TALLADEGA, Ala. — Two feet.
While visually it was a small margin on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, that difference was made much larger than what it might appear for two competitors following the Hellman’s 500, the final race in round two of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and an elimination race for the 12 championship contenders that entered the day hoping to remain in playoff contention.
Entering the highly anticipated event, just two drivers — six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick — were guaranteed a spot in the next round of NASCAR’s postseason by virtue of their wins earlier in the round at Charlotte Motor Speedway (Johnson) and Kansas Speedway (Harvick).
Behind them in the standings, 10 drivers were facing and hoping to avoid elimination at the unpredictable 2.66-mile track.
Among them were Richard Childress Racing hotshoe Austin Dillon and 2016 Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin, both seeking advancement to the next round and hoping to continue their quest for a first Sprint Cup championship.
Dillon, following a sixth place finish at Kansas last week, entered the elimination race at Talladega tied with Team Penske’s Joey Logano for eighth — the final position needed to advance to the next round — on the Chase Grid.
Hamlin, however, entered on the outside looking in, sitting ninth in the standings before the 500-mile marathon at the Talladega, Ala. track, six markers behind Dillon and Logano.
Keeping their position in the standings on their minds, both Dillon and Hamlin raced into Talladega and, up until the final 100 feet, had no idea whether their championship hopes would be crushed or revived.
With Logano capturing the checkered flag in dominating fashion and Martin Truex Jr. losing his position on the Chase Grid due to an engine failure, Hamlin and Dillon were left to decide the final transfer spot.
On the final circuit, coming through the tri-oval on the frontstretch, Hamlin was able to sneak pass Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kurt Busch (official margin at the line between the two was .006 thousandths of a second) — which proved to be a crucial pass and the deciding factor in keeping Hamlin’s championship hopes alive.
Making the pass, Hamlin was scored third on the scoreboard. Dillon, on the other hand, was relegated to a ninth place finish.
Six positions was the difference, meaning the six point swing (current points system is one point per position) in the standings) created a tie between the two championship contenders, Dillon and Hamlin.
Due to having the best finish in the round between the two (third at Talladega), Hamlin was credited with the eighth position in points, eliminating Dillon from championship contention.
“We did everything we could,” Dillon said. “It just wasn’t our day, today. The good Lord had another plan for us and we will be back stronger next season. It’s just disappointing when you tie [and] the tiebreaker went to him (Hamlin). It’s part of it [the Chase].”
Hamlin, on the other hand, said he had no knowledge about the Chase standings on the final circuit. But, he did know he needed every position he could get in the closing stages.
“Mike Wheeler [crew chief] let me know with about 10 to go or so that if we were to tie, I needed to finish fifth or better in the tie breaker,” Hamlin expressed. “That played no role in the final lap [though]. I had no idea where I was. I just needed to get every position that I could. I knew that my best opportunity was to push [Brian Scott].”
“Then coming off of turn 4, I was indecisive on whether I wanted to block the top line or bottom and I almost got stuck in the middle. Luckily, [Kevin Harvick] cut me a break and got us back down and that allowed me to surge past [Kurt Busch] right at the line, which come to find out, we really needed that spot.”
Securing the final transfer spot, Hamlin joins Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth in the upcoming round.
“This is really the first true Chase fortune that I have ever had in my 11 year career,” Hamlin concluded.
On the flip side, while eliminated from championship contention, Dillon is now more motivated than ever to contend for his first-career Sprint Cup Series win in the final four races.
“Four tracks left. Just want to finish in the top 10 in points,” Dillon expressed. “Obviously that would be very great. If we can do that, that would be successful. But sure stinks to miss it by a tiebreaker. But thankful for the opportunity that I’ve been given and we’ll keep working.”
About the Writer
Marshall Gabell is the Mid-Atlantic Correspondent for Race Chaser Online, and handles public relations needs in multiple outlets of motorsports, including for tracks and drivers. Gabell is currently attending Stephen Decatur High School in Ocean City, Maryland, completing his junior year. He is just 16 years old.
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