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The Cool Down Lap: Going once … going twice … Any takers for the Chase wild cards?

by TMS Media Relations | Aug 17, 2011

By Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service
 
(August 16, 2011)
 
Based on Monday’s rain-delayed Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen, apparently the only drivers who really want to take advantage of NASCAR’s new wild-card provision are the drivers who finished 1-2 at the Glen—Marcos Ambrose and Brad Keselowski.
 
OK, that’s a little unfair. The three drivers currently fighting for what would be the second of two wild-card entries into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup were victims of circumstance. Nevertheless, for those three drivers, Monday’s race will be remembered as a succession of opportunities lost.
 
Denny Hamlin was the first victim, and his troubles started Saturday. Too aggressive on his qualifying lap, Hamlin spun and slapped the guard rail in Turn 5 at the 2.45-mile road course. That mishap left him 42nd on the grid for the start of Monday’s race, 17 positions behind Dale Earnhardt Jr., the man he was chasing for the 10th spot in NASCAR’s 10-race playoff.
 
Hamlin gained ground with a strong drive in the first half of the event, but his race came to an end abruptly on Lap 65. As Hamlin was streaking down the hill at full speed toward Turn 1, his front wheels locked, and a brake failure sent him hurtling head-on into the tire barrier.
 
The resulting 36th-place finish dropped Hamlin to 12th in the Cup standings, leaving him eight points behind 11th-place Clint Bowyer, 33 points behind 10th-place Tony Stewart and a whopping 44 points behind ninth-place Earnhardt who, in defiance of conventional wisdom, put distance between himself and Hamlin at Pocono at Watkins Glen.
 
Hamlin’s misfortune presented a major opportunity to Paul Menard, who was running 13th with five laps left, but Menard became victim No. 2 on Lap 86 when his car ignited after a tire failure. Menard, who injected himself into the wild-card conversation with a victory July 31 at Indianapolis, finished 32nd and lost a spot to 15th in the standings.
 
In order to overtake Hamlin, who also has one victory, Menard must gain 28 points on the driver of the No. 11 Toyota in the next four races.
 
Victim No. 3, David Ragan, made it to the white flag in one piece—but not to the checkered flag. Contact from Boris Said’s Chevrolet sent Ragan’s Ford spinning wildly across the track as the cars began to climb the hill toward the esses. Ragan in turn wiped out David Reutimann in a wild accident that caused the final caution and froze the finishing order under yellow.
 
Ragan finished 28th and dropped four positions to 23rd in the Cup standings. Despite his victory at Daytona, Ragan is no longer in a wild-card-eligible position, given that those spots are reserved for drivers in positions 11-20 in the standings after 26 races.
 
After the melee on Monday, the permutations are endless. Hamlin could win another race and solidify his Chase chances. On the other hand, the driver who battled Jimmie Johnson for the championship to the final race at Homestead last year is more vulnerable than ever.
 
Menard could win another race and knock out Hamlin. So could Ambrose, who is 22nd in the standings but one point out of 20th. Ambrose has had some excellent runs at Bristol and Richmond, two short tracks in the next four races, and he has improved dramatically at Atlanta, site of the Sept. 4 event, during his short tenure in Sprint Cup racing.
 
Though it’s impossible to predict the Chase qualifiers at this point, there is one strong probability, namely that those who ultimately make the battle for the series championship will seize opportunities when they present themselves—as drivers failed to do at Watkins Glen.

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