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Track Smack: Richmond surprise or driver demise

September 08, 2011, ,

Fourteen drivers mathematically Chase eligible; four control their own destinies

1. We're down to Richmond, and the final race before the Chase. Who'll get in? Who'll be left out? And are we in for any surprises Saturday night?

Jill Erwin: Actually, I think Atlanta pretty much cleared everything up (sorry, Richmond). I think Denny Hamlin is the guy to beat, and since he's already got a wild card spot right now, and 42 points out of 10th, unless Stewart completely implodes ... Hamlin remains a wild card even with a win. So I think what we've got is what we'll have come Sunday.

David Caraviello: As much as some would want to see it just from a drama standpoint, I have to believe the 12 we have now are the 12 who are going to vie for the championship starting at Chicago. These same dozen or so guys have been in place for a few weeks, and given how hard it is to make up ground under this points system, I can't believe something is going to change dramatically -- though it would be fun to watch if it did.

Jarrod Breeze: I think those in the current Chase standings today will be the same come late Saturday night in Richmond: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin. It's basically come down to someone needing to win to knock out Hamlin, and Jeremy Mayfield isn't walking through that door.

Jill Erwin: Well, isn't that pretty. We all agree! I just don't see Marcos Ambrose, David Ragan or Paul Menard winning to take that second wild card spot. And Denny's so darn good there -- even with some tension between him and his crew chief -- that he's going to be tough to knock out of that second spot.

Jarrod Breeze: A.J. Allmendinger has never won a race, Clint Bowyer continues to slide, and Paul Menard would have to make magic twice in one season. Allmendinger has a better chance of joining the list of first-time winners than any first-time winner winning again this season.

David Caraviello: OK, not to overcomplicate things, but we do have some guys who are a bit on a tightrope. Stewart needs to basically finish 18th or better to clinch a spot regardless of what everybody else does, and he's finished far worse than that in two of his past four starts. Another night like he had at Bristol two weeks ago, and he's in serious trouble depending on what somebody else does. But then again, we've been waiting for somebody else to rise up and take control of this deal, and they haven't. Guess that's asking a lot. Although Brad Keselowski has certainly done it over the past few months, he's the clear exception.

Jarrod Breeze: I'm not convinced Junior or Stewart will necessarily finish in the top-whatever that officially clinches no matter what anyone else does. I just don't think anyone else can take advantage of any misfortune that may come Junior and Smoke's way.

Wild card standings

WC. Pos.Pts. Pos.DriverWinsPts.
12. 12. Hamlin 1 709
-- 20. Menard 1 657

Moment of silence

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11, fans attending Saturday's Cup Series race at Richmond, television and radio broadcasters and the track announcer will all go quiet from laps 9 through 11 at the .75-mile oval.

The three-lap moment of silence, in which all fans attending the race will also wave American flags, is the culmination of many 9/11 tributes and patriotic activities being planned by NASCAR.

Jill Erwin: Caraviello, I wouldn't go that far. Hamlin will have to win and Tony needs to finish like 30th or worse. Keselowski is really the only one with a chance to knock him out. And with no top-10s in four starts at Richmond, questionable at best. Now, the fun part: If that does happen (Hamlin wins, Smoke crashes on Lap 2), and everything else holds to form ... welcome to the Chase, Paul Menard! I would have lost big money on that at the beginning of the year. Heck, in June.

Jarrod Breeze: Yeah, I think BK holds the key. If he can somehow overtake Stewart in points, then Menard is looking better. But that's a 23-point gap between Stewart and Keselowski. We'll know shortly into that race if it is a possibility for BK.

David Caraviello: I wouldn't put anything by Brad right now, the way he's racing. You have to consider him a threat everywhere, regardless of his track record. I mean, how good was he at Bristol going in? And the thing Brad has going for him is, he's going to be out to win Saturday. He surely wants to get into the top 10 and use those bonus points from those race wins that would otherwise be left on the table. So while you may see some on the bubble play it conservative, trying to get the finish they need, I fully expect Brad to go all-out for the front. Like he wouldn't do that anyway.

Jill Erwin: Fair points, both of you. Yeah, while Brad isn't as all-out aggressive and sketchy around others as he was accused of being in his first year, I'm not sure that running in the pack is his thing either. That, JB, is why I'm picking Kyle Busch to win. I think he wants that points lead after 26 races, and that extra win would be a nice bonus.

Jarrod Breeze: Good point, David. And to that effect, the drama at Richmond won't focus so much on who will make the Chase, but those driving all-out in an effort to get a final round of bonus points.

David Caraviello: And then there's Dale Earnhardt Jr., who according to the NASCAR clinch scenarios needs to finish 20th or better to secure a spot no matter what anyone else does. You have to think he's in a pretty safe position, given that he's historically pretty good at Richmond, and that he hasn't finished worse than 20th since Kentucky in early July. So as much hand-wringing as there's been over Junior in recent weeks, I think the guy is in barring some kind of unforeseen collapse.

