LOUDON, N.H. — With eight races left before the 12-man field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship is set, it would stand to reason the drivers among the top 10 would want to maintain their positions in Sunday’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301.
But as Dale Earnhardt Jr. suggested, now is not the time to play it close to the vest. It’s time to take a gamble. Second in the standings, 25 points behind Matt Kenseth, Earnhardt arrived at New Hampshire Motor Speedway feeling as if he’s playing with house money.
“I think we feel with the lead we have on 11th place in the points and the amount of races left, I feel like we can [gamble],’’ said Earnhardt, driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet, who snapped a four-year drought with his victory last month at Michigan.
“We aren’t going to gamble foolishly, but we can go the opposite route that we went at Pocono the past race,’’ Earnhardt said, referring to the eighth-place finish that preceded his win. “We can do what everybody else did and maybe try to win that race instead of making sure we had enough gas to finish in eighth. We could try to win that race.
“I like what we did up to this point and maybe now we can take some gambles.’’
Clearly, the drivers vying for the two wild-card spots will have to take some proactive measures to improve their chances for a berth in the 10-race Chase. If the Chase were to start Sunday, Kyle Busch (12th) and Joey Logano (14th) would lock up the wild-card spots.
Ryan Newman (15th) and Kasey Kahne (16th) remain in contention by virtue of victories at Martinsville and Charlotte, respectively.
Among those winless drivers among the top 20 desperate to bolster their wild-card chances include a pair of former championship contenders: Carl Edwards (11th) and Jeff Gordon (17th).
“Obviously, our season hasn’t gone the way that we had hoped it would,’’ Gordon said. “We’ve shown a lot of speed. We’re capable of leading laps and we just haven’t come up with the results. These next several weeks are obviously crucial for us.’’
Edwards enters Sunday’s race 31 points behind 10th-place Clint Bowyer. Edwards’s best efforts of the season are a pair of fifth-place finishes, which has added to his sense of urgency.
“I have to be careful with it, though,’’ Edwards said. “Whenever you go lunging out there and do things that are really risky, there’s a reason people don’t do a lot of that stuff because there’s big potential for a downside.
“I think if we were close to a win here this weekend it would be very, very hard not to really just go for it. We need a win bad, but at the same time we still have enough races that if we just run solidly and run like we know we can, I think we’ll march into the top 10 on our own merit just with points. So, I’m not quite to that point yet, but ask me again at Richmond.”