By Rick Minter
As NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series drivers head into the toughest 12 weeks of the season, some drivers, like Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano, are hot, while others, like five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, are not.
Kenseth emerged from some mid-season doldrums to score a strong win at Bristol Motor Speedway Saturday night, giving him five wins for the season, which translates to 15 bonus points when the standings are reset after the Sept. 7 race at Richmond International Raceway.
Johnson, on the other hand, has the series points lead heading into Sunday night’s AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but he’s had a rough month. Since his runner-up finish at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 28, he’s seen his points lead over second place drop from 75 to 18. In the past two weeks he’s had finishes of 40th and 36th, due to a blown engine at Michigan and a crash at Bristol.
For Kenseth, in his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing, his Bristol performance — especially holding off Kasey Kahne at the end even though Kahne had fresher tires — has him feeling a sense of momentum heading into the final two weeks of the regular season and on into the Chase.
“I think this [Bristol] weekend was huge for us,” Kenseth said. “Even if we would have run second and got beat at the end … at least for me, it would have been a very encouraging weekend. It would have been a shot in our arm, like man, we had all our speed back.
“Hopefully that gives you momentum. The next 12 weeks are the most important 12 weeks of the season, so I feel like: Approach every race the same. Go out with the idea of trying to qualify the best you can and prepare like you’re going to go try to win the race.”
For Johnson, it was another missed chance to get some mojo of his own going as he heads into the Chase. His points position has him locked into a Chase berth, but winning the regular season offers no reward come Chase time, as all 12 Chase drivers start with the same number of points, plus three bonus points for each regular season win for the top 10.
“This racing stuff happens,” Johnson said. “Luckily, we had a big points lead that we can kind of deal with right now. We certainly want to clean things up and have some great finishes rolling into the Chase. We’ll keep after it, and be back again next week.”
But he said the most important thing is what happens during the Chase.
“Once the Chase starts, it is its own animal. So we’ll just wait and see what happens during those 10 [races],” he said.
Logano also appears to be gaining steam at a good time. He followed up his Michigan win with a powerful run at Bristol, where he bounced back from an early crash and drove his patched-up Ford to a fifth-place finish.
“That was the hardest-fought top-five I’ve ever had in my life,” Logano said. “We deserve to make this Chase, and if we keep doing this on days that they’re trying to put us down, we deserve it.”
Since finishing 40th at New Hampshire on July 14, Logano hasn’t finished worse than eighth and has moved from 18th in the standings to 10th.
A late-race melee at Bristol put a damper on the Chase hopes of several drivers on the bubble of securing a berth for the title run.
Logano’s teammate, reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski, was among those collected when Brian Vickers and Denny Hamlin collided with 53 laps to go. Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman also were involved, as was Kevin Harvick, whose Chase spot is all but assured due to his position in points, fourth, and the fact that he has a win this season.
Keselowski dropped three spots in points, to 11th, four behind Logano. Truex dropped from 12th to 14th in the standings. Newman returned to the track and drove his damaged racer to a 21st-place finish, which left him 15th in the standings.
Kurt Busch dropped from ninth to 12th in the standings after losing laps while a damaged hub was replaced on his No. 78 Chevrolet, but he’s just six points out of 10th place.
Among those who held their own or gained, points-wise, at Bristol were Greg Biffle, who finished ninth and moved from 10th to ninth in points, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was 10th at Bristol and remains seventh in the standings, but stretched his margin over 11th place from 20 points to 33.
“That 20 points really had me pretty nervous,” Earnhardt said. “Hopefully, if we can put a good one together next week, something similar or better than this, we will definitely go to Richmond a lot more comfortable.”
For Newman, whose best chance to make the Chase appears to be through a wild card berth made possible by his victory in the Brickyard 400, every single point is important.
“We need to score maximum points at each race,” he said. “Even on nights like [Bristol], it’s important that we don’t give up. We’ll keep fighting until the final lap at Richmond.”