Jarrod Breeze: Kyle Busch has finally lost the points lead, and the best way for him to get it back and not allow Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick or possibly BK to match him in victories is to win himself. You beat me to the punch, Jill. I have to learn to type faster.

Jill Erwin: Gotta wake up pretty early in the morning to top me, JB. I type a lot. And David, you'll get no argument from me on Junior. So, in conclusion, this is a Smoke vs. BK matchup this weekend, yes?

David Caraviello: Gotta be. I just don't see Dale Jr. as that vulnerable; although I'm sure it feels differently from his vantage point -- and those of the citizens of Junior Nation who have chewed their fingernails off in recent weeks.

Jarrod Breeze: Those in Junior Nation don't think that way. Junior had it clinched races ago.

David Caraviello: What? Has JB been hitting the Kentucky's finest early this morning?

Jill Erwin: Bless Junior Nation, seriously, but it's the weirdest mix of confidence and waiting for it to all fall out from under them ever. And watch it -- you have two ex-Kentuckians in this Smack!

Jarrod Breeze: Yes, it's been a feel-good season for a handful of drivers, but generally, NASCAR just doesn't offer up many surprises. And Richmond will be no different. Someone will win who is expected to win. And most of the participants of Chases past will be there again. And guess who will win it?

Richmond: Chase clinch scenarios

Three spots remain
Fourteen drivers are mathematically eligible | Four control their own destinies
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: A finish of 20th or better clinches a spot. Even if Keselowski does knock Earnhardt out of the top 10, he could still earn a Chase berth if there is only one winner from spots 11th to 02th.
Tony Stewart: A finish of 18th or better clinches a spot. Like Earnhardt, even if Keselowski does knock Stewart out of the top 10, Stewart could still earn a Chase berth if there is only one winner from spots 11th to 20th.
Denny Hamlin: A win, and he's in. Hamlin doesn't have to win, though. If he stays ahead of all one-win drivers, and there are no other two-win drivers inside the top 20, he's in. Also, if Keselowski does vault into the top 10, Hamlin could still make the Chase if there is a two-win driver from 11th to 20th as long as he's higher in points than any other one-win driver.
A.J. Allmendinger: Allmendinger is where the wild card drama starts to ratchet up. A win is the onlything that matters and he'll need a win and movement up the points to nab the tie-breaker. He finished seventh at RIR in April.
Clint Bowyer: Of the winless drivers, Bowyer might be the best bet. Bowyer won here in 2008, and has an average finish of 9.5. He needs a win, and some help.
Greg Biffle: One of six winless drivers who won in 2010, Biffle's best Richmond finish was third in 2005. He needs a win, and some help.
Martin Truex Jr.: Two of his past four finishes have been in the top five. His best finish at RIR is fifth in 2008. He needs a win, and some help.
Kasey Kahne: Kahne, who needs a win and some help, won at Richmond in 2005, his first career victory.
Joey Logano: Needs a win and help. His best finish at RIR was fourth in 2010.
Mark Martin: Needs a win and help; he won at Richmond in 1990.
Paul Menard: Win, and he's in. His best finish at RIR is 16th in 2007.
Marcos Ambrose: If he wins, and gets into the top 20, he's in. Two of his past three Richmond finishes were in the top 10.
Juan Montoya: Needs a win and help. His best finish was sixth in May of last year.
David Ragan: If he wins, and gets into the top 20, he's in. He finished fourth in April, and third in 2007.

David Caraviello: Let me guess, JB. Does it have something with topic No. 2 ...

2. With his 85th career victory Tuesday, Jeff Gordon now stands alone in third in all-time Cup Series wins. Where will Gordon's teammate Jimmie Johnson wind up on that list?

David Caraviello: Considering that the guy is already tied for ninth, pretty dang high. It's not likely that JJ or anybody else will ever get to 85 or more like Gordon has, given the changing dynamics of the sport and driving as a career. But Jimmie looks like the only one with any kind of shot. He'd still need like 54 more race wins to do it, though, and even for someone as good as he is -- that's asking a lot.

Jill Erwin: OK, he's at 54 victories. He was 35-years old at the beginning of this year. Gordon has four wins since that point in his career, three of them this year. So with 31 more wins to go, I think Jimmie has a not-terrible chance of passing him. I don't think he gets anywhere near David Pearson's 105.

Jarrod Breeze: I think Jimmie will end up either just ahead or behind Dale Earnhardt. I don't think he will race long enough to catch anyone in the top five. That's a tall order, even for him, given his current age and the fact drivers don't need to race as long as they did in the past. Remember, Gordon had a five-year head start on Johnson and Gordon's wins began to slow down after he turned 36. This is Gordon's first multiple-win season in four years; the other three years produced one win total.

