Chase contenders Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick both received major body blows this weekend to their hopes of winning the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
Incidents during the Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 at the half-mile Martinsville Superspeedway on Sunday afternoon left Keselowski and Harvick many laps down after lengthy repairs for damage and ultimately classified in 31st and 33rd places respectively.
In Keselowski's case, the setback came with just over 60 laps remaining in the race, when the #2 Penske Ford suddenly lost drive and ended up sparking a multi-car incident. The driver initially radioed the team to tell them that the rear axle had failed, but the crew eventually diagnosed a gear issue instead. They carried out impressively fast repairs but it still left Keselowski 28 laps off the leaders by the time the chequered flag came out.
"It's not the day we want by any means, but the guys did a great job," said Keselowski. "They put a gear in this car in 28 laps at Martinsville - that's pretty phenomenal. But it was just unfortunate the way the day played out.
"We were doing the things we needed to do. We were surviving. We were gonna probably have ourselves a fifth or sixth-place day, which is certainly something we could be proud of and move forward with, but this kind of puts us in a position now where we need to win," he summarised. "This Chase lends itself to those moments and we're a team that's capable of them, so we'll try to be as positive as we can and move forward with two more opportunities to do just that."
Keselowski, who received an early pit lane speeding penalty that put him at the back of the lead lap 169, said that the problem that wrecked his race hopes hadn't been caused by earlier contact on one of the race's 15 different caution periods.
"No, just a part failure," he insisted. "I was just talking with [Penske competition director] Travis Geisler and there's no explanation behind it. They'll go back home and do their CSI stuff and figure out why."
The poor result at Martinsville was especially galling for Harvick, who after qualifying in a disappointing 33rd place on Friday afternoon had turned things around in practice on Saturday and emerged as one of the fastest cars on track in the race, quickly working his way into the top ten and looking very much in contention for the outright race win - until disaster struck when he was knocked into a spin by Chase rival Matt Kenseth on lap 226.
The #4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet suffered damage to its oil cooler and radiator, which was a major repair for the team to carry out in the garage. They finally got Harvick out in time to pick up a few extra places and points despite finishing the race 33 laps off the lead.
"Everybody was so worried about us starting in the back and we wrecked at the front. Unfortunate," sighed Harvick. "The good thing about this format is you have two more weeks and two race tracks that we can win on."
Among other drivers no longer in the Chase, reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson also hit problems. He was forced into an extra unscheduled pit stop on lap 102 after reporting a severe vibration on the #48 which put him a lap down, and shortly afterwards Johnson ended up running into the back of Casey Mears' car as the field was compressed in the wake of an accident for Reed Sorensen. The impact damaged the front end of Johnson's car and he ended up 41 laps down in 32nd place by the end of the race.
Another Hendrick driver, Kasey Kahne, failed to finish the race after being one of the cars caught up in Keselowski's accident. It had already been a torrid time for Kahne who had got into an escalating cycle of revenge attacks with Michael Waltrip Racing's Brian Vickers after an initial incident between the pair on lap 160.
"I didn't see anything, and I was following the #78 and I see him start to hit his brakes and by then it was way too late.," said Kahne of the accident that put him out. "I didn't really have a clue that anyone was stopped up there. You can't see through the cars so just ploughed in there about as hard as you can at Martinsville about half way down the straightaway."
As a result of his retirement from the race in 40th position, Kahne has fallen three places in the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship standings to 14th position. Johnson meanwhile has dropped two spots and is currently in 12th place.
The remaining two Hendrick drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, had significantly better luck at Martinsville, with Earnhardt winning the race by a margin of 0.344s from his team mate. A win for Gordon would have secured the four-time Cup champion an automatic place in the line-up of four drivers who will be racing for this year's title at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 16, but the lure of a first-ever win at the half-mile 'Paperclip' was too tempting for Earnhardt to give up.
"This is very special to me because I love racing here," said Earnhardt. "I have come here since the early 80's as a kid, never missed a lot of races here and always wanted to win here. I grew up in a house that had a Grandfather Clock in it from this place – and I get to take one home today," he added, alluding to the unique nature of the trophy that the winner of a race at Martinsville gets to take away.
"The good news is that a Chase driver did not win the race today," said Gordon. "Finishing second isn't as big of a deal today, it's actually really a good finish and good points day compared to if a Chase driver would have won. I wanted to get that win to get ourselves locked in, but we have two more great tracks coming up and yeah, today was a great overall effort by the whole team."
The fact that Martinsville was won by a driver no longer in Chase contention means that only two more races remain at Texas at Phoenix for title contenders to secure themselves a guaranteed spot in the winner-take-all season finale at Homestead. As a result, at least two of the drivers in the finale will be decided on the points standings going in - and right now, it's Gordon in control on that side of things.
For Keselowski and Harvick, however, it's looking like only a win from one or both of the next two rounds of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will do if they're to stay in the running for the title.
Sprint Cup Series championship - Chase standings
1. (+6) Jeff Gordon 4044pts
2. (+1) Ryan Newman 4041pts (-3pts)
3. (-2) Joey Logano 4040pts (-4pts)
4. (+1) Matt Kenseth 4039pts (-5pts)
5. (-1) Denny Hamlin 4037pts (-7pts)
6. (--) Carl Edwards 4024pts (-20pts)
7. (+1) Brad Keselowski 4013pts (-31pts)
8. (-6) Kevin Harvick 4011pts (-33pts)
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