CHARLOTTE, N.C. – And then there were five.
Five spots, that is, still up for grabs in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Among those jockeying for one of the coveted berths is Martin Truex Jr., who gamely finished third Sunday night at Atlanta while driving with a broken right wrist.
Truex had to drive through the field from 18th after an unscheduled pit stop with just more than 100 laps remaining to check on a potential loose wheel. Most impressive was this: Truex’s cast appeared to be melting late in the race.
“The cast just inside my hand here got all soft,” he said. “You can see it moves real soft like there’s nothing there and it’s kind of broke right here between my thumb. It hurts like hell when you’re in there just steering the car.
“When you’re steering back and forth here and you’re out of control and you’re holding on and you’re sawing on the wheel and all the tires, it felt like every time I moved it, somebody was hitting it with a hammer.”
But Truex, with one win on the season and 13th in points, is in decent shape headed into Richmond, where the Chase field will be decided Saturday night. He’s holding down the second wild card, while Kasey Kahne has clinched at least the first wild card because he’s got two wins.
Not in as a great a position is four-time Jeff Gordon, who is winless on the year and still trying to sneak inside the top 10 in the standings. He moved a notch closer Sunday with a sixth-place finish, but trails Kurt Busch by six points for the 10th and final spot.
Based on the aggression Gordon showed early and often Sunday at Atlanta, he’ll be charging hard at Richmond after a spot in the Chase.
There was some post-race tension between Gordon and Carl Edwards that apparently began when Gordon slid in front of Edwards early in the race to claim position. It triggered hard racing between them for the remainder of the race that Gordon tried to discuss with Edwards after in two different conversations.
“I have a problem with a guy when I apologize for sliding him and he proceeds to tell me all the things that I did wrong in the race,” Gordon said after the first conversation with Edwards. “I didn’t hear him apologizing for any of the things that he did. I tried to have a regular conversation and that didn’t seem to be possible with him.”
Edwards was angry that Gordon cut him off early in the race.
“We don’t agree on what happened and finally he got frustrated enough with the conversation that he just walked away, which might be smart,” Edwards said. “He just slide-jobbed me and I thought it was really out of character for him and I didn’t understand what was going on there. I did everything I could not to wreck us both.”
The two had a second conversation in the motorhome that seemed to satisfy both on how they’ll race each other at Richmond. Edwards is already locked into the Chase field but every position will count for Gordon, who will be battling with such winless drivers as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Busch, and defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski for a spot in the Chase.
None is in as much trouble as Keselowski, who is poised to become the first defending champion since Tony Stewart in 2006 to fail to make the Chase the year after winning the title.
Keselowski, who was already on dangerous ground, dropped to 15th in the standings Sunday night when his engine failed 18 laps from the finish. He’s now 28 points out of 10th, winless on the year, and could miss the Chase even if he wins Saturday night at Richmond.
“We don’t dictate our own fate, which is never good,” Keselowski said. “Obviously, we have the speed and performance to get there, but we haven’t put together the execution or the luck. There’s only so much you can control.”