Jill Erwin: I think Jimmie has five to seven seasons, minimum. That's six wins a year on the low end to tie Gordon. And since I think it's a safe bet he stays with Hendrick for as long as he drives, I really don't think it's out of the realm of possibility. This season, and his one victory, has not done much to help his situation, of course.

David Caraviello: JB, I'm right with you. I don't want to shortchange the guy by any means, but JJ is 35, and say he still has a good 20 or so victories left in him, and that would put him right around seventh near Dale Earnhardt's total of 76 -- not too shabby. But drivers historically win fewer races as they advance in their careers, and Jimmie would have to put up a torrid pace to get to where Jeff is now. It doesn't help that he has only one win so far this year, although we all know he can go on a tear.

Jarrod Breeze: Jimmie is 35 now, and has one win this season. Is he slowing down in terms of the victories, or just waiting for the Chase to collect five or six and have a typical Jimmie season?

Jill Erwin: Jimmie isn't the type to hold back. I think if he could have won, he would have. But it's one season. Let's not buy him a rocking chair quite yet, OK? My goodness, you guys have me defending the five-time defending champion. What is going on here?

Jarrod Breeze: If Jimmie raced until he was 45, basically another 10 years, then, yes, he reaches third place (that an average of a little more than three wins a year); but unless he just wants to end up third all-time, why would he race until he is 45? I think Gordon has a better chance of reaching 100 that Johnson will at reaching 85. Then again, why would Gordon hold out that long? He has too much going on in his life away from the track these days to hang on just to reach a certain number.

Jill Erwin: I said earlier I think Johnson goes another five to seven seasons. At that point, his daughter will be like 7-9 years old, and he'll be ready to spend his weekends in travel hotspots other than Loudon, N.H., or Brooklyn, Mich.

Cup Series wins

Top 20 | Active drivers
Jimmie Johnson35254
Bill Elliott82644
Mark Martin81940
Tony Stewart45339
Kurt Busch38923
Kyle Busch24723
Terry Labonte87622
Jeff Burton60821
Bobby Labonte64321
Matt Kenseth42520
Carl Edwards25419
Geoffrey Bodine57218
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.42418
Denny Hamlin21217
Kevin Harvick38317
Greg Biffle31916
Ryan Newman35715
Kasey Kahne27711
Jamie McMurray3196

David Caraviello: I don't quite know if they can turn the switch that easily, JB. But to me, the amazing thing is that (removing Gordon from the equation), you look at current drivers' win totals ... and it's Johnson, and everybody else. He's light years ahead of any of his other contemporaries. I mean, Mark Martin is the next closest at 40, and calling him a "contemporary" of Johnson is a little bit of a stretch. All the heat this guy takes over his Chase victories, and the myth that he's somehow a manufactured champion ... all that goes out the window when you look at those win totals. Amazing.

Jarrod Breeze: I wouldn't compare Johnson to Martin in any sense. And no way does Johnson hang around in his 50s.

Jill Erwin: Side note: I have been so impressed with Gordon's whole mind-set this season. He seems so confident, so ready to go, and it's something I haven't seen from him since I started covering this sport in 2004. But he's also completely open that he has post-retirement plans. He's not going to be running around in 35th every week just to be in the circus that is NASCAR.

David Caraviello: Gordon has four wins in his past four seasons combined. It took him a while to get to 85. You really think he has 15 more in him, Jarrod? I mean, goodness, that's asking a lot, even if he does have another six-win season like 2007.

Jarrod Breeze: No, David, I don't. And I don't think Johnson has 31 in him, either, at this stage in the game. Gordon's renaissance could give Johnson pause for thought when he approaches the big 4-0. But we'll have to wait to see how many wins Johnson collects leading up to that point. That was my point. Neither is going to race into their mid-40s or longer just to hit a "magical milestone."

Jill Erwin: Yeah, I think 100 is out the window. Ninety I could see. But 100? That's another probably six years of racing, even with multiple wins each year. And I just don't see that from him. He's got a beautiful wife, two kids, houses everywhere, and a foundation he's devoted to. I just don't think 9 a.m. media conferences are going to hold his interest that long.

David Caraviello: Hey, we try to keep those 9 a.m. media conferences very interesting! It seems these guys are going to begin to change the dynamic of when a driver steps out of the car. I don't think you're going to have to pry either of them out like you've seen with so many others before them. As you two have mentioned, they have a lot going on their lives. A vacation to them isn't a dirt-car race somewhere. They're going to go out gracefully, and with plenty of years still ahead of them, and set the standard for drivers to come.

Jarrod Breeze: Too much money for successful drivers to endure that grueling schedule year after year after year -- can't blame them. Johnson should retire after he wins his sixth in a row this year, go out on top.

Jill Erwin: I'm still waiting for a return of my "Salute to You" gift I sent to Mark Martin. Like five years ago.

David Caraviello: