News & Media

Richmond plays special role in determining Chase

April 30, 2011, Mark Aumann,

RICHMOND, Va. -- Fall victory could be difference between making, missing NASCAR's postseason

Sprint Cup drivers practiced Friday at Richmond International Raceway with one eye on Saturday night's Crown Royal 400 and the other on a race that's still five months away. That's because even though Richmond isn't in the 10-race Chase, when the Cup Series returns in September, a victory could be the difference between making and missing NASCAR's postseason.

With the new Chase eligibility format, sitting in the top 10 after 26 races automatically punches your ticket to the big dance. Then wins will determine the two wild card spots. So drivers sitting on the Chase bubble have an alternative route, one that goes through Victory Lane.

"This race is a lot like a Chase race in a sense. There are 10 Chase tracks that we look at and when we go to them the first time, we want to make sure that we're right. And this track falls in that category. "


Carl Edwards knows what it's like to be in a must-win situation at Richmond. He missed the Chase in 2006 in part because of a poor finish here. And last fall, he won the pole and led 95 laps before settling for 10th, giving him some nice positive momentum heading into the final 10 races of the year, and leading to wins at Phoenix and Homestead.

"Everyone always says, 'Hey, all the races are the same. There's the same amount of points for every race,' " Carl Edwards said. "But when it comes down to Richmond, I've been through a couple of those races where it's extremely important.

"All the pressure's on and you pour over everything that happened in this event and try to predict the best you can how it's going to go. No matter what anyone says, this one has special importance because of that and we'll be paying close attention."

Kyle Busch, who has won the previous two Richmond spring races, said getting data this weekend will pay off in September.

"I think everybody always puts an added emphasis on any track that's a Chase race," Busch said. "Chicago, for instance, we tried to do the best we could last year with learning what we needed to learn, knowing it would become a Chase race this year. Loudin in the spring? Texas? The same thing.

"Every race track that you have, you try to work as much as you can towards the next time around and trying to build a really good notebook so you have everything that you can use to go back with."

Adding to the level of complexity is a new tire combination, used last by Goodyear at Phoenix. That has Kurt Busch paying closer attention than normal this weekend.

"It's almost like every week we're playing Russian roulette with the tires, with what we're going to get," Busch said. "This is a new left-side. We'll see how it shakes out.

"We had a top-10 run at Phoenix. You'll use some of those notes and to try and blend in for this race. It's very important to get all the information that you can from the tracks in the spring that are part of the Chase tracks in the fall."

Kasey Kahne can commiserate. He finished 24th in the 2004 fall Richmond race and went from ninth to 11th. He also missed the Chase four years later.


Happy Hour Speeds
2.K. Harvick125.35421.539
3.C. Edwards125.14521.575
4.R. Smith124.86721.623
5.C. Bowyer124.37821.708

"[The] race right before the Chase starts is a really critical race for myself," Kahne said. "It always has been. We've always been one of those cars right on the edge of either making it or not.

"So this is definitely a place where we really need to take some good notes this weekend, try to learn some things, have a good race this weekend and be prepared when we come back because there will be a lot of guys with a lot on the line here."

Even for someone like five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, getting a handle on handling in the spring at this tricky .75-mile oval can pay great dividends later in the season.

"This race is a lot like a Chase race in a sense," Johnson said. "There are 10 Chase tracks that we look at and when we go to them the first time, we want to make sure that we're right. And this track falls in that category.

"So we all focus very hard on Richmond. It's hard to say we focus any harder on things because we're all at 100 percent all the time, but when you leave here and you run well, you can kind of rest a little bit knowing that you have a good starting point coming back."

Given that all but two winners since 1999 have come from the first seven rows, teams worked extensively on their qualifying setups in Happy Hour. Juan Montoya put up a quick lap of 125.360 mph in the final minutes of Happy Hour to top the leaderboard, edging Kevin Harvick's 125.354. Harvick has nine top-10 finishes in his past 10 visits to Richmond.

Those two were followed by Carl Edwards, Regan Smith and Clint Bowyer. In all, 10 cars exceeded 124 mph.

Thirteen minutes into the final session, J.J. Yeley's No. 46 Chevrolet slowed with copious amounts of smoke pouring out from underneath the car, victim of a probable engine malfunction. That was the only yellow flag incident in the 45-minute practice.

Several cars scraped the wall in an effort to find the fastest way around Richmond, but none was more than cosmetic. Denny Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota had a white mark above the right rearwell, while Casey Mears and David Gilliland had minor right rear quarter panel damage.