Former champions Gordon, Busch, Keselowski on Chase bubble
It's become a fall tradition when at the conclusion of the last regular season race at Richmond, a big name will step out their car with disgust, knowing they are not one of the 12 qualifiers for NASCAR's Chase for the Championship.
A year ago it was Kyle Busch who didn't make the cut as a season of near-misses and mechanical gremlins finally catching up to him. And before that, names like Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne all have faced the harsh reality that their season is essentially over 10 weeks prematurely.
Surprisingly in the mix and fighting it out for two remaining spots is a trio of former Sprint Cup champions.
"We won't have any type of cushion whatsoever," said Busch, the inaugural winner of the Chase in 2004. "... I hate to play the ‘what if', but ‘what if' in this case is a good ‘what if' and that is if we make the Chase. ... Just the speed that we've had at all the race tracks, the diversified race tracks this year, I think we will be great in the Chase. I think we can put up a good showing."
That Busch is even in discussion about making the playoffs is remarkable.
Unlike those he's competing against who drive for multi-car teams with vast amount of resources, Busch is with Furniture Row Racing, a single-car team based not in the NASCAR hub of Charlotte, N.C., but in the far outskirts of Denver. And never has a driver without a teammate come close to securing a Chase berth, which if happens, is testament to both Busch's talent and the moxie of the small team with big aspirations.
Maybe as remarkable as Busch's story is the fact that for the second consecutive year Gordon finds himself on the bubble entering Richmond, having again endured a trying regular season filled with hard luck and little consistency.
At age 42 and undoubtedly in the twilight of his career, Gordon last won a title in 2001 and has been in dogged pursuit of championship No. 5 ever since. But the Chase format has been unkind to him, who numerous times has seen his sizeable point leads accumulated during the opening 26 races evaporate when the standings are reset.
This year, however, making the Chase would provide Gordon a reprieve.
"What I love about the Chase is that you can be off the pace or not having things go your way early in the season," he said at Watkins Glen. "And you can get it turned around and get that momentum and find the speed and do the things that you need to do as a team to get yourself geared up and if you make it in the Chase then you really could be a threat at winning it."
Of the three former champions trying to claim a Chase berth, the most shocked about the position he finds himself in has to be Keselowski.
The current holder of the Sprint Cup trophy opened up his title defense by reeling off four straight finishes of fourth better, and seven top-10s in the first eight races. At the time it seemed implausible that Keselowski's season would unravel as quickly as it did.
Then in April came a 25-point penalty for unapproved suspension parts that earned his crew chief Paul Wolfe a two-week suspension. This was followed by 10-week stretch where Keselowski scored just one finish better than 12th in addition to a six-point penalty incurred at Dover when the No. 2 was too low during post-race inspection.
Despite the turmoil and the topsy-turvy nature of his year, it was always assumed that, per his nature, Keselowski would rally. An engine failure, however, last week at Atlanta seemed to seal his fate as the first defending champion to miss the Chase since Stewart in 2006.
Keselowski is 28 points out of 10th and his best -- albeit remote -- chance of making the Chase hinges on him winning at Richmond and hoping everything else falls into place accordingly.
"I'm beyond frustration," Keselowski said. "This must be some kind of test to prove how strong we are and what our character is because I believe in the people I'm around. I think they're doing the right things, but it's just not working.
"I'm reserved to this being a test and I love challenges and this is gonna be one helluva challenge."
If there is anyone who can relate to Keselowski it would be Atlanta winner Kyle Busch, who was in a similar position a year ago at this time.
Heading to Richmond, one of his better tracks where he's won four times and currently holds an average finish of 6.5, Busch just needed a solid finish to lockup his spot in the Chase. But driver and team panicked and he placed 16th allowing Gordon to sneak in.
"Last year I felt like we learned a lot," Busch said. "(When) we missed the Chase we didn't give up, we didn't just lame duck the rest of the year and ride around. We actually worked hard and pushed ourselves to be better,
"But I think that we did a good job of learning and learning what we could do and learning how we can contend and compete, and that's what we need to focus on this year is doing some of those same things."
But in a year's time Busch has turned around his fortunes with four victories and is considered one of the prohibitive favorites to win the championship.
"This is a humbling sport," Busch said. "You look at last year's champion and what he's going through right now, it's the same scenario.
"You've got to be able to take the highs and the lows, and certainly I am not very good at taking the lows, I'll be the first to admit it. But when the highs come your way you've got to treasure them because you never know how many more you'll get."
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