When Kyle Petty blew his top Sunday at Dover, berating Denny Hamlin and reaching into his car to slap down the younger driver's helmet visor, some wondered why the veteran was so angry.
It’s true Hamlin hit Petty from behind and knocked him into the wall, but what does Petty have riding on in these late-season races that brought on a case of road rage?
He isn’t part of NASCAR’s Chase for the Nextel Cup championship, and he hasn’t been close to a victory since the last of his eight career wins in 1995 at Dover.
Even so, the longtime stock car competitor has a lot riding on every lap the rest of the way, just like Hamlin, one of the 12 drivers in the Chase.
“Right now, every race is important for everyone for different reasons,” Petty said.
“You can’t spoil any good runs and our team’s total focus is on having good races. For us, as we’re looking at it right now, this top-35 battle is going to go all the way to Homestead.”
What Petty was talking about is NASCAR’s rule that assures the teams in the top 35 in the car owner points a starting spot in each Cup race. For those outside the top 35, there are only eight spots up for grabs in qualifying each week, and one of those could go automatically to a former series champion who doesn’t make it on speed.
Beyond that, with the end of the season looming, everyone battling to stay in the top 35 knows that the final standings of this season will carry over for the first six races of 2008.
Heading into Kansas Speedway this week for the third of the 10 Chase races, Petty’s No. 45 Dodge is 34th in the owner standings, 83 points behind rookie Johnny Sauter’s No. 70 Chevrolet and one point in front of the No. 21 Ford driven by Ken Schrader in the transfer spot.
Dave Blaney’s No. 22 Toyota is 36th, 105 points behind, followed by the No. 10 Dodge of Scott Riggins, a distant 236 points out of the all-important top group.
Blaney, the top Toyota entry this season, had a disastrous result at Dover, failing to qualify for the race. It’s the first time this season that the Bill Davis Racing driver has failed to make a lineup.
Meanwhile, Schrader had his own problems in the race, but finished 26th and gained points.
“For us, it was a bit more about survival and if nothing else,” Schrader said.
“But we made up some more ground in the points in spite of everything. And we’ve just go to keep pushing hard.”
Blaney has the same attitude.
“Obviously we need to find a way to put what happened last week in Dover behind us and concentrate on this weekend in Kansas,” he said.
“We’ve been working so hard to get inside the top 35 in points and we’re disappointed that we gave so many points away last week because we really thought we could catch the No. 21.
“Lucky for us, everyone that we’re chasing had some problems, so it’s not over yet. This Caterpillar Racing team is pretty tough. Everyone has been through a lot these past couple of years and we all still show up fighting every week. We believe we have what it takes to be competitive week in and week out; we just have to make it all come together.”
Although Blaney isn’t out of contention for the 35th spot with seven races remaining, Petty looks to be fairly secure. But the pressure remains.
“There are some guys that are racing Kansas Speedway this weekend knowing it has implications for Daytona and the beginning of 2008,” Petty said.
“That’s a reality, and we happen to be one of those teams right now.
“I owe it to my team, my sponsors and myself to race as hard as I can. ... Can we get ahead and be out of that circumstance by Homestead? Yeah, we can. But, right now, we are working hard to earn every point and move forward.
"It’s obvious that Dover wasn’t meant to be, but we’re focused on Kansas right now. You are 15 steps behind if you’re not looking to the next race. Our attention is on Kansas.”