NASCAR’s days of des­per­a­tion

Driv­ers un­der pres­sure to get into post­sea­son

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Auto Racing - By John Small­wood

Some­times, ev­ery­thing can change in the Mon­ster En­ergy NASCAR Cup Se­ries in less than a sec­ond.

En­ter­ing the Coke Zero Sugar 400 last Satur­day at Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speed­way, Erik Jones had one top-five fin­ish in the pre­vi­ous 17 races. He was shak­ily in a play­off spot.

In a sea­son in which vic­to­ries have been rare for driv­ers not named Kevin Har­vick, Kyle Busch or Martin Truex Jr., Jones ap­peared to be in a mix of around 20 driv­ers who would bat­tle for the 10 re­main­ing play­off spots for the Race for the Cup af­ter the 26-race reg­u­lar sea­son.

Har­vick, Busch and Truex had com­bined to win 13 of 17 races. Clint Bowyer, Austin Dil­lon and Joey Logano were the only other au­to­matic play­off qual­i­fiers be­cause of vic­to­ries.

The way Busch, Har­vick and Truex have been driv­ing, there is a real pos­si­bil­ity that, for the first time since NASCARin­sti­tuted the play­offs in 2004, fewer than 10 driv­ers would earn play­off spots from win­ning a reg­u­lar-sea­son race.The other play­off spots are de­ter­mined by the points stand­ings.

Jones, who had never won in his first 55 Mon­ster En­ergy races and qual­i­fied for a pole po­si­tion only once, was 14th in the stand­ings but not by a se­cure mar­gin. Then Satur­day hap­pened and the point stand­ings no longer mat­tered for Jones.

On a wild night in Florida when only 20 of 40 cars fin­ished and the race ran eight over­time laps, Jones, 22, passed Truex on the 168th and fi­nal lap and held on for vic­tory by a 0.125-sec­ond mar­gin.

Jones’ first ca­reer Mon­ster En­ergy vic­tory got him one of the cov­eted spots for the play­offs. The rest of the reg­u­lar sea­son still mat­ters, but Jones is the sev­enth driver who knows he will at least have a shot at the Mon­ster En­ergy cham­pi­onship.

Get­ting a win to se­cure a play­off spot is a dif­fer­ence maker. If play­off bids were de­ter­mine­donly by the point stand­ings Dil­lon, who won the sea­son-open­ing Day­tona 500, would not make the field.

The pres­sure to win a race is build­ing. Ricky Sten­house Jr. ticked off many rac­ers Satur­day, get­ting credited with in­sti­gat­ing two of the eight crashes. NASCAR had a se­cu­rity pa­trol with Sten­house as he left the garage.

Sten­house, who is in 17th place in the play­off stand­ings, of­fered no apolo­gies for his role in the chaos.

With eight races left, it’s not un­rea­son­able that any­one from Aric Almirola, who is in 12th place in the stand­ingswith a 96-point cush­ion from the cut line, down to Daniel Suarez, who is in 20th at 108 be­low the cut, could find the right com­bi­na­tion of points gained and points missed by oth­ers to find their way into the play­offs.

Erik Jones broke through last week­end in a wild race at Day­tona for his first NASCAR vic­tory in the 56th start of his ca­reer.

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