keselowski loose and spun into Larson, slamming both into the outside wall. Joey Logano was collected as well when he drove into the driver’s side of Hamlin’s car.

“I was going in there three-wide. The 42 [Larson] was too close up there — it wasn’t his fault by any means,” Hamlin explained to Fox Sports. “We were both trying to drive it in there to clear each other and I just got loose.”

The Daytona 500 champion was blunt about the incident, saying it’s a product of the championship system.

“I was just going for it there,” Hamlin said. “I got the win [at Daytona] and that’s part of this format. I was just going for it, and that’s what we did.”

Logano, despite his run-ins with the Joe Gibbs drivers in the past, agreed with Hamlin.

“It just looked like the 2 [Keselowski] got loose and then the 11 [Hamlin] got loose,” Logano said. “I was hoping the 11 would come down the hill and when you’re in the smoke you can’t see anything … It’s just racing. These things happen sometimes.”

When NASCAR introduced the current Chase format in 2014, moves like Hamlin’s were exactly what they had in mind. In days gone by, drivers would be content with a top five, to accumulate precious points. Now, it’s all about getting at least one win, then earning checkered flags that equal bonus points come Chase time.

Meanwhile, at the front of the field, leader Kyle Busch was forced into a different kind of risk. Crew chief Adam Stevens kept his driver out on old tires, knowing that if they pitted, the rest of the leaders would likely stay out. With two wins already in the bank, Busch had nothing to lose by going after another one. Stevens’ gamble paid off big-time when Busch out-dueled 2014 champion Kevin Harvick, securing the No. 18 team’s third victory of the season.

One of the earliest instances of the “win and you’re in” format came at Watkins Glen two years ago. A.J. Allmendinger entered the race 25th in points, knowing his only chance at the Chase was a win. On a green-white-checkered finish, the Dinger started alongside Marcos Ambrose, who was also searching for a Chase-clinching victory.

The two drivers banged fenders for the better part of two laps before Allmendinger pulled away to his first Sprint Cup win and a Chase berth for his single-car team at JTG Daugherty Racing.

Kyle Larson is no stranger to taking chances to make the Chase either. Last year at Michigan he stayed out on low fuel, knowing a race-ending rainstorm was fast approaching. Unfortunately for Larson, the rain began to fall just five laps after he was forced to pit road, ending the event just 38 laps past halfway.

And the drama doesn’t end when the Chase begins. With drivers being eliminated every three races, and a victory equaling a free ticket to the next round, NASCAR’s thirst for “Game Seven Moments” is quenched with every round.

In the Chase opener at Chicagoland in 2014, Brad Keselowski went all-in on a late restart. With Harvick and Kyle Larson battling side-by-side with 18 to go, the 2012 champ drove into Turn 1 three-wide to steal the victory and advance to the second round of the Chase.

Just a few weeks later at Texas, Keselowski was at the center of another dramatic Chase moment. On a green-white-checkered restart, he forced his No. 2 Ford three-wide between Hendrick teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, making contact with Gordon. As a result, Gordon suffered a flat tire that led to a melee on pit road after the race.

“It was just racing hard and (Gordon) left a hole — and everything you watch in racing — if you leave a hole you’re supposed to go for it,” Keselowski said at the time of the incident. “It closed up and we made contact. I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s day. I wanted to win the race and that was our opportunity.”

But the format went to new heights last season at Kansas. Joey Logano was in a furious battle for the win with Matt Kenseth. Kenseth needed a victory after crashing out the week before Charlotte, while Logano was already through to the next round. Going into Turn 1, Kenseth attempted a block on Logano, who then regrouped and spun the No. 20, all but eliminating Kenseth from championship contention.

The moment will live in infamy after Brian France proclaimed the incident was “quintessential NASCAR.”

With a championship system that rewards winning more than it discourages wrecking, it’s not a shock to see drivers and teams putting it all on the line for a checkered flag. And with the sport at a crossroads of declining TV ratings and less fan interest, it couldn’t come at a better time.

