History says that those beneath the cut line should be nervous. They have just two opportunities to dig themselves out of this hole.
Multiple Chase drivers were dissatisfied with their runs at Chicagoland. From Kevin Harvick in 42nd all the way to Kurt Busch in third, Chasers all across the board were left with a sour taste in their mouths after the checkered flag. In the case of Harvick, he took his frustration out on Jimmie Johnson.
Strong runs spoiled by late caution
For Jeff Gordon and the Busch brothers, their finishes are far from indicative of the way of they ran.
The elder Busch had built up a comfortable lead over Jeff Gordon late in the race when a caution for debris changed the entire dynamic of the race with less than ten laps to go. He was one of just three drivers who stayed out on old tires, but it may have been a lose-lose situation for Kurt. The driver who was able to get by him and take the win on the restart was Denny Hamlin - a driver on the same strategy.
"This Chevy was fast - it was fast enough to win. When the caution came out there at the end, I thought we had the right strategy, but we didn’t.
"We weren’t given a hall pass now, through Loudon and through Dover. We’ve just got to work hard as a team and saddle-up.
"We had a winning car today. It’s kind of a shame."
Kyle Busch led 121 of 267 laps Sunday, more than any other driver. The handling on the No. 18 machine got away from him towards the end of the race, causing him to fall further and further from the lead. A late-race call for fresh tires was diluted by a bad restart, leaving him with a ninth-place finish.
Jeff Gordon led 41 laps himself, well more than in his 16 previous races this season combined. He restarted on the front row for sprint to the finish, but quickly dropped back after spinning his tires. Despite an unrepresentative finish, he felt "encouraged" by the No. 24's performance at the intermediate track.
"I was just trying to hold pace with Kurt. I knew I had Denny behind me on old tires as well, so I was somewhat encouraged by that. He got a good run on me, I blocked him, he's pushing me down to the apron and I felt like I did a good job. I just came up off the apron a little too early and he just went right on by me. Once I got three wide, I knew it was over at that point, was just trying to save this awesome racecar.
"I’m pretty frustrated that caution came out and we didn’t capitalize on that last restart, but I’m highly encouraged about how great our car was today.”
On the outside looking in
For the above three drivers, they may not be thrilled with their results, but it could be worse. They could be one of the bottom four and needing to play catchup at New Hampshire or face elimination at Dover.
Those unfortunate four are currently Jamie McMurray (-3), Paul Menard (-4), Clint Bowyer (-6) - and to the shock of everyone - Kevin Harvick (-22). Harvick crashed after contact with Jimmie Johnson cut down his left rear tire.
McMurray and Menard are both new to the Chase and struggled to perform all day at Chicagoland, finishing 16th and 17th. It was the same case for Bowyer and Michael Waltrip Racing in 19th. Another lackluster run at New Hampshire will likely end their chance of advancing beyond the first round - they can't afford for anything else to go wrong.
Last year, three of the four drivers below the cut line after Chicago stayed there until they were ultimately eliminated. The same situation occurred during the second round of the Chase and in no round did any driver make up 22 points in the time span Harvick now faces without winning.
The reigning series champion certainly has a difficult hill to climb, bringing up the rear in 16th place. The two races that stand between him and Round 2 aren't his best historically, despite strong performances at both tracks earlier this year. Even back-to-back top fives may not be enough if trouble doesn't befall those he is chasing.
Despite the added pressure, Harvick isn't concerned: "We can win anywhere – we could have won today. It’s just a matter of putting a couple days together and come back to Victory Lane."
With the points as tight as they are though, it's hard to realistically say that anyone (sans Hamlin) is safe at this point, but if the short history of this Chase format is any indication, those who found themselves in a hole after today have reason to be concerned.