CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — AJ Allmendinger and Aric Almirola were the underdogs of the Chase, the two drivers nobody thought could win the Sprint Cup championship.
They knew it, too, when they arrived in Chicago and for the first time in their careers were allowed behind NASCAR's velvet rope. They got the white glove treatment in a private dinner with chairman Brian France and his executives, and were whisked around the city during a celebration of the 16-driver field.
Scoring an invite to the party was a coup; not getting kicked out early a major challenge.
"I was laughing at it, (Vegas) made odds for 14 drivers," said Allmendinger, "and me and Almirola were just 'The Field' for the championship. There were 14 names with odds, and then 'The Field' at 500-to-1."
Almirola made the Chase by winning the rain-shortened July race at Daytona, where he gave Hall of Famer Richard Petty his first win in 15 years. Allmendinger used a gritty drive on the road course at Watkins Glen to score his first Cup win and put tiny JTG/Daugherty Racing into the Chase.
So in a sense, both Allmendinger and Almirola should have gone into the Chase with a "we're just happy to be here mentality."
They didn't, though. They both wanted more, and both wanted to survive the first round of eliminations. To do so, they would have to be perfect and work in a margin with zero room for errors.
It's a terribly hard task, and one neither succeeded at on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. Almirola was easily the biggest surprise of the opening Chase race, running as high as fourth, and he was sixth when he headed to pit road for a routine stop. Then his engine suddenly failed and his race was over. Almirola finished 41st in a devastating ending to what had been shaping up to be a monster day.
"I've never been so heartbroken, ever," Almirola said from the garage after Petty draped his arm around the dejected driver. "To be running that good with (just) over 30 laps to go ... I've been saying all week that we can't have a big mistake."
Allmendinger simply wasn't competitive enough on Sunday. He was 22nd for the third-worst finish among Chase drivers.
"I'm thinking big picture, man, but we do this every weekend," he radioed to his team with 86 laps remaining. "I mean, I know you guys are trying, we are all in it together, but it just gets harder every weekend and we don't make any progress."
Now with two races remaining before NASCAR knocks the bottom four drivers out of the Chase, Allmendinger is 14th in the standings and Almirola last in the 16-driver field. Yet they had to know this was going to happen, that it's just too hard to stand up for 10 weeks against Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports.
Allmendinger sort of hinted at that in the buildup to Sunday when he was already looking ahead to the Sept. 28 race at Dover, where the field will be trimmed. He has three top-10 finishes there and led 143 laps there in 2010.
"We've just got to be perfect. We've just got to be at our best," he said. "I look at a race like Dover, depending on how the first two (races) have run, if we have to win it to stay in it, then you start taking some chances."
So now Almirola and Allmendinger will have to gamble the next two weeks and go for broke on every decision. There can be no second-guessing because their seasons are officially on the line.
"We have to win. That is it. There is no other option," Almirola said Sunday. "We have to go and figure out how we can win one of the next two races."
There will be no shame in failing; the odds were stacked against them from the beginning. Richard Petty Motorsports, short on the money it needs to test at the same pace as the elite teams, instead entered Almirola in a pair of Nationwide races to get him extra track time. Allmendinger drives for just the second single-car organization to make the Chase, and did it a year after Kurt Busch made the field with Furniture Row Racing. Despite Busch's talent and how far he had raised the performance at Furniture Row, he finished 10th in a 13-driver field.
It's because the elite teams rule NASCAR, and if you aren't aligned with Penske, Hendrick or Gibbs right now, you probably don't stand a chance. The harsh reality probably hurt on Monday, when both drivers had to lick their wounds, but the two Chase rookies really should be thrilled just to have been invited to the party.