The first stanza of NASCAR’s version of musical chairs ends Saturday.
When the music stops for the final time after the checkered flag falls at Richmond, there are going to be a lot of drivers left singing the blues, watching helplessly as their respective seasons just went down the tubes.
They’ll likely commiserate with their team members, maybe even with other drivers who also fell short, and lament about what might have been, what woulda/coulda/shoulda happened and how the final 10 weeks of the season will mean little – other than maybe getting a start on preparation for 2016.
Even if by some miracle the 27 drivers that fall short of the Chase for the Sprint Cup are able to win a race in the Chase, it’s not going to count for much, as the highest any non-Chase driver can finish the 2015 season is 17th.
Win or no win.
I don’t know about you, but when fans or media look at the 2015 final standings five, 10, 20 or more years from now, they’re likely going to see all the drivers that missed the Chase and finished 17th or worse and come to the conclusion that it must have been a mediocre season at best.
Unless they somehow pull off a last-minute, Hail Mary-type win at Richmond on Saturday and earn the 16th and final Chase spot, that list of drivers who – for one reason or other – underperformed in 2015 will include drivers like Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, A.J. Allmendinger, David Ragan, Sam Hornish Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick.
I don’t know about you, but that’s a pretty stout list of driver talent in my book, regardless if they ultimately missed the Chase.
Coming up with a reason why they fell short is a multi-faceted answer. It starts with too many bad races, too many mistakes within the team (particularly on pit road), too many mechanical failures and, yes, too many wrecks.
Or, to say it more succinctly, when the final history of the 2015 season is written, the tale of those drivers will be a compendium of countless reasons for failure that ultimately morphed into one underlying theme for each of them: being in the wrong place at the wrong time – and far too many times.
Sure, the domination by drivers like Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano during the first 26 races didn’t help. They had the right cars, the right teams, the right luck and – unlike their unluckier counterparts – were in the right place at the right time when it mattered the most.
And they did that over and over. Now, they’ll reap the rewards of their good fortune in the first 26 races by battling it out for the championship when the 10-race Chase starts next week at Chicagoland Speedway.
Which leads us to the second stanza of NASCAR’s musical chairs. Or, for those of you who may be old enough to remember the 1960s group Herman’s Hermits, to borrow a line from one of their most popular songs (Henry the VII), for the 16 Chase drivers it will be “Second verse, same as the first.”
Sure, winning a race or two or three in the Chase will certainly help each driver’s quest to advance through the three elimination rounds.
But just like during the 26-race regular season, the 16 Chase drivers must continue to dance with what got them to this point. Now is not the time to become overly aggressive or to try and push the envelope.
If a driver who has a top-10 car – but not a winning car – in any of the upcoming Chase races decides to push his luck and fails, giving up what was likely an assured top-10 for what ultimately turns out to be a 30th place or worse showing, he has no one else to blame but himself if such a move winds up costing him the championship.
Sure, a race win in the Chase is the cherry on the cake. But when there are only 10 cherries to go around, prudence, patience and – most importantly – common sense are what’s going to wind up leading a driver to the Sprint Cup crown.
Kevin Harvick showed that last season en route to his first championship, as did runner-up Ryan Newman, who hasn’t won a race since the 2013 Brickyard 400. But Newman finds himself in the Chase again because he also followed that same formula as Harvick did.
Denny Hamlin just didn’t have the car to win the championship in last year’s season-ending race at Homestead-Miami, but he got the best out of it that he could – even though he fell short at the end.
Joey Logano, on the other hand, fell victim to a costly mistake on pit road in last year’s season finale and it cost him the championship. You can bet his team won’t make the same mistake again if it reaches the final race this season.
So as we prepare for Saturday night’s race at Richmond, one game of musical chairs will be ending, while another one – worth more than $10 million to the eventual winner – will begin.
This is one game of musical chairs that most definitely isn’t a child’s game, indeed.