EMAIL HANK AT editors@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Race to the Chase: NASCAR’s Best Personified

By Matt Weaver (INDIANAPOLIS) — Combine a new-look playoff format, a wide variety of venues and the storylines currently at play and the next few weeks are the absolute best time to be a fan of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

The so-called Race to the Chase — or the seven races leading up to the Chase for the Championship — has always been a popular leg of the schedule over the past decade. With over 15 drivers still in contention for one of 16 playoff spots, the intensity always picks up during this time of the year.

The 2014 season has great potential to create one of the more exciting stretches in the recent history of NASCAR. It begins with the new Chase Grid format, which has rewarded any winner over the first 26 races entry into the Chase for the Championship — assuming that they have attempted to qualify for every race and are inside the top-30 of the point standings.

The setting for this stretch provides an excellent setting for dramatics as well. In the same vein that the prestigious Daytona 500 kicks off the regular season, the Brickyard 400 is a fitting way to start the chase to crown a champion as well.

And while the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has never produced a complete barnburner of a race, the excellent duel between Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne on Sunday was likely a harbinger of things to come. Pocono is very similar in characteristic to Indianapolis and the sixth generation Cup car has produced better racing at the Tricky Triangle since it was rolled out last season.

Watkins Glen is the following week and the upstate New York road course is likely the last remaining wild card event that could permit a road course expert like Marcos Ambrose or AJ Allmendinger entry into the field of 16.

Like Indianapolis and Pocono, Michigan has produced better racing as of late but it’s likely the calm before the storm in terms of what will happen over the final three weeks of the regular season at Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond.

Bristol has the potential to test just how much a driver wants to make the Chase for the Championship. The high-banked half-mile has continued to deliver side-by-side action and photo finishes even after the reconfiguration. If one of the winless combatants finds himself in position to win, that desperation lends itself to the characteristics of old Bristol and drivers doing everything in their power to win.

… even if that means intentionally wrecking a rival to do so …

Indy: Brickyard Victory Could Reestablish Jeff Gordon as Best of All-Time

In an era where intermediate racing has become the bane of NASCAR fan’s existence, Atlanta Motor Speedway is a throwback to what speedway racing used to be in the Sprint Cup Series.

The historic Georgia mile-and-a-half hasn’t been repaved since 1997 and has produced some of closest finishes during that time span. There is just something about the layout at Hampton that continues to produce the best of NASCAR. Atlanta will again host the penultimate race of the regular season and it may be the final chance to earn a victory or gain addition bonus points towards Chase seeding.

The old surface chews away at tires more than any other venue in the sport and it may be an excellent opportunity for an underfunded team to stay out on old tires under a late caution and try to back their way into the playoffs.

And then there’s Richmond — the last chance to make the Chase for the Championship.

The NASCAR community found out just how far a team was willing to go to make the Chase last season when Michael Waltrip Racing and Team Penske orchestrated deals in the closing laps or had drivers intentionally spin in order to manipulate the results.

Say what you will about how that was handled by all involved but Richmond served as a great reminder of just how important making the Chase remains to those in the sport. There are millions of marketing and media dollars on the line for those who make the playoffs and there is some valor in teams doing whatever it takes to gain entry. In hindsight, for a sport where success is earned in gray spots, Richmond was 100 percent an example of the racer’s mentality at play.

The upcoming Race for the Chase has the chance to generate all sorts of dramatics and shenanigans. When the new format was announced in the offseason, it was assumed that it would help the major teams get all of their drivers in more so than aid the underfunded and outclassed.

And yet, with six races remaining, Aric Almirola and rookies Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson are on the provisional grid while three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart is out, leading an impressive who’s who of NASCAR talent like Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Brian Vickers who have yet to secure a spot.

All combined, this is the most exciting time of the season to be a NASCAR fan and recent changes to the playoff format has only increased the energy and excitement. Make no mistake, the Race to the Chase has begun…