With only five races to go before the Chase begins, the stakes just keep getting higher. And with that comes tension.
Was Hamlin in the wrong? Definitely.
But after doling out blame, what the final laps at Pocono showed is that drivers are sensing that time is running out; that there aren't many opportunities left to gain points, notch wins and position yourself for one of the 12 spots in the Chase.
While the aggression was certainly evident in the final 30 laps at Pocono, it's only going to ramp up from here, meaning Monday's road race at Watkins Glen International figures to have some fireworks.
"I don't know what it looked like on TV, but it seemed extremely aggressive at Pocono," Carl Edwards said. "From in the car, I saw personally three or four instances where it looked like there was going to be a huge wreck and they just somehow avoided it.
"I believe that that is going to increase the closer we get to the Chase. There's a lot of emotion going on right now. … People are grasping. I think the closer we get to the Chase, the more intense it's going to be."
Said Mark Martin: "You don’t want to be excluded, especially when you feel like that your team has performed on a level where you feel they should be in there. So for about six to eight teams out there it’s going to be sort of a tense time the next five races."
Double-file restarts will no doubt be the height of that intensity. While some drivers have complained about them, there's no arguing the new rule has livened things up. In fact, double-file restarts saved last week's Pennsylvania 500 from being a total bore.
"I believe we have yet to see the truly exciting side of the double-file restarts, which I feel is going to wad up about 15 of the leaders at some of these race tracks," Edwards predicted. "I hope somehow we can get around that, but it's going to happen. It's going to be bad. I don't see it getting any calmer until something like that happens."
Here are five other storylines to watch for on Monday:
1. Which of the bubble boys will be smiling Monday night?
Just 122 points separate Matt Kenseth, who is 11th in the standings, from David Reutimann, who is 16th.
Of the six drivers on the bubble, only Kenseth and Kyle Busch (13th in the standings, 101 points out) have had any cumulative success at Watkins Glen, and Busch is the only one with a top five.
Busch's lone top five came a year ago when he completed the sweep of both road races on the Sprint Cup schedule. It would figure, then, that Busch has the most to gain on Monday.
So who, then, stands to lose the most?
In six races at Watkins Glen, Greg Biffle (12th in the standings) has finished 30th or worse four times. However, he's finished 10th and 21st in his last two races there, so he does appear to be getting better.
"We're certainly not racing conservatively; we're racing to win. But, we're not going to do anything stupid," said Biffle, who notched a solid seventh-place qualifying performance.
"I raced Kyle for position all race at Pocono," he continued. "We were around each other all day. We ended up beating him at the end, but only by one spot. We know we have to stay in front of those guys. It's tight back there, and we're doing all we can do."
2. Will JJ finally win a road race?
Only two things are missing on Jimmie Johnson's lengthy résumé: a win at Bristol and a win on a road course.
Johnson insists he doesn't need either to feel complete. But, at the same time he says he's shocked that wins on certain short tracks and road courses have eluded him because that's where his background is.
Friday, he qualified first, offering further proof that a win on a road course might not be far off.
"It's been kind of that weird thing for me and I don't understand it," he said. "Certainly I hopped in other vehicles; I hopped in a Grand Am car and am on pace with my teammates that are extremely fast and won a championship. So I don't know what it is about the Cup car that I've had some troubles with. But I am getting closer and I think more seat time is helpful."
Indeed, Johnson has had solid results on the road courses. He has three top fives in seven starts at Watkins Glen and even sat on the pole there in 2004. He just hasn't been able to come home with a win.
"I was shocked when I learned that Jimmie hasn't won on a road course because he's as good as anybody," Marcos Ambrose said. "I followed him, and he races me hard and if I'm looking at the list on any week at a road-course race of who's expected to win, Jimmie is on my list. I'm surprised that he hasn't managed to close the deal."
3. Will Jeff Gordon recapture his road-course magic?
There once was a time whenever the Sprint Cup Series hit a road course that Jeff Gordon was everyone's pick to win. But Gordon, who's won nine road races in his career, hasn't won at Watkins Glen or Infineon in three years and hasn't won at Watkins Glens since 2001.
"I feel like you’re only as good as you’re last victory," Gordon said Friday. "We haven't had the kind of success recently at Watkins Glen as we have had in the past."
It's not that Gordon hasn't run well at Watkins Glen. He has. But mistakes have caught up with him. He was taken out on Turn 1 after starting from the pole; two years ago he spun out while leading with only two laps to go.
“It’s just that the margins that you have over your competition are so much less now," Gordon explained. "You can’t get away with some of the things that maybe you used to be able to."
Gordon did not complete qualifying well. He will start 30th on Monday, his worst starting spot ever at Watkins Glen.
4. Will Boris Said be a factor?
Said, a road-course specialist, won't have to deal with traffic getting to the front, not after qualifying ninth. Said's best finish at Watkins Glen is third, which came in 2005 after he qualified 41st.
A fan favorite thanks, in part, to his wild hairstyle, Said is always a contender on the road courses, but he's had a hard time finishing out his solid runs. Poor pit stops or simple bad luck have plagued him.
Earlier this season at Sonoma, Said was running solidly in the top five before he got caught speeding on pit road. That pretty much ruined his day. He wound up 24th.
Monday, however, he won't have the added worry of driving through the field.
"Now it's all downhill," Said said. "I think we have a pretty good car."
Said had a rough day on Saturday. He spun the car into the gravel during the first practice session, then experienced what is believed to be a mechanical issue during the last few laps of the final practice session.
5. Should a road race be in the 10-race Chase schedule?
It's not happening, but with the announcement of the 2010 Cup schedule coming shortly, and with the tour at Watkins Glen, there will once again be those wondering if a road race shouldn't be a part of NASCAR's playoff.
The argument for including a road race is that the champion should be proficient in all types of racing. The Chase already includes a restrictor-plate track (Talladega), three short tracks (New Hampshire, Dover and Martinsville) and five intermediate tracks. The only track type not represented is a road course.
The argument against inclusion is that road races only make up six percent of the entire Sprint Cup schedule, so why should a road course make up 10 percent of the Chase?
When asked Friday if the schedule should be changed – not necessarily to include a road course in the Chase, but just changed – drivers said no.
Tony Stewart did have one suggestion.
"I’d like to see Eldora added to the schedule, but other than that I’m pretty happy with it," Stewart said.
He was joking, of course. Eldora is a small dirt track that Stewart just happens to own.
- Watkins Glen