Where drivers stand before the final opportunity at Richmond
And it all comes down to this: One race, one more chance to get in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. And for the bubble boys, it’s desperate times.
This we know: Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch are in. And the only real drama left among this group is whether Johnson or Kenseth will be the top seed in the postseason.
Kenseth currently holds that distinction with his five wins, but if Johnson wins at Richmond, he will have a fifth win, too, and will get the top spot based on points.
We also know that Kasey Kahne is guaranteed of at least a Wild Card spot based on his two victories that are one more victory than any other Wild Card contender at the moment. So the best anyone else can do is to tie Kahne in wins.
We also know it would take a collapse for Dale Earnhardt Jr. not to qualify for the Chase. With 750 points, he is a comfortable 31 points in front of the 10th-place driver. The simplest way for Junior to qualify is to finish 32nd or better. He can also get in by finishing 33rd and leading a lap or placing 34th and leading the most laps.
Beyond Earnhardt is where it starts to get interesting, and this is why you’ll want to stay glued to the real-time standings on NASCAR.com during race day. Surely, there will be shifts and plenty of ebb and flow from Joey Logano (in eighth place with 729 points) down to Jeff Gordon (in 11th place and currently out of the Chase with 713 points).
Meanwhile, Martin Truex Jr. (in 13th place and holding the last Wild Card spot with 704 points) and Ryan Newman (in 14th with 699 points) will be among those dueling for the Wild Card.
And let’s not forget defending champion Brad Keselowski, who with 691 points has not yet been mathematically eliminated. That is also the case for Jamie McMurray (680) and Paul Menard (658), who are clinging to slim hopes.
For Keselowski, he is 28 points out of 10th place, so he needs to do extremely well at Richmond and get a lot of help. Perhaps the easiest way to picture him getting in is if he wins the race and finishes higher in points than Truex Jr. and Newman, meaning he gets the second Wild Card.
Some of the more interesting back stories include whether Kurt Busch (in 10th place with 719 points) can qualify for the Chase while running with a one-car team with Furniture Row Racing, whether Newman can carry the flag of Stewart-Haas Racing into the Chase one last time and whether four-time champion Gordon will even have a chance to make a run at a fifth title.
We can't wait till Saturday night for the Federated Auto Parts 400, with coverage set to start at 7 p.m. ET on ABC.
Ready to pounce: Newman is hanging around in 14th place with the benefit of his win in hand from Indianapolis. So if he outpoints Truex Jr. by six at Richmond, Newman would grab a Wild Card, which is one of the simpler scenarios for him to get into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. He’s 20 points out of the top 10 so a regular Chase berth is still a possibility for Newman as well.
Newman has a strong history at Richmond. In 23 career Cup starts there, he has 13 top-10s, including five top-fives and one win, coming in the late-summer race in 2003. More recently he has finished eighth in each of the past two late-summer races at Richmond. His average finish at Richmond is 11.8, with the only venue he has done better at being Pocono (11.7).
Newman comes into Richmond after a fifth-place finish at Atlanta. Before that, he finished 21st, 13th and 14th at Bristol, Michigan and Watkins Glen, respectively. Newman also knows he’s Stewart-Haas Racing’s only hope for the Chase, even though he’s on his way out from the organization. He can show them what they’re missing, though, with a clutch performance at Richmond.
In danger of falling out: Keselowski dropped four spots in the standings to 15th after a 35th-place finish at Atlanta. He sits 28 points outside the top 10 and has no wins this season. But if Keselowski did pick up a win at Richmond, he would need to outpoint Truex Jr. by 13 and Newman by nine in order to clinch a Wild Card berth. He would only have to outpoint one of those drivers if Kahne were to move out of a Wild Card berth and into the top 10.
Of course, there’s the possibility Keselowski could also move into the top 10 and wouldn’t need a Wild Card to make the Chase. But the deck is stacked against him as he risks being the second defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion to miss the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup -- Tony Stewart being the first in 2006.
Keselowski has eight career Sprint Cup Series races under his belt at Richmond, and he has finished in the top 10 two times. His average finish at the 0.75-mile short track is 20.5. Among Cup sites that is Keselowski’s sixth-worst average-finish mark. Earlier this season he finished 33rd at Richmond. Last year, he posted his only top-10s at track with a ninth-place finish early and a seventh-place finish late.
Watch a live press conference with the Wild Card contenders, 5:30 p.m. ET on Thursday, Sept. 5.