RICHMOND, Va. —
Three drivers entered Richmond Saturday night with a chance to compete for this year’s Sprint Cup Series championship.
Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon and Jamie McMurray all clung to the final three Chase spots in the final weeks of the regular season and didn’t relinquish them to make up the rest of the 2016 Chase grid. Elliott nearly won the Pure Michigan 400 three weeks ago but lost it on a poor restart letting Kyle Larson get by and punch his ticket into the playoffs. Nevertheless, Larson needed the win more than the 20-year-old Elliott who was in Chase contention for almost the entire year.
“Getting in is the first very small step of these last 10 races,” Elliott said. “Obviously, you would rather have won your way in and have a win at this point, but I would much rather win in these last 10 races if I had a choice. We will take it a week at a time. I think we have to leave here with the mentality that we could go to Homestead and give ourselves a chance.”
The No. 24 team has missed the Chase once in its 12 years as the 20-year-old rookie gives the Hendrick Motorsports organization another chance at adding a championship banner to the illustrious career.
“It is definitely exciting,” Elliott said about the Chase. “It is a heck of an opportunity. I’m very happy that we were able to squeak through tonight. I had to overcome a lot of adversity, a lot of wrecking, a lot of problems. It was a wild race for sure. Lucky that some of the stuff worked out the way it did and we were able to get in this thing.”
Austin Dillon joins Elliott as Chase first-timers with a solid 2016 season under the guidance of crew chief Slugger Labbe. The No. 3 car was in position to win a few races this year but solidly makes the playoffs in Dillon’s third year in the Cup Series. Richard Childress Racing has had at least one car make the Chase the last years and had two cars in championship contention in 2015.
Paul Menard’s struggling year and an irate Ryan Newman pointing fingers at Tony Stewart after Saturday night’s race, neither driver breaks into the Chase grid this season. Dillon has been on the brink of victory lane after a hard-fought battle with Kyle Larson at Pocono in August still searching for his first victory in NASCAR’s top series.
“I’m just proud of our effort, our team, everything we went through this year,” Dillon said. “We shouldn’t have been in this situation. We had good enough cars to not have to be in this situation, but, hey, we were in a tight situation down to the end.”
Dillon knew he was racing Chip Ganassi Racing driver Jamie McMurray for a Chase spot with the uncertainty of another driver winning the Federated Auto Parts 400 and breaking into the playoffs on a walk-off win.
That wasn’t the case as Hendrick driver Kasey Kahne took a shot at the top spot, but didn’t get up close enough to throw everything at winning the race similarly to his Atlanta win in 2014.
McMurray back in the Chase for the second-straight year gives both Ganassi cars a shot at claiming a championship on the heels of their first points-paying victory in three years a few weeks ago at Michigan.
“Being able to make the Chase is one of those goals that everybody sets at the beginning of the year,” McMurray said. “When Stewart won at Sonoma and then Buescher won the fog out race or whatever at Pocono and then my teammate, as happy as I was at Michigan, I’m like ‘crap’ that is another spot. It was harder this year to make it. I was top 10 in points most of the year last year and then when I got to Richmond we were locked in. ”
McMurray failed to make the second round of last year’s Chase on a tie-breaker to Dale Earnhardt Jr. by finishing one spot behind the No. 88 Chevrolet at Dover last October.
Since NASCAR’s new playoff system being implemented in 2014, three drivers made the Chase on points for the second time in three years. The field 16 drivers going for this year’s championship is strong as each competitor has had a chance to crack into victory lane throughout the 2016 season.