Three former champs fight for final Chase spot
September 07, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
RICHMOND, Va. – After 25 weeks of thrilling, action-packed and highlight-reel competition, a single race remains to decide which 12 drivers will vie for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title. And there are long shots, underdogs and even some of the sport’s biggest stars who need to launch a mathematical rally in the standings during Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway (ABC, 7 p.m.).
With their backs against the wall, 10 drivers competing for the final five positions realize their ability to qualify for the 12-driver championship field will depend largely on preparation, partly on luck and undeniably on a whole lot on heart.
The season is on the line. And it is literally all or nothing for some of the best racers in the sport.
And this is why they are the best.
Three series champions will lead the starting field to the green flag Saturday night. Seven of the 10 drivers vying for a spot in the Chase qualified among the top-14.
“Here we are the two guys battling it out for the last spot,’’ outside pole sitter Kurt Busch acknowledged of his front row partner, Coors Light Pole Award winner Jeff Gordon.
“It’s like the bottom of the seventh and I feel like we have a one-run lead and it’s off to the final few innings.’’
It’s the “Game 7” feel that NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France has so often spoken about -- the excitement, the suspense, a chance to watch the cream rise to the top. And the high stakes are not lost on these competitors.
“I find it so fascinating,’’ Gordon said following his record-fast qualifying lap. “You come into this race and there are all these guys that are all of on this bubble, or whatever you want to call it to make the Chase.
“And all of a sudden, they all just step up to another level.
“I think that makes for a really interesting conversation of what’s going to happen prior to the race and when the green flag drops of what’s going to happen throughout the whole race.’’
A win for either Gordon or Busch would guarantee them a shot at the 2013 trophy as either a Wild Card or possibly a guaranteed top-10 spot. Reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski will start third, just behind the veterans and his chances at defending his title are steeper. He must win the race and out-score Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman by 13 and eight points, respectively.
It’s a complicated scenario, but a second-row qualifying run and a dramatic victory in Friday night’s Nationwide Series race at Richmond have buoyed Keselowski’s expectations.
“I know that if we keep doing what we are doing, keep doing the right things and working hard and not just hard, but smart as well, that the results will come,’’ Keselowski said. “That is confidence. That is the confidence you get from winning here today (Friday).
“I know we did the right things, and at the end, we were rewarded, and I believe the same will hold true with the Cup team.
“Our team has worked incredibly hard for Richmond. This has not been our strongest track, and I would be the first to admit it. …We unloaded and quite frankly, still weren’t where we needed to be, to be a winner in my opinion. With an hour or two hours of practice … we hit what we needed for me to feel like we can win the race tomorrow. At the end of practice, I felt we were the best car. I am very optimistic for (Saturday night).’’
The situation Gordon finds himself in now is a sort of twisted rerun of the situation he was in at this race last year -- when he had to produce a specific result under a certain set of circumstances to qualify for the Chase.
And he did.
In one of the most memorable races of the 2012 season, Gordon stayed focused through a rain-delayed start, an hour-long red flag and then rallied from a lap down and finished runner-up to Clint Bowyer to wrestle away the final Chase position from Kyle Busch by a mere three points.
“What Jeff did last year is impressive because he was laps down early in the race,’’ recalled Jamie McMurray. “I remember passing Jeff. ... his car was terrible. So I was shocked to see that he was able to race his way back up. That was super-impressive what he was able to do.’’
Gordon’s teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. agreed and says it would be a big mistake to doubt Gordon’s ability to perform when the stakes are highest.
“He always seems to bring his A-game when it’s needed,’’ said Earnhardt, who only needs to finish 32nd or better to clinch his own Chase berth.
“It’s really vital that he has a good run, but he always seems to find a way to get what he needs. He runs well here. This a good track that I think he has a lot of confidence in.’’
A performance like Gordon turned in here last year will go along way toward that.
“I’m certainly a lot more comfortable,’’ Gordon said with a smile. “Last year, I was really on edge, and the entire weekend was a lot more stressful. I’ve been a lot more calm this weekend.
“I don’t know exactly why other than I think because we went through so much last year that it does help prepare you to deal with whatever is thrown at you and know you’re giving your best.
“There’s no doubt we all recognize what’s on the line here. ... And at this point, I’ll take every little boost and bit of confidence and little victory that we can, and today was a good one.’’