|12/03/15||The Champion By NHMS Numbers|
|11/20/15||The Championship Four Preview|
|11/13/15||Phoenix: Three To Watch|
|10/30/15||Martinsville: Three To Watch|
|10/18/15||Kansas: Three To Watch|
|10/05/15||Charlotte: Three To Watch|
The writing should have been on the wall when NASCAR postponed Sunday night's race through the Monday holiday by scheduling an unusual Tuesday morning start.
For the majority of fans in Atlanta that meant they'd have to head back to work or school or other commitments and wouldn't be able to watch the race. For those around the country, it meant the same thing.
For Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne and David Ragan, they might have preferred fewer people watched.
You wouldn't want to get dumped at a restaurant, and you wouldn't want your championship hopes dashed in front of a sellout crowd. Nobody likes having their heartbroken in public.
To make the Chase, Kahne needed to finish the final two races in very strong fashion. Sitting in 15th place, he needed to win a race and try to make up 16 points in two races to claim the final wild card spot held by Denny Hamlin.
The No. 4 driver had a strong history at Atlanta Motor Speedway, including two victories. He flexed his muscle early in the weekend by qualifying on the pole, but things went down hill from there.
Kahne couldn't even maintain the lead through the first lap, and while he'd come back to lead 15 laps, his car fell off quickly. The radiator blew up midway through the race, and a return to the track later was more just a sentimental appearance as his Chase hopes were all but over. He finished 34th.
Also in contention was the No. 33 of Bowyer, who entered the AdvoCare 500 in 12th-place in the standings and without a win. Unlike last year, when Bowyer snuck the 12th and final spot from the same standing, this year's wild card required him to have an elusive win. He trailed Tony Stewart by 24 points and would have to finish the race to stay in contention for the Chase. If he won, he'd be much closer to punching his ticket.
Starting the day on the front row in second and passing Kahne for the lead within the first lap, Bowyer had plenty of promise. A few hours later, his hopes were gone. Juan Pablo Montoya got into him and spun him out on lap 241. That knocked him out of the race and, subsequently, knocked him out of the Chase. As the radio broadcast on PRN said, he rolled back out for some ceremonial laps with 15 to go, but finished 82 laps off the pace in 36th.
David Ragan's Chase picture was much clearer than Kahne or Bowyer's. Whereas, the other two were looking for a win and a mathematical advantage, Ragan already picked up a win at Daytona in early July and had no way of gaining a mathematical advantage. He'd since fallen off since his win and was puttering in 21st, two points behind the 20th place cut off for a wild card.
That said, he was just one good run and a stolen win away from leap-frogging into the top-20 and making the Chase thanks to more wins than all but one other (Brad Keselowski) wild card contender. One win, no help, that's all he realistically needed. He just needed to put himself in a position where he could pick up that win (either at Atlanta or Richmond) and stick in the top-20 wild card hunt.
He raced a strong car through the middle of race, but, on lap 249, his engine blew up...and so did his season. He headed to the garage with a 35th-place finish and dashed hopes on a once promising year.
For much of the rest of the Chase field, it also celebrated Tuesday's "Heartbreak Holiday." Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson showed little reason that he won't be adopting the nickname "Six-Time" after the 10-race postseason.
Johnson nearly went a lap down early in the race, but a few hundred circles later, he was the race (and points) leader. HIs Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon, passed him late on lap 276 and fended off Johnson's late push in what ended up being one of the more heart-racing finishes of the year between two of the best series' drivers. As usual, Johnson and the No. 48 team, headed by Chad Knaus, made some pretty tasty lemonade out of their early race lemon.
That finish reminded everyone that despite all the talk about making the Chase, there are still only a few top drivers that week after week put up strong finises to stand a chance come the final race in Homestead-Miami. Even so, while most will remember the Gordon-Johnson battle for the checkered flag, several Chase hopefuls will remember it as the day those dreams were washed away with the holiday weekend's rain.
With just one week left before the Chase field is locked, this coming Saturday's night race at Richmond poses much significance for drivers. It could be a Chase-lock trying to pick up some bonus points for a win, or it could be a wild card trying desperately to sneak the final spot. The only thing that's promised is that, thanks especially to the new system, there will definitely be a few more anxious hearts broken before they turn off the lights late Saturday night.