NASCAR: Plenty of Excitement for Chase Bubble Drivers in Watkins Glen Thriller

Luke KrmpotichContributor IIAugust 15, 2011

WATKINS GLEN, NY - AUGUST 15:  Denny Hamlin crashes the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota into the tire barrier after an incident in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen at Watkins Glen International on August 15, 2011 in Watkins Glen, New York.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

For Chase bubble drivers, there were two huge winners in the wake of Monday's rain-delayed wreckfest at Watkins Glen International.

First, Brad Keselowski received a huge boost in the standings after his runner-up finish. He nearly won the race, but got passed by Marcos Ambrose during the penultimate lap.

More importantly, Keselowski moved up four positions to 14th in the standings, the highest he's been all year. He is now comfortably within the top 20, 24 points ahead of Martin Truex Jr. in 21st place.

The only driver between 11th and 20th with multiple wins, Keselowski is almost assured of a wild card berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

Second, the Chase hopes of Dale Earnhardt Jr. shot upward following his surprising 14th-place run. It was Junior's best finish at the track in six years. Combined with the bad luck of Tony Stewart, Junior's solid finish bumped him up to ninth in the standings.

Junior is now 36 points clear of Clint Bowyer in 11th place, nearly a full-race cushion with four races to go before the Chase. Nothing is assured, but things are looking good for Junior Nation right now.

Several drivers saw their Chase hopes take a dive in the aftermath of Monday's mayhem.

Previous 2011 winners Denny Hamlin, Paul Menard and David Ragan were each involved in serious accidents and finished 28th or worse.

Ragan fell out of the top 20 completely after a last-lap crash. He dropped to 23rd in the points after being listed as high as 13th a few weeks ago.

For him to make a run to the Chase would require not only a second victory but a couple of other strong finishes as well. He's only five points behind Juan Pablo Montoya in 20th place, but he has no room left to spare.

In addition, one has to suspect Ragan is on the hot seat at Roush Fenway Racing. Another finish outside the top 20 in points could spell the end of Ragan's Cup ride with RFR, despite his July victory at Daytona. Jack Roush has up-and-coming drivers such as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne who are ready for a full-time ride in Cup, and Ragan could be on the way out.

Denny Hamlin endured a rough afternoon, taking a severe hit when his brakes failed on Lap 65 going into turn 1. He finished the afternoon in 36th place, falling to 12th in the standings.

However, Hamlin didn't lose much ground to fellow wild card candidate Paul Menard.

Menard lost a tire with five laps to go while running 14th, and finished a disappointing 32nd. He did pick up four points on Denny Hamlin but could have cut the deficit a whole lot more. Menard leaves Watkins Glen trailing Hamlin by 27 points for the second wild card spot.

Tony Stewart also fell in the standings, surprising for a driver for whom a top-2 finish is ordinarily a virtual guarantee at the Glen (Stewart had top-2 finishes, including five wins, in seven of the previous nine races at the track).

However, even Stewart wasn't immune to the wrecks which marred the late stages of the race, as he got caught up in the last-lap wreck and finished 27th. With the bad result, Stewart slipped to tenth place in the standings, 25 points in front of 11th-place Clint Bowyer.

Speaking of Bowyer, his Chase hopes—which had seemed to fade in recent weeks—received a double lift at Watkins Glen.

He made up considerable ground toward reaching the top ten in points. Prior to the race, he was 41 points behind tenth-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. Now, he is just 25 points behind new tenth-place driver Tony Stewart.

In addition, Bowyer moved ahead of Denny Hamlin in the standings and now could insert himself into a wild card spot with a win in one of the upcoming four races. Bowyer is a previous winner at Richmond, so it certainly could happen.

Even though the Chase drivers remain the same after the race as they were at the drop of the green flag, it was an eventful race for Chase bubble drivers. The final four races of the regular season promise to provide plenty of excitement.