Drivers on bubble struggle at Bristol
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 the Eau Claire native 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, Cambridge native 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.
Stewart qualified last in the 43-car field, then struggled to a 28th-place finish.
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.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 16th and held pat at ninth in points, but still needs good finishes at Atlanta and Richmond to ensure his first Chase berth since 2008.
Hamlin was seventh and moved up one spot to 13th in the standings. He would be the second wild card right now by virtue of his one win.