Friday, February 23, 2018
Sports

NASCAR'S playoff picture could create an unlikely villain

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still experiencing dizziness and concussion-like symptoms. Unfortunately, that's not the only thing that is fuzzy in NASCAR these days.

Check out the new math for the Chase.

Chris Buescher's game-changing Monday victory at Pocono in a race cut short by 22 laps because of rain and fog has created the ultimate wild card. Bravo for Buescher, who scored his first Cup victory and now stands in excellent shape to steal a Chase spot. Boo if you are a NASCAR traditionalist, upset that an outlier is in position to steal a Chase spot from NASCAR's favorite son.

But it's just not Junior who is in peril.

Assuming Buescher finishes in the mandatory Top 30 to get in and no current non-winners triumph in the remaining five regular-season races, there would be only four Chase spots in play based on points. Junior is 20th in points, but winless drivers like Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson have to be feeling a little queasy too. They are holding onto the last three available spots.

All Buescher needs to do to secure a playoff slot is move up from 31st to at least 30th in the points standings over the remaining five races.

To be clear, Buescher deserves praise. NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing-development officer Steve O'Donnell called it a "tremendous story."

It leads us back to mixed blessings. As good as one feels cheering for the unlikely participant in the Chase scrum, the reality is that Buescher — a one-man show for Front Row Motorsports — would face overwhelming odds making it out of the first round.

One and done. See ya.

And if he bounces Junior or Elliott out of the postseason qualifying grid of 16, then he just becomes a villain in this narrative: A sport that cherishes Junior is very much warming up to Elliott, son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott.

"This is gonna change our whole year right here," Buescher said after the race.

Nobody was handicapping that Buescher would end up in Victory Lane. He had never finished higher than 14th in 20 previous Sprint Cup starts and his Front Row Motorsports team hadn't won in 118 starts.

Buescher and crew chief Bob Osborne were banking on bad weather by staying out when most of the rest of the field pitted with 28 laps to go in Pocono. The weather gods rewarded the gamble.

"He's a good guy, great driver and I know how hard those guys have worked. I've been able to talk to Bob a little bit," Carl Edwards said about his former crew chief. "That would be — I don't want to say, 'It's neat,' because we want to win — but I'm happy for them."

That is the consensus. But it's like robbing a bank and getting away with it on a legal technicality.

This doesn't compare to the situation with Martin Truex Jr. last year with the one-team Furniture Row Racing. Truex made it to the Final Four because his car was strong. He became the first driver since Richard Petty in 1969 to start a Cup season with 14 top-10 finishes in the first 15 races.

Buescher had only three Top 20s in 20 races before Pocono. But all you need is one. Buescher got his on Monday.

It's up to all those other guys to match him if they can.

— Orlando Sentinel (TNS)

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