By Aaron Bearden, Contributing Writer
With 40 laps remaining in Monday’s Pennsylvania 400, it looked like Kyle Larson might finally be en-route to his first-career Sprint Cup Series win and an automatic berth in the Chase.
Instead, after a shocking fog-shortened victory for Chris Buescher, Larson find himself just holding onto playoff contention as the Chase bubble begins to burst.
Larson’s strong run at Pocono Speedway ended in a sixth-place finish after the race was called following 138 of the planned 160 laps for fog and inclement weather. The performance kept the third-year driver 15th in the standings, 20 points ahead 16th-place Kasey Kahne and in the preliminary Chase grid. However, Kahne’s no longer Larson’s biggest worry.
Instead, it’s Buescher.
Buescher, the defending champion of the XFINITY Series, found himself outside of the top 30 in the points going into the weekend, and that stayed true following the race even with his surprise victory. However, the points gained with Buescher’s win elevated the rookie to within just six markers of 30th-place David Ragan with five races left in the regular season.
If Buescher can close the gap and work his way into the top 30 by the end of September’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway, the rookie’s No.34 Front Row Motorsports Ford will carry a yellow nameplate as a Chase contender. The Texan would join Tony Stewart as drivers outside of the top 16 in points to win their way into NASCAR’s playoff, which would leave only four Chase positions open to winless drivers on points, knocking another driver out of the playoffs
As things currently stand, that driver would be Larson.
“If we do get going and we finish somewhere in the top five it’s a great points day for us, but if the No. 34 happens to win this thing it’s still decent as far as points go, but it just eliminates one more spot for us to try and get in,” Larson said under the red flag. “Right now that would put me back out of the Chase. We would just have to work really hard. I have some good tracks coming up for me, but it’s always nice to be in the Chase and padding that point’s behind you.”
In his third year with Chip Ganassi Racing, Larson has risen from outside of the top 20 to 15th in the series standings over the last month. However, the former USAC star trails four winless drivers – Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman, Chase Elliott and teammate Jamie McMurray – on the championship table. If Buescher can make his way into the top 30, Larson will need to pass at least one of those drivers to secure his first Chase bid.
Doing so won’t be easy. Richard Childress Racing teammates Dillon (+41) and Newman (+29) both sit fairly safe on the Chase grid. as does Elliott (+25) despite his recent struggles.
The most likely competitor Larson can hope to pass is his teammate, McMurray. Despite occasional signs of speed in top-10 runs at Michigan, New Hampshire and Kentucky, recent struggles at Daytona, Indianapolis and Pocono have kept McMurray on the bubble as the summer rages on. Larson currently trails the 2010 Daytona 500 winner by just nine points and has been outperforming him in recent weeks.
However, even if Larson makes his way past McMurray, there’s no guarantee the Californian will make the Chase.
With five races remaining, including a wild card of sorts with the road-course race at Watkins Glen International, there are still myriad opportunities for another driver sitting outside of the bubble to race their way into the playoff. Drivers including A.J. Allmendinger, Ryan Blaney, Kasey Kahne and potentially even Dale Earnhardt, Jr., will be searching for a victory to keep their championship hopes alive.
No driver without a win can feel safe as things stand. If Buescher can crack the top 30, then none of the winless drivers sit more than a race’s worth of points ahead of the bubble, and as Elliott’s downward spiral since June has proven it doesn’t take long to drop with poor performances.
The Chase bubble continues to be a strong topic of discussion as the playoff approaches, and Buescher’s win adds yet another layer of intrigue to the story. The bubble will continue to be something to keep an eye on until the field is set next month at Richmond.
Chase Grid Post-Pocono
- Kevin Harvick (1 Wins, First in points)
- Brad Keselowski (4 Wins, -22)
- Kyle Busch (4Wins , -75)
- Carl Edwards (2 Wins, -83)
- Jimmie Johnson (2 Wins, -132)
- Matt Kenseth (2 Wins, -140)
- Kurt Busch (1 Win, -51)
- Joey Logano (1 Win, -97)
- Martin Truex, Jr. (1 Win, -132)
- Denny Hamlin (1 Win, -133)
- Tony Stewart (1 Win, -356)
- Austin Dillon (-160)
- Ryan Newman (-172)
- Chase Elliott (-176)
- Jamie McMurray (-192)
- Kyle Larson (-201)
17. Kasey Kahne (-20)
18-19. Ryan Blaney/Trevor Bayne (-28)
20. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (-36)