News & Media


Drivers seemingly 'locks' have one last chance

September 08, 2012, Holly Cain, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

RICHMOND, Va. -- Things were different when all the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams showed up at Daytona International Speedway in February. They were well-rested, brimming with optimism for the start of the 2012 season, and included a group of certain drivers that would be "locks" when it came time to challenge for the season trophy.

A celebrated four-time champ, last year's championship runner-up and a driver who has won more NASCAR races in the last five years than anyone on the circuit were among the short list of championship favorites.

"It makes me feel real good that Jeff Gordon is in as bad a position as I'm in. Guys like that are very good race-car drivers -- as good as they get -- so it shows you how tough this sport is."

--CARL EDWARDS

But now that crew -- Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch -- finds themselves desperately needing a win or specific finishing scenario in tonight's Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway to earn even the two wild card spots in the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship showdown.

"If I were to sit down at the start of the year and write out the 10 locks [to make the Chase], I would have those three in there,'' five-time champ Jimmie Johnson said.

Edwards, who lost last year's Cup championship in a tie-breaker to Tony Stewart, still looked visibly shocked to be in this situation as he discussed his longest of long-shot chances with the media Thursday afternoon at Richmond. And he was just as incredulous about the caliber of drivers joining him.

"It makes me feel real good that Jeff Gordon is in as bad a position as I'm in,'' Carl Edwards said tongue-in-cheek, adding, "Guys like that are very good race-car drivers -- as good as they get -- so it shows you how tough this sport is.

"A year ago we were cruising right now, dominating the points, not a care in the world, pretty sure we were going to be contenders for the championship. Everything was great and then you fast forward one year and it's a whole different story.''

Of the three drivers (Gordon, Edwards and Busch) it's Busch who has the most favorable path. He holds the 12th and final Chase bid entering the race, and a win tonight would secure his place in the Chase regardless of how anyone else fares. He has four victories at Richmond and his average finish of 4.7 is best among the eight drivers challenging for the two wild-card positions.

Gordon -- who is 13th in the standings, only 12 points behind Busch -- has two wins at Richmond, but none since 2000. However, he will have the best starting position among the wild-card contenders, starting on the front row alongside his Hendrick Motorsports teammate and pole-sitter Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"... I think [Gordon and myself] are surprises that we're struggling to get ourselves into the Chase,'' said Busch, who will start 15th in the No 18 M&Ms Toyota. "And Carl is a huge surprise. ... Being such a fierce competitor in the last few years for the championship, he's always been right there coming down to the last race in Homestead.

"But, then again, you think of other teams that are a surprise to maybe be in the Chase. I would look at Clint Bowyer, and not because Clint is not a great driver or he hasn't made the Chase before, but that's a start-up team this year. They've done a nice job in being able to put themselves in.''

That's how three-time race winner Brad Keselowski sees it, as well.

"I think the bigger surprise hasn't been the lack of results from those three teams, I think the bigger surprise has been the performance of the [Michael] Waltrip teams to really push them out,'' Keselowski said.

"When you look at it, I don't think that Kyle or Jeff -- you could certainly argue a little differently with Carl -- but I don't think they've run poorly. I think the Waltrip organization stepped up and pushed them out. At the end of the day there are only 12 holes.

"I think they should be the real story, the performance they've had and not necessarily kicking everybody else in the butt that hasn't performed.''

Martin Truex Jr., who will join his MWR teammate Bowyer in the Chase, said he's ready to play "spoiler'' if that's what people consider the young team.

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"Obviously, it's the first time we've had a car from our team in the Chase and to have two, that's a pretty big deal,'' Truex said. "I feel like we've definitely taken up two spots. There's only 12 and no matter how you look at it, somebody is going to have to be in and somebody is going to have to be out.''

Few, however, would have predicted Edwards would be among those so far out.

This would be only the second time in his career the Roush Fenway Racing driver has missed the Chase. Twice he's finished championship runner-up (2008 and 2011).

But Edwards has had only three top-10 finishes since June, and hasn't won since March 2011. Three finishes of 22nd or worse in the last six races have dropped him to 14th in the standings and he is one of only two drivers in the wild-card hunt without a victory.

To qualify for a wild card this year, Edwards needs to win the race first. He also needs to hope that Busch finishes 24th or worse and that Gordon finishes 12th or worse. If Tony Stewart were to drop from the automatic-bid 10th spot in the standings and forced to use one of the two wild card spots, Edwards would be eliminated no matter the outcome tonight.

Edwards led a race-best 206 laps at Richmond in April but finished 10th after a late-race penalty. He was runner-up at this race last year and will start 16th in the No. 99 Kellogg's Ford in Richmond.

"I'm sitting here and haven't won a race in 50 races or something, but I'm going to sit here and tell you that I can win this race and it's going to happen,'' Edwards said. "That's what we're going to do and that's how race car drivers have to think. If we can do that, it's not far-fetched to see a couple guys having bad nights. With everything that's going to happen in this race, I think that it truly could happen and I'm hoping that it does.

"I think the true tragedy for us, would be not to make the Chase and then have all of these things we've been working on come to fruition and go out and win six races or something and not even be in contention. So, we want to be in it if we can.

"I try to say look at the bright side and to keep my confidence and at the end of the day, I can guarantee one thing: we're going to come to every race this year whether we're in the Chase or not, we're going to do the very best thing we can to try to win.''