By Jason Schultz /@NASCARJason – The AAA Texas 500 highlighted the importance of each race during the Chase for Sprint Cup. With the points closer than ever and only four drivers advancing to the finale, near perfection is required to be among the Championship 4.
This led to a thrilling race that tested the tenacity of the remaining eight contenders. The excitement was produced without any controversial moments, unlike the previous three races. It was clean, competitive and captivating – the perfect storm for a great race.
The high stakes of this style of racing prevailed on Sunday as many contenders battled adversity and were challenged late. This led to an intense finish that built anticipation for the Eliminator Round finale in Phoenix.
While this format has produced drama off the track, the kind created in Texas was derived from the competition. It started early when Joey Logano cut down a tire and spun on Lap 10. This caused significant damage to the rear end of the car, forcing the team behind the wall for an extended period of time.
After Martinsville, the No. 22 AAA Ford team couldn’t afford this. The Chase provides the chance for redemption if contenders find trouble. However, teams must work hard towards recovery as a victory is required to remain alive.
Crashing once allows for two shots at making up the lost ground, but wrecking twice puts an immense amount of pressure on a team. This is the situation the Middletown, Connecticut native finds himself in with one event remaining in the Eliminator Round.
After sweeping the Contender Round, it appeared as he would cruise to the finale. The team never expected to face a 63 point deficit heading into Phoenix.
The one advantage? Their focus revolves around winning. The downside? Capturing a victory is a challenging feat that will require perfection in the desert.
Kevin Harvick entered the afternoon sitting comfortably inside the top-four. Having exceled on the 1.5-mile tracks throughout the season, it seemed as the No. 4 Budweiser team was in for another stellar performance.
While they showed strength, it was as they recovered from two blown tires. The first incident occurred on Lap 36. After seeing the damage done to Logano’s machine, Harvick nursed the car around under the third caution to avoid making a costly trip to the garage.
He was able to limit the damage and remain competitive. By Lap 108, he returned to the top-five and was once again racing among the leaders.
However, another cut tire forced an unscheduled pit stop with 54 laps remaining. This seemed much costlier at the time with the race nearing the finish. However, the final round of pit stops and a late caution worked in their favor.
This allowed the team to reemerge at the front and contend to regain his position among the leaders. Harvick ended up finishing third, a solid result for a team that battled adversity throughout the afternoon.
Heading to Phoenix, their confidence is sky high. Last November, they entered needing a win and scored the victory to advance to Miami. This time around, they are currently in on points and will need a consistent performance to return to the Championship 4.
Considering his history at the track including four consecutive victories, it’s likely they will advance in style by capturing the victory next Sunday.
Brad Keselowski hoped he would lock up his place among the Championship 4 on Sunday with an incredible performance. However, a late race caution served as a game changer and stacked the field up one final time.
This erased the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion’s lead and allowed other competitors to contend for the victory. Jimmie Johnson had not battled Keselowski throughout the race but emerged in the closing laps.
By passing the blue deuce, Johnson drastically impacted the championship picture. Without scoring an automatic bid to the finale, it returned Keselowski to 19 points below the cutline. One position on the track prompted this change, highlighting the importance of wins and emphasizing the tightness of points in the Chase.
Now the Team Penske driver essentially finds himself in a must-win situation heading to Phoenix. He joins teammate Logano and Kurt Busch who are also in this boat and will be eyeing Victory Lane throughout the weekend.
With three drivers fighting over one spot, it will surely be a thrilling show on Sunday. While their championship chances depend on a victory, the other four who can make it in on points will also chase the win as they can eliminate the points factor all together.
It’s going to be a wild showdown in Phoenix. The importance of a win on Sunday will rival the meaning behind crossing the finish line first in Miami. This race offers the potential to advance to the finale and have a shot at the championship, marking the highest stakes of the season.
One race. Three spots in the championship race. It all comes down to Phoenix.
Photo Credit: Tom Pennington