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By Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor - Archive - Email
Chase drama intensifying
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in a must-win situation in order to advance into the next round.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - With NASCAR's new playoff format, there is certainly no shortage of drama in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

The pressure and tension to make it into the third round of the Chase is building more and more for those who remain eligible for the title, except Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick. Logano's win last week at Kansas and Harvick's victory this past Saturday at Charlotte has allowed both of those drivers to automatically advance into the Eliminator Round.

On Sunday, the elimination race in the Contender Round will take place at Talladega, where the Chase field will be trimmed from 12 drivers to eight for the Eliminator Round.

Charlotte was indeed a wild affair. While Harvick was heading into victory lane, the garage area became chaotic with Denny Hamlin having to be restrained from going after Brad Keselowski and then Matt Kenseth, who is Hamlin's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, fighting with Keselowski between a pair of Team Penske haulers.

Following the last restart with two laps to go, Keselowski and Hamlin tangled multiple times while battling for position. Keselowski then retaliated against Hamlin by bumping him from behind and attempting to spin him out during the cool-down lap.

Keselowski also ran into the back of Kenseth when both drivers were driving onto pit road after the race had concluded. Keselowski continued his antics on pit road by hitting the rear of Tony Stewart's car, but Stewart retaliated by putting it in reverse and slamming into the front of Keselowski's vehicle.

Then the scuffles began in the garage area.

"That's how intense this whole Chase is," Harvick said.

Five of the 10 races in the Chase are now completed. In previous years, all drivers who qualified for the playoffs had remained in title contention at the halfway point. Now, any driver in the Chase field with the exception of Logano and Harvick could be facing Chase elimination at Talladega, a restrictor-plate track.

"The format is definitely creating a lot of drama, a lot of intensity, a lot of pressure, and each round seems to intensify that much more," Jeff Gordon said after his second-place run at Charlotte.

Talladega, where very tight pack racing can create one or more major crashes, is the unpredictable or wild card race in the Chase. The tension definitely builds for the championship contenders when the Sprint Cup Series comes to this 2.66-mile superspeedway in the fall. Logano and Harvick, though, can enjoy Talladega, knowing they're already secured for the next round.

"I won't be anorexic and throwing up all week," Harvick said after his win at Charlotte. "I didn't even know how we were going to prepare for (this) week without just being a total disaster, because you just know that so much is out of your control going into Talladega ... It's going to be so crazy there with everybody in the offensive frame of mind like everybody was (at Charlotte) that they might have to move the seats back a few rows."

Right now, Logano holds the lead in the Chase point standings. Kyle Busch is six points behind Logano, while Harvick trails by seven.

Ryan Newman sits fourth in points (-11), followed by Carl Edwards (-12), Gordon (-14) and Hamlin (-15).

Kasey Kahne occupies the coveted eighth position, but he is only one point ahead of ninth-place Kenseth.

"We are in a spot where we can definitely make it, advance to the next round if we don't wreck, same as a lot of guys," Kahne said. "Talladega will be interesting. I think there will probably be a lot of strategies that go on throughout the first three-quarters of the race, and then there are going to be a lot of guys who just have to race at the end. If you wreck, you won't make the next round. If you don't wreck, you will advance."

While Gordon and Kahne are in the top eight in Chase points, their Hendrick Motorsports teammates, Jimmie Johnson, the six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most-popular driver, are in a must- win situation at Talladega in order to advance into the next round.

After finishing 40th at Kansas and then 17th at Charlotte, Johnson is 11th in standings. He trails Kahne by 26 points.

"Points are still on my mind, although I think that's a closing door or a fading opportunity," Johnson said. "My real opportunity is to win at Talladega to advance."

Earnhardt is also 26 points behind Kahne following his finishes of 39th at Kansas and 20th at Charlotte. Earnhardt is a five-time race winner at Talladega, with his most recent victory there in the fall of 2004. He won the first restrictor-plate race this season, the Daytona 500.

"We can do it," Earnhardt said. "We have won there a lot of times. I know what we need to do. We will just have to build a fast car and hope that we don't have any gremlins and try to go out there and win it."

Kenseth and Keselowski are each in dire need of a win at Talladega to move on in the Chase. Keselowski, the 2012 series champion, is 19 points in back of Kahne. He placed 36th at Kansas and then 16th at Charlotte.

When the series last raced at Talladega in May, Keselowski received a lot of criticism from his fellow competitors for his aggressive driving.

Keselowski triggered a 14-car accident when he spun out with 52 laps to go. Kenseth was involved in that crash. Earlier in the race, Keselowski caused a wreck when he bumped into Danica Patrick while the two were battling for the lead.

"Every wreck is a byproduct of Talladega," Keselowski said on May 4 at Talladega. "That's just the track we're on but racing hard. Everybody wants to lead laps, and everybody wants to run up front. Certainly, I wanted to get my laps back and have a shot to win at the end. The only way I was gonna do that was by being really aggressive at the front half of the field."

Hamlin, who is 16 points ahead of Kahne, has fears about Keselowski at Talladega.

"My guess is that (Keselowski) will probably try to wreck everyone," Hamlin said. "That's his only shot. He'll just be out of control like normal. We'll do what we have to do to get in, and that's the big picture."

Charlotte had its share of drama, but Talladega is likely to have more. It should be lots of fun.


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