Kurt Busch was in a position to minimize the damage. After fighting an ill handling race car for most of the afternoon, he had clawed his way into the top 10 on Sunday at the Pepsi Max 400 at AutoClub Speedway.
Then, disaster struck another Chaser.
Coming off of turn four with just seven laps to go, David Ragan swept up out of the corner and squeezed Busch into the wall. It was the first multi—car incident of the day, and the only one that mattered to the driver of the Miller Lite Dodge.
“With 20 to go, it looked like we were going to come out of here with a solid top-10 finish, but it was not to be,” said a disappointed Kurt Busch afterwards. It was a solid finish after a not—so—solid day dashed within sight of the checkered flag.
That wreck cost Busch at least 34 points in the standings provided he had just finished 10th instead of 21st. The points margin now is 140 between him and leader Jimmie Johnson. It’s much more daunting than a manageable 106.
For the second week in a row, and for a second Busch brother, a non—chaser has badly damaged title hopes.
Last weekend at the Kansas Speedway, Kyle Busch was running seventh when David Reutimann took a retaliatory strike in response to a perceived bump earlier in the race. The accident damaged Kyle Busch’s car enough to take him out of contention for the win, relegating him to a 21st place finish.
The accidents, and the results, seemed eerily similar. Both brothers were taken out of presumed top—10 finishes and dealt damaging days points wise. One was accidental, the other intentional, but in the end the outcome and message was the same.
Good runs won’t separate you from the pack in the Chase, but bad runs can be lethal.
When you’re in the Chase, most guys you’re racing for the Championship run up front. There are gains to be made by finishing a couple of spots ahead of the points leader, but on a day where six Chasers finish in the top 10 (including the top five in the points standings), a 21st place finish is a killer.
The guys at the top of the standings have made their living racing in the top 10 every week. That’s how they got in the Chase to begin with. If you find it difficult to race in their world, you can’t be the Sprint Cup Champion. It’s just that simple.
That’s why Talladega has become the wild card.
With huge packs and wild swings in position during a plate race, it’s easy for a Chaser to find himself mingling with non—chasers: Drivers with different agendas battling for the same piece of real estate. The results can be a disaster for someone trying to avoid the bad run and escape with a top—10 finish.
Recently, I advocated a points system that would minimize the points damage during incidents like the last two weeks (http://bleacherreport.com/articles/482110-nascars-kyle-busch-david-reutimann-could-help-re-invent-chase). It would keep non—Chasers from being able to dramatically impact the points standings either by accident or intention.
If NASCAR is going to make the Chase a 12 driver run to the finish, let’s compare how they run and not how they dodge the wrecks precipitated by drivers running on a different agenda. Let’s not make this Championship about who can dodge the wrecks, but a true contest between the 12 drivers.
As it stands now, a little wreck with a little damage might mean a little loss, but a big wreck with big damage can mean a big loss. The points difference can simply be a function of the severity of the accident, often times at the hands of a non—Chaser.
Guys who didn’t make the Chase have their own prizes: collecting wins and getting as close to 13th in points after Homestead. Either of those goals provide a great stepping stone for next year.
But along the way, they might damage the chances for someone who’s time is now.
Two weeks in a row, with separate incidents, a driver outside the Chase has severely damaged a Chaser's shot to take down Jimmie Johnson. It will happen again. This Sprint Cup Championship may just be decided by the guy who can dodge the bullets.
Maybe we should find a way to crown a Champion who doesn’t do the best job of dodging the worst, but who stands tallest among the best of the best: his other Sprint Cup Championship contenders.