Originally Published: July 7, 2014

A Dream Come True For Almirola

Sprint Cup: Clock ticking for Chase hopefuls

By Brant James | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- That he's running out of time in the Sprint Cup regular season is disconcerting enough for Brian Vickers. Losing 48 precious laps that could have fundamentally changed the course of his season on Sunday was worse.

Maybe the Michael Waltrip Racing driver would have rallied from second and claimed his first win of the season on Sunday in the Coke Zero 400, virtually securing a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth with eight races left until the playoffs. With the probability of more wrecks like the 16- and 26-car melees earlier, and the presence of ever-denied perennial restrictor-plate contender Kurt Busch, maybe not.

But losing that full 160-lap chance, and watching Aric Almirola parlay his first Cup win into a ticket to the playoffs left Vickers "shocked" that NASCAR didn't attempt to wait out the storm and finish the entire race.

Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesBrian Vickers, for one, had hoped the rain-delayed Coke Zero 400 at Daytona would go the distance.

"Obviously, the fewer spots there are, the intensity picks up for the guys in that position," said Vickers, who is 16th in the driver standings, 10 points from a Chase spot. "You know, I think every week you go to every race trying to win and knowing what's at stake if you do and what's at stake if you don't. The closer to the Chase you get, the more that intensity is going to pick up.

"Our job is to go out there and try to win next weekend. We came close this weekend, but the weather didn't work in our favor, and that's that. We've just got to get on with it and go to next week."

Seven different drivers won races in the first seven events, fostering fanciful notions that one win might not be enough to earn a postseason berth in the new system. Sprint Cup's customary victory-accumulators began doing just that soon thereafter, however, and defending series champion Jimmie Johnson was the most recent first-time winner six events ago at Charlotte.

Now with a dwindling amount of races until the regular-season cutoff at Richmond, a new winner, and more importantly, an unexpected winner like Almirola, given that he has five top-5s in 125 Cup races, is certain to cause anxiety for drivers attempting to gain Chase entry via points standing. Sixteen will qualify for the postseason, with first deference to winners.

Almirola's win winnowed the points-position transfer spots to five, with Roush Fenway's Greg Biffle -- who finished 29th after being involved in an accident -- ejected from the field on Sunday at 15th in the driver standings. Currently, Matt Kenseth (fifth in points), Ryan Newman (eighth), Paul Menard (10th), Clint Bowyer (12th) and rookie Austin Dillon (13th) would advance on points. That drivers ranked 21st (Almirola) and 24th (Busch) in points have earned Chase spots with wins is potentially devastating to drivers on the periphery.

"We jumped from 18th to 13th in points," Dillon said after a fifth-place finish on Sunday. "There's less positions now, but [we've] just got to stay consistent."

Biffle is four points behind Dillon, rookie Kyle Larson and Kasey Kahne 12 back.

The win was monumental for Richard Petty Motorsports, which could put its entire driver lineup in the Chase if Marcos Ambrose can nab a third win in four seasons at Watkins Glen in August.

"We were just talking in Victory Lane, we've been fretting over the fact that, man, if we wouldn't have wrecked here and if we wouldn't have wrecked here and if we wouldn't have wrecked here and we wouldn't have had this happen, we'd probably be like 11th or 12th in points," Almirola said. "Well, you can't go back and you can't fix that, but this fixes everything."

Or in several drivers' cases, potentially ruins it.


Full plate, empty plate for Kurt Busch

With 11 top-5s, 14 top-10s and a valiant push of former Team Penske teammate Ryan Newman to a 2008 Daytona 500 victory, Kurt Busch held the dubious distinction of best restrictor-plate racer without a Sprint Cup plate points win even before leading a race-high 39 laps and finishing third on Sunday in the Coke Zero 400.


In 28 starts at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, Busch has won a Bud Shootout, and in Nationwide. He's finished second in the Daytona 500 three times. He even won an IROC race at Talladega. Busch has plate racing figured out, seemingly, except for the part that matters most to drivers. And he appeared profoundly dejected on Sunday, not that rain cost him 48 laps to make things right, but that he didn't exploit yet another opportunity. Busch and Aric Almirola exchanged the lead twice in the final 23 laps before the eventual winner took the top spot permanently on Lap 106 of an eventual 112 in a race truncated by rain.

"I've got to go to the videotape," Busch said. "I've got to go back and study more. When I'm the leader, I have to advance my game. I have to be better at blocking and strategically managing the race as a leader. I've been really good at seconds and thirds, top-5s, just got to break through for that win, and I believe I need to do more work to get better at it."

Film study would seemingly go only so far in a vein of racing so dependent on the actions, reactions and mistakes of opponents. Clever plans are easily undone by a bobble at 200 mph when cars race inches apart.

"You have to be in position to make mistakes or you have to be running up front more often to learn from it," Busch said. "You can't learn by dragging around in the back waiting for wrecks to happen. You learn by leading and getting shuffled out of the lead, and then trying a different approach to stay in the lead and to be able to make your car as wide as you can at certain spots and to make others have to rethink their strategy. The chess game definitely comes into play more so when you're the leader than anything else."

There could be more disappointment afoot from Sunday. NASCAR announced a possible problem with the "track bar splits" on his Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 Chevrolet that would be further assessed by the series.

Brant James

Contributor, espnW.com
Brant James has covered the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, a World Series and Stanley Cup for the big hometown daily, an NCAA tournament and a Super Bowl. He's walked to the paddock with Kentucky Derby horses before post, ridden to the top of Mount Washington with Travis Pastrana and landed on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr.


Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.