It seems the Chase for the Sprint Cup just got started.
It did two races ago, but for four drivers their quest for the series championship will end after Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway.
Under NASCAR’s new Chase format this season, following the third, sixth and ninth races in the Chase, the four lowest remaining Chase drivers in points are eliminated from title contention.
Talk about pressure.
Of the 16 drivers in the Chase field this season, two – Aric Almirola and A.J. Allmendinger – are making their first appearance in the Chase and both are in danger of making a quick exit.
Both drivers were probably among those many thought would not survive the first elimination round – thanks to their inexperience – but both have shown signs of being competitive and want to continue their progress.
“No one really expected us to be here anyway, and to have a shot at making it to the next round,” said Allmendinger, who qualified for the Chase with his victory in August at Watkins Glen, N.Y. “So, I’m just going to go out there and give it everything I have.
“Whatever happens in the race happens. I’m not going to worry about who is around me in points or anything like that. If at the end of the day if it is enough to make it to the next round, then great.
“If not, that is all we can do.”
Allmendinger is 10th in the series standings but has only a seven-point cushion over 13th-place Denny Hamlin, who leads the group of those four-lowest in the standings. Allmendinger will start 28th Sunday, but he was among the top-five fastest cars in practice on Saturday.
The Chase appearance is also the first for Allmendinger’s JTG Daugherty organization, a single-car team trying to compete in a series dominated by multi-car organizations.
“People tell you all the time what you can’t do,” said team co-owner Brad Daugherty, a former NBA star with the Cleveland Cavaliers. “The biggest statement you can make is to continue to perform regardless.”
For Almirola, the points situation entering Sunday’s race is much more dire.
He is 16th in the standings and trails 12th place Kasey Kahne by 10 points. A win automatically advances a driver to the next round and at this point that might be Almirola’s best hope to advance.
To move into the top 12 of the standings would require Almirola to get a lot of help from many of the drivers in better position than him.
“Obviously our goal is to transfer into that next round, but we can’t really worry about what everybody else is doing. All we can do is worry about ourselves,” said Almirola, who earned his Chase berth by winning the July race at Daytona.
What is probably most disturbing for Almirola and his No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports team is they have run strong enough in the first two races to likely have a comfortable points margin to advance.
Yet a blown engine late in the race at Chicagoland left him with a 41st place finish putting him in an immediate hole. He did rebound nicely last weekend at New Hampshire with a sixth-place finish to make up considerable ground. Almirola will start 21st on Sunday.
Almirola insists, though, Sunday’s race cannot be an all-or-nothing approach.
“We just can’t go to Dover and throw a Hail Mary and it’s either win or finish 43rd. If we don’t win and finish 43rd, then we’re pretty much going to guarantee that we’re going to finish 16th in points and we don’t want to do that,” he said.
“We still have the capability of going up in points to fifth (by the end of the season), so there is still a bigger picture in mind even if we don’t transfer.
“We’ll take necessary risk, but we’re not going to take crazy risk just to try and transfer to the next round if the reward is not there.”