Rundown: Big names in big trouble

So you still don’t think the elimination-style Chase format is a good thing for NASCAR?

Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth may agree with you, but the NASCAR suits in Daytona Beach and Charlotte surely don’t. They’re practically bursting with enthusiasm, because the constant pressure of being knocked out of championship contention has produced the kind of hard, ‘have at it, boys’ racing that NASCAR so desperately wanted to create.

Not to mention the attendant publicity.

With a DNF at Dover as his downfall, Johnson was the biggest name to miss the cut in the Challenger round of this year’s Chase. The Contender round could be potentially even harsher, with Kenseth and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. facing long odds to be among the eight drivers who advance to the Eliminator round that starts Nov. 1 at Martinsville Speedway.

First up, however, is the small matter of the 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, where Kenseth and Junior pretty much have to win their way in to continue in the playoffs. With one point awarded per finishing position, Kenseth is a massive 35 points behind eighth-place driver Martin Truex Jr. after Kenseth’s valiant attempt to hold off Joey Logano down the stretch for the win at Kansas Speedway ended in a bump and a cloud of tire smoke.

With the exception of Talladega specialist Earnhardt, all of the Chase drivers other than Logano (who had already clinched a round-of-eight berth by winning a week earlier at Charlotte Motor Speedway) figured they had to win at Kansas to ensure their championship survival, because as we all know, anything can and will happen in a restrictor-plate lottery.

Kenseth came so close to getting the job done at Kansas, but Logano — with little to gain and even less to lose — raced Kenseth aggressively and finally tapped the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into a lazy spin with five of the scheduled 267 laps remaining. Logano’s Team Penske Ford held off Denny Hamlin in a green-white-checkered finish to tie Kenseth with a season-high fifth race win while “Matty Nice” crossed the line 14th.

Those five wins may all be for naught if Kenseth can’t increase that tally to six on Sunday at Talladega. He’s won there before — in 2012, when he managed to escape a 25-car wreck, the kind of “big one” Talladega is famous for that could thoroughly shake up the Chase standings at any point during the course of an afternoon.

The truth is, with Talladega looming, nobody besides Logano is truly safe. Sure, Kenseth (-35 points) and Earnhardt (-31) have the most work to do.

But eight of the other nine drivers still in Chase contention are all clustered within 15 points — easily within the number of cars a big plate racing accident at Talladega could sweep in. Even Hamlin, second in points with a 13-point cushion over eighth-placed Truex, is in no position to relax.

However, Hamlin has the most margin for error on Sunday. He’s six points up on Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kurt Busch, and plus-eighth on his JGR teammate Carl Edwards in fourth.

That’s where things get interesting. Three drivers sit just one point ahead of Truex: defending Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick, retiring legend Jeff Gordon, and Logano’s teammate Brad Keselowski.

There’s not much margin for Truex on the other side either, because Kyle Busch — the hottest driver from the second half of the season — is just six points back, with last year’s surprise championship challenger Ryan Newman minus-eight.

Busch showed how badly he wants to secure his first Cup Series championship with a gutty comeback drive to fifth place after slapping the wall.

“We just kept fighting, kept trying to persevere through everything that was thrown at us,” Busch said. “[Crew chief] Adam Stevens and the guys did a really good job repairing the right side and gave us really good adjustments all day.

“I thought we could come home with a seventh-place finish with all those late restarts there and we’d be happy with that, but we got a fifth out of it.”

Still, two non-Chase drivers (Hendrick Motorsports’ Jimmie Johnson in third and Kasey Kahne in fourth) finished ahead of Busch, and Ryan Blaney stole more valuable points with a polished drive to seventh place for the Wood Brothers.

Kurt Busch (sixth place), Edwards, Keselowski and Gordon all helped their championship aspirations by notching top-10 finishes at Kansas, and Newman wasn’t far behind in 11th.

Harvick, the championship favorite in the eyes of many, had a bad day. He incurred a penalty on his final pit stop, leaving the box with the fuel can still attached, and his problems were compounded by a broken shift lever.

“I’m not real super-excited about everything that happened,” Harvick said after finishing a lap down in 16th place, after running in the top five for much of the day. “But there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Perhaps Kurt Busch summed it all up, looking incredulous after being informed that his margin over ninth place in the standings was just 13 points.

“Really? Only plus-13? That is unbelievable!” he exclaimed. “I would have hoped we could have been 25.

“That’s how tight it is,” he added. “In this competition, you can’t get a spot on anybody and you can’t give up a spot. I thought a fifth and a sixth was pretty good in this round.

“It’s not.”

Xfinity Series: The Busch and Buescher show

Another Xfinity Series race, another Xfinity Series race victory for Kyle Busch. The all-time leader in NASCAR’s second-tier series increased his win tally to 75 by beating his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth in a straight fight at Kansas Speedway in the Kansas Lottery 300.

Busch bounced back from a pit-lane speeding penalty and a damaged splitter to best Kenseth as the JGR teammates led all 202 laps.

“My tongue was hanging out man,” Busch remarked. “I can’t imagine what Matt felt like; he was driving way harder than I was.

“I don’t think I ever would have said I’d get to 75 [wins],” he added. “I think I remember Mark Martin at that time was around 40 or 42 when I started and I was like, ‘That’s a lot of wins.’ Now it’s 75 and I’m stretching it — I’m trying to put it out there where it may never be reached again.”

Xfinity Series points leader Chris Buescher did no harm to his championship campaign with a strong drive to sixth place at Kansas. Buescher was fast in both practice sessions and qualified fourth, but made a poor start. He rebounded from seventh place to third, then made his task more difficult with a pit-lane speeding penalty of his own.

Roush Fenway Racing used cautions to get Buescher back in contention, and although he lost a spot in the final green-white-checkered sprint, he left Kansas with his 20th top-10 of the 2015 season a solid 27-point lead over Chase Elliott.

“That’s been the name of the game — consistency,” Buescher said. “We need to go out here and we need to knock down these top-5s. When you look at the points battle, they can get one or two points a weekend but that’s just not going to cut it in the end.”

Defending Xfinity champion Elliott finished one position behind Buescher in seventh, while a fifth-place finish for Regan Smith keeps him within 33 points of Buescher with three races remaining. Smith confirmed Saturday that he will not return to JR Motorsports in 2016.

Ty Dillion (fourth at Kansas, 36 points back) is the last driver in championship contention when action resumes at Texas Motor Speedway on Nov. 7.

Truck Series: Gearing up

The Camping World Truck Series enjoyed another weekend off, with action set to resume Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway. Erik Jones leads two-time defending Truck Series champion Matt Crafton by just four points, with Tyler Reddick (-16) and Johnny Satuer (-51) within striking distance.

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