-- The greatness that was race No. 25 at Darlington is in our rearview mirror. But what I see ahead through the windshield is undoubtedly the most important race of the year for several drivers.
The old adage "you're only as good as your last race" carries more meaning for those on the bubble, or sitting on the outside looking in, as we prepare for the final regular-season race of the year.
All who watch NASCAR racing can easily identify with their favorite team -- drivers experiencing the highs and lows of a season, or winning versus losing, if you will. But what you probably can't identify with is the pressure being carried not only by the drivers but by the crew chiefs, crew members and owners.
I spent time in Darlington crossing paths with old friends and colleges, and the pressure on them is enormous. I've lived this life, and there are moments that I cherish and occasionally miss. But I don't miss feeling what I saw on the faces of so many in the garage, in the transporters and on pit road last week.
These people entered February with a dream of competing for a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. For so many, it comes down to this one last race.
Jamie McMurray will secure his spot in the Chase by taking the green flag Saturday night. Don't underestimate McMurray, this team, or owner Chip Ganassi. The No. 1 team could be this year's Ryan Newman, emerging as a title contender as the field narrows.
Ryan Newman: It seems like a decade ago this team got nailed with a 50-point penalty for bleeding air from its tires. In the face of that adversity, the group channeled its focus and effort toward regaining its place in the playoffs. Well, these folks have all but done it -- if they finish 31st or better, Newman is in the Chase.
Jeff Gordon is safe and will make the Chase, unless disaster strikes. And this is where the mechanical aspect of racing haunts race team employees. There is still risk, and it comes in the form of a broken valve or a faulty valve spring or an engine overheating or a loose wheel.
Everyone on the No. 24 team has skin in the game as it relates to sending Gordon out with a playoff appearance in his final season. Hendrick Motorsports' engines are outstanding because their employees are outstanding. But it's safe to say many are sleep-deprived this week.
Paul Menard deserves a tip of the cap for orchestrating the quietest march of all drivers into this year's Chase.
Clint Bowyer is good enough to win a title, but needing to secure a job to achieve that goal. The greatest risk for the No. 15 team has nothing to do with the car or the driver and has everything to do with distraction. Most of these employees are competing while looking for employment. That's a poisonous combination that often leads to mistakes or failures.
Kasey Kahne needs to go to Richmond, say "to hell with it" and air it out. It's Hail Mary time, and Kahne has the ability to make it happen.
Roush Fenway Racing had all five teams in the Chase in 2005. A decade later, all three of the team's drivers will miss the Chase unless a win materializes in Virginia on Saturday night. Jack Roush is someone I've admired for most of my adult life. He's a great leader and a no excuses, no-B.S. type of person. I'm puzzled, disappointed and somewhat confused by the decline of this great company.
The Bottom Line
We associate September with the Chase and direct the majority of our attention at those having had the best year as having the most to race for. The fact is, most in the sport have something on the line this week, next week and next month. They might not be battling for a title -- though oh how much fun would that be! They might be fighting for a job, a new sponsor, an investor or something even more immediate.
I've lived September, October and November as a NASCAR driver, and almost always recognized it as the most important third of the season in terms of helping understanding your progress or evaluating your team. It's a completely different feel from the first third of the season, which feels fresh and opportunistic. These last 13 races can be summarized as urgent, critical or even desperate for most involved.
At this point in my life, I no longer miss this time of year, from a competitor's perspective, but I sure enjoy it from my view as an analyst for ESPN!