Craig Murto: Earnhardt, Kenseth must win

Craig Murto

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth must win at Talladega if they are going to keep their Sprint Cup title hopes alive.

Of course, only one person can win at the Alabama superspeedway on Sunday, and nothing guarantees it will be either Earnhardt or Kenseth. This is the type of drama we’ve come to expect with this new Chase to the Sprint Cup format.

Both Earnhardt and Kenseth put themselves behind in the first race of the 12-driver “contender” round at Chartlotte Motor Speedway. They are at the bottom of the standings after Kansas, and the only way to ensure that they move into the eight-driver “eliminator” round is if they win on Sunday.

Winning is just what Matt Kenseth had in mind at Kansas. He led the most laps and was leading the race late in the going until contact from Joey Logano spun him around and dealt a severe blow to his title hopes.

While many blame one driver or the other for the contact at Kansas that sent Kenseth spinning and led to a disappointing 14th-place finish, it was just racing; racing resulting from the pressure of the Chase format.

Kenseth came into to Kansas needing a win to move ahead. The team prepared for it, and, especially on long runs, he appeared to have the best car.

But after a late-race caution Logano was right there, knocking at the door for the win and obviously quick on short runs.

Sprint Cup races are not easy to win. No driver is going to give up a chance of victory for any reason. The fact that Logano already qualified for the next round in the Chase due to his win at Charlotte meant nothing at Kansas; when you have a chance to win a Sprint Cup race, you take it.

But Matt Kenseth knew he had to win. He had no choice, and he had to do everything in his power to ensure his victory, even if it meant blocking Logano and taking him to the wall a couple times.

Blocking is often frowned upon. Anyone who’s watched this sport can think of at least a couple times Tony Stewart had dumped people for blocking him. Logano had had enough once he scraped the wall the second time, and when Kenseth lifted in the corner Logano let his bumper say, I didn’t appreciate being blocked.

The resulting spin ended Kenseth’s chance for victory. Logano survived the final restart to take his second win in a row and 13th of his career.

The excitement at Kansas was just racing. If anyone is to be blamed, blame NASCAR for creating a new points system that puts so much pressure on the drivers that they race harder than many people have seen in years.

Logano had a chance to win a race. And he was blocked more than once, resulting in a couple scrapes on the wall. There’s not a single driver in the Sprint Cup garage who wouldn’t have reacted the same way: Kenseth dished it out, he’d better be able to take it.

Matt Kenseth knew that victory at Kansas was perhaps his best and only chance to move forward in the championship. He knew that his job was to keep Logano behind him, in any way he could.

Both drivers were doing their jobs as best as they could, at the best of their abilities. This is what the Chase is all about.

Matt Kenseth may not be happy right now. But he knows he was blocking. And he knows he wouldn’t tolerate being blocked that way. It’s natural for him to be unhappy after losing the race with the dominant car.

Up until that point the race was fair. Not the best, not the worst. It was the same thing at Charlotte the week before; the real interest was how the race affected the Chase contenders. The 2015 rules package doesn’t exactly lend itself to great racing, especially on these mile-and-a-half racetracks. But the drivers have to perform, and that creates the real excitement.

Thank you for the new Chase format, NASCAR. Just don’t mess with it right now, it’s certainly not broken. Every race counts, and drivers push their abilities on each lap. Next year, with the low-downforce package, should be incredible.

Talladega should be an incredible race on Sunday. Can either Earnhardt or Kenseth avoid “the big one” and race their way into the Chase? We’ll see.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.