Photo: Gregg Ellman for Chevy Racing

Drivers Left Wondering “What If?” After Missing Playoffs

By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor

Heading into Saturday night’s regular season finale at Richmond, it was win or go home for the drivers sitting outside of the top-16 prior to the Federated Auto Parts 400.

Ultimately, none of those drivers on the outside looking in were able to capitalize by the time the checkered flag flew and will head home without a shot at the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship and wondering what they could have done over the first 26 races to change their fortunes.

Among the big names that missed the playoffs include Joey Logano, who was never able to recover from his encumbered win from the first Richmond race, Erik Jones, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Clint Bowyer.

Joey Logano

Finishing the season 19th in points, Logano would come up one position short of a playoff berth after finishing second on Saturday night. In the days leading up to the race, Logano noted that “Second place is a failure when you look at the goal this week. It is win or nothing.” Unfortunately for him, that’s exactly how things would play out over the course of the race.

Logano would start the night in 12th place and showed some of the same speed that propelled him to the win in the first Richmond race, finishing the first stage in sixth and improving to fourth by the end of the second stage. From that point on, Logano was in striking distance of the lead, but just could never get close enough to make something happen. Even with the late race caution and restart, Logano remained fourth before the two cars ahead of him wrecked to allow him to move up to second.

That wreck would also bring out the yellow that ended the race and his championship hopes were gone, marking the first time Logano has missed the playoffs since 2012.

“It stings a little bit,” said Logano. “Last time we were sitting here after a race, it was after a win, and this time it’s after a second, which overall if you look at our Richmond overall for a season with the two races, you’d say, that’s pretty good, a first and a second.  But just overall, obviously it stings to come up one spot short and not be able to get into the playoffs.  It is what it is.  It’s reality, and we will move on. This is the test of our character, not only as a driver but as a team and the way we handle these next 10 races.”

“We don’t want to roll over.  We want to help our teammates try to win a championship, and ultimately, we want to win 10 races.  That’s what the goal is at this point.  It may be the end of our championship run this year, but it’s not the end of our season.  There’s still a lot of races and a lot of stats we can rack up to make up for what still hurts right now. It is what it is.  Like I said, we were close.  I said before the race, second is a failure, and we finished second.  Go figure.”

Erik Jones

Erik Jones, the standout rookie, has been close to breaking through for his first win on a few different occasions this season, but overall, the Michigan native hasn’t been able to accumulate enough points to make it into the playoffs on points, meaning Jones would be among several drivers that only had a shot at making it in should he win at Richmond.

Just as he has done throughout the season, Jones ran strong throughout the night after starting 10th, finishing the first stage in seventh and climbing to fourth place by the end of the second stage. On the final restart, Jones would find himself inside the top-five, but would wind up missing a shift and dropping back to just outside the top-10. Even with the setback, Jones still managed to move back up to sixth place when the checkered flag flew.

Leaving Richmond, Jones resides in 18th place in the standings.

“I was hoping we’d try to make it three wide and make something happen, you know,” said Jones. “We were just going to have to bully our way to the front and unfortunately we just didn’t get the chance. I just missed third gear and messed up. I mean, I don’t know if I’ve ever missed a shift before. It’s just really disappointing. I really hate it for my guys and hate that we didn’t at least get a shot at it. Would have loved to go after it, but the SiriusXM Camry was good all night. We were a top-five car all night. We just didn’t quite find that last little bit of speed we needed, but had the restart we wanted – had the shot we wanted – just didn’t work out.”

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

It’s safe to say that 2017 hasn’t gone to plan for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., with Richmond marking his last chance to be able to make the playoffs with a win. Earnhardt has struggled throughout the year, finishing in the top-10 only four times, with his last top-10 coming back in June at Sonoma. So, Saturday’s race was going to take a Hail Mary for him to be able to punch his ticket to the playoffs and provide a storybook ending for the regular season.

Earnhardt would have his work cut out for him after starting 21st, but a strategy call in the last 100 laps propelled him into the race lead and had a caution come out during his 13 lap stint up front, things could have worked out for NASCAR’s most popular driver.

The caution would never come, forcing Earnhardt to pit road, and giving up the lead. Ultimately, Earnhardt would end the day in 13th place, but he remained optimistic about the run he had and the ability for his team to be able to make something happen over the next 10 weeks.

“We had a great car,” said Earnhardt. “I thought our car was really good.  That is the way we should have run all year.  So, apologize to our fans that we are even in this situation that we are in tonight.  We believe in ourselves and we should have been locked in before we got here, but it wasn’t a great season performance wise, but we’ve got 10 to go.  Tonight, showed us that we can certainly run well if we work hard and so we will see if we can get a few more good runs, maybe a win, you never know, never know, just got to keep going. Talladega is a race track that anybody can win at, but we will keep plugging away and see if we can’t have some fun before the end of the season.  It was a fun night though.  It was great to run with the leaders, run up front, we haven’t done that in a long time.”

Clint Bowyer

As for Clint Bowyer, an early exit from last weekend’s race at Darlington put him even further behind the eight-ball heading into Richmond, making it a win or go home race. Despite the long odds ahead of him, Bowyer was still optimistic that his No. 14 team could get the job done when it mattered the most.

“We know it isn’t going to be easy, but I’m never going to give up and nobody on this No. 14 team will give up until the checkered flag flies Saturday night,” said Bowyer. “Ever since we began the season, we’ve said we needed a win to get into the playoffs. That’s our mindset this weekend.”

“If I had to pick a track where I think we can get a victory, then it might be Richmond. The old girl has been good to us in the past and it would be pretty cool if she could treat us well one more time.”

But when the green flag flew at Richmond, the track treated Bowyer and his team anything but well.

Bowyer, who has finished second three times this season, would start the day in 13th place and eventually worked his way up to the top-five, but pit road would be his nemesis throughout the night.

On two different occasions, pit road penalties would drop Bowyer down the running order, all the way to 35th place at one point. Along with the penalties, Bowyer also suffered damage to his car on pit road when the field had to avoid an ambulance at the pit road entrance, just adding insult to injury.

From that point on, Bowyer just did his best to limp home and would finish the race in 24th place, marking his third straight finish of 19th or worse.

Even without a shot at the title, Bowyer and the others that missed the playoffs will look to make some noise and play spoiler over the next 10 weeks as they still have race wins to try and capture.

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.