by Ryan Isley
There will be fireworks Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway. They just might not be in the sky.
With just two races left until the field is set for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a number of drivers know that the only way they will have a chance to compete for a championship will be to somehow find their way to victory lane at either Atlanta or Richmond. It is safe to say that in Atlanta (and the following week in Richmond), there will be desperation in the air. And with desperation comes short tempers.
Drivers such as Kyle Larson, Kasey Kahne, Austin Dillon, Paul Menard and Jamie McMurray are all sitting outside the Chase with little hope of now making it in on points (Larson trails by 26 points with two races left). You also have Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle who would be in on points now but would love to have a win to guarantee their spot. Add in other drivers like Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Martin Truex, Jr., Danica Patrick and others who are trying to make up for disappointing seasons and you could have the making of a story that would lead SportsCenter. Or become an episode of Law and Order.
We have gotten a preview of just how hot under the collar drivers can become when the season enters the stretch run, as there were a couple of heated exchanges on pit road following the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway two weeks ago and again at Bristol Motor Speedway during the Irwin Tools Night Race.
It all started when Ryan Newman confronted Jimmie Johnson after the two raced hard in the last part of the race at Michigan, with Johnson finishing ninth and Newman finishing 11th. For Newman, the finishing position was more important, as he does not yet have a win and might need to rely on points to transfer into the Chase. For Johnson, it was a matter of pride. Plus, saying you finished in the top-10 is better than saying you finished 11th.
The two then used the confrontation for good, as they both did the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. When Johnson did his following the race, he challenged his crew chief Chad Knaus, NASCAR President Mike Helton and Ryan Newman, who he said “might need to cool off a little bit.” Newman accepted the challenge and said it came from “some guy named Jimmie Johnson.”
The other altercation in Michigan was between Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Hamlin was upset because he felt that Earnhardt, Jr. was crowding him towards the wall. It was a claim that Earnhardt, Jr. actually confirmed after the race. That wasn’t the last we would hear from Hamlin and Earnhardt, Jr., however.
During lap 161 of 500 in Bristol this past Saturday night, Hamlin was leading the race when he was spun by Kevin Harvick. Hamlin’s car hit the inside wall and then went back up the track, taking out Earnhardt, Jr. Once he was out of the car, Hamlin took his Hans device and threw it at Harvick’s car as the No.4 passed by him during the caution.
As for Earnhardt, Jr., he was upset but looking forward. You can do that when you are tied with a series-high three wins on the season and are already locked in to the Chase.
We had a damn good car tonight. Real fast. Bristol was rough on us this year. Brand new car next week @amsupdates. We are ready.
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) August 24, 2014
While Earnhardt, Jr. and Hamlin were able to get over the frustration of the wreck since they are both locked into the Chase, it won’t be that easy for those who aren’t should something happen at Atlanta. And you can bet there to be a few run-ins with all that is on the line.
Expect the drama and hot tempers to continue for the next two weeks, if not even into the Chase. It might be a holiday weekend, but something tells me that there are several drivers who won’t be in the in a celebratory mood at Atlanta.