Pressure Building to Make the Chase After Watkins Glen

When the damage was cleared from the 2016 Cheez-It 355 at The Glen, there were more questions than ever regarding the Chase grid. While race winner Denny Hamlin had locked himself in long ago, drivers on the Chase bubble, both just inside and outside of a Chase spot, entered the second of two road course races on the season with a feeling of desperation, having to gain maximum points to lock themselves in.

Pressure Building to Make the Chase After Watkins Glen

A.J. Allmendinger, known for being strong on road courses from his open-wheel background, treated this race as a must-win. Allmendinger entered the day 59-points out of the final Chase spot meaning his only shot of getting in would be with a win. This situation amplified the pressure for the California native, as road courses are the only tracks where Allmendinger could realistically grab a win. The JTG-Daugherty Racing team driver has just a single victory in his 11 years in Sprint Cup, and that one win was on the road course at The Glen in 2014.

Early in the race, The ‘Dinger’ showed his prowess, moving up to the top-3 from his eighth place starting spot. But Allmendinger could not handle the must-win pressure, and made a mental error by getting caught for speeding on pit road on Lap 26, which essentially ended his chances to compete for a win. Allmendinger finished 4th, a good result but likely not enough to get him into NASCAR’s playoffs.

Kyle Larson

Another driver looking to lock himself into the Chase for the Championship was Kyle Larson. The second year Sprint Cup driver began the race with a comfortable 20-point lead over 17th place Kasey Kahne for the final Chase spot. Larson still felt unsafe, as a win by a competitor below him would knock the 24-year old driver below the cut line. Additionally, last week’s winner Chris Buescher started the race outside the top-30 in points, which means he too was out of the Chase. But if he were to make up the small six-point gap he had behind 30th place David Ragan entering the day, Buescher would move into a Chase spot, and the current-16th place driver would be knocked out.

Larson treated the day as a pressure-filled day, where he had to gain as many points as possible to either move himself above 16th, or try and win and automatically get locked in. Larson raced a cautious race, trying to stay out of trouble, racing near the front and limiting his mistakes. After great pit stops and a lot of good restarts at the end, Larson found himself in 4th, going into the final corner on the final lap. A top-5 would’ve been big for the Ganassi driver as his teammate, Jamie McMurray, who sat just above him in the points, was running in the top-10. Trevor Bayne, sitting in 18th just below Larson and Kahne in the points also ran well, so to mind the gap, Larson needed that big finish.

The Final Corner

Unfortunately in the last corner, 5th place Allmendinger failed to check up for a wreck in front of him and spun Larson. What appeared to be a solid 4th place finish for the driver of the Target Chevy, resulted instead with a 29th place result. Allmendinger apologized for wrecking Larson and was angry with himself for the mistake he made. That won’t help Larson, however, who now has just an eight-point gap over 17th place Bayne and a 31-point deficit behind his 15th place teammate McMurray. The silver lining for Larson is that Chris Buescher failed to move into the top-30 after the race.

Chris Buescher

Chris Buescher surprised everyone last week at Pocono, using strategy to stay out just before the race was called due to inclement weather. But the win did not vault him above the top-30 cut line for Chase eligibility and required the Front Row Motorsports driver to reel off some good finishes down the stretch, including this week at Watkins Glen, in order to move above David Ragan for 30th.

On Lap 56, Buescher thought he would catch a break when Ragan was involved in a multi-car wreck. However, there was minimal damage on the BK Racing Toyota and he was able to continue. Then with six laps to go, another multi-car collision involved both Ragan and Buescher. It was costly for Buescher who could’ve moved into a Chase spot had he been able to avoid that wreck. Instead Buescher finished in 30th and only gained three points. Buescher still has a very realistic shot and getting into the Chase but the team will have to avoid trouble and limit mistakes to reel off some better finishes. Should he be successful, it will bunch up the fight for 16th even further and force more drivers to do anything they can to steal a win.

Denny Hamlin

Denny Hamlin entered the day with the motivation to win. Earlier this summer on the road course in Sonoma, Hamlin was in the perfect position to grab his first career road course victory. On the last turn, Tony Stewart moved him up the corner and ended up grabbing the checkered flag. While it was great for Stewart, it was a frustrating end for Hamlin. In the Cheez-It 355, Hamlin had a solid day all race long. He remained in the top-10 for a majority of the race, but did not appear to be a real contender until late in the race.

After leaders Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski forced each other up the track following a restart, it opened the door for Hamlin to grab the lead. A few more late cautions caused more restarts and bunched the field up for the finish. Martin Truex Jr., always strong on road courses, raced his way to second and appeared to have a stronger car than Hamlin in the closing laps. Coming to the Checkered Flag, Truex made a power move that was blocked by Hamlin and forced Truex up the track. 3rd place Keselowski, also close enough to steal a win, misjudged Truex’s move and spun the New Jersey native. Hamlin, already locked in from winning the Daytona 500 in race one, improved his seed by grabbing his second win of the season, and first on a road course.

Post-Race

After the race Truex Jr. was mad at Keselowski, running into the Penske driver’s car multiple times after the race to show his displeasure. They spoke after the race, however, and cooler heads prevailed. Both drivers were locked in the Chase so there were no hard feelings. For Larson, the spin by Allmendinger was much more costly. There are now four races before the Chase.

Winless drivers Ryan Newman, Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon all appear safe for now but a late race incident or mistake could easily send them tumbling down the standings. Wins are in high demand but so are good finishes. Chris Buescher needs to average just three spots higher than David Ragan to knock another driver out of a Chase spot. Kyle Larson has weekly top-5 ability in him and four straight top-5s can and will move him above his teammate in points. It is going to be a wild stretch to determine the Chase order. The pressure is building.

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