Notes: Who Is Feeling Heat? Who Is Getting Better?
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on July 8, 2014 | 3:57 P.M. EST
Austin Dillon holds the final spot for the Chase with eight races left until the field is set. (Photo: Getty Images)
Aric Almirola’s win last weekend at Daytona International Speedway not only returned the No. 43 car to Victory Lane for the first time since 1999 but put the heat on the No. 3 car and Austin Dillon to make the Chase.
Almirola is the 11th different driver to win, leaving five spots available for the Chase. If there are not 16 different winners, the remaining Chase spots will be based on points.
With five spots currently available via points, Dillon holds the last spot that would advance to the Chase. Matt Kenseth leads the non-winners with 580 points. He is followed by Ryan Newman (534 points), Paul Menard (516), Clint Bowyer (509) and Austin Dillon (494).
Four drivers are within 12 points of Dillon heading into Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Greg Biffle trails by four points with Brian Vickers 10 points behind Dillon. Kyle Larson and Kasey Kahne are each 12 points behind Dillon.
“You’ve got to be able to gain through a race,’’ Dillon said after his fifth-place finish at Daytona. “You can’t just maintain.’’
With eight races left until the Chase field is set after Richmond, it’s a good chance there will be more different winners, which would leave fewer spots for non-winning drivers. If so, Dillon will have to climb higher in the points - if he doesn’t have a win - to have a chance to make the Chase.
Kurt Busch’s third-place finish marked his fifth consecutive top-15 finish, a sign of a turnaround.
Busch, who joined Stewart-Haas Racing in the offseason, and rookie crew chief Daniel Knost have had their struggles this season. While they won Martinsville, Busch had six finishes of 30th or worse in the first 12 races.
The issues that slowed them previously are disappearing.
“There's some times when a driver and a crew chief hit it off and they're off to the races right away,’‘ Busch said. “Daniel and I have been slower to mature together in our relationship, and so we're 18 races into our first date. Now we're going into the second half of the season, and all of our first dates are done.’’
It’s not just their improved relationship that has led to better performances.
“It's nice that we've shown speed on all different types of tracks,’’ Busch said. “I can't really pinpoint one thing other than just working through some of the aerodynamic balance changes we've made to our car since around the Charlotte race as well as we built up enough notes on what we were doing wrong to steer a different direction.’’
NASCAR announced Tuesday that it had docked Busch 10 points, fined crew chief Daniel Knost $10,000 and penalized Gene Haas 10 car owner points for an infraction discovered after the race.
Can Clinch Chase Spot
Any driver with multiple victories who leaves New Hampshire Motor Speedway 337 points ahead of 31st in the points will clinch a spot in the Chase.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. enters the weekend with a 368-point lead on 31st in the standings and should clinch a Chase spot unless he has a bad day.
Jimmie Johnson has a 340-point lead on 31st, so if he maintains that - or loses no more than three points on 31st in the point standings, he would clinch a Chase spot.
Brad Keselowski has a 330-point lead on 31st in the point standings and could clinch a Chase spot by topping the 337-point threshold.
Points leader Jeff Gordon would clinch a spot with his second victory of the season.
Goodyear had six drivers testing Tuesday at Richmond International Raceway. The tire test continues Wednesday. Those testing are Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Cole Whitt, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson and Aric Almirola. Goodyear’s next scheduled test is Aug. 26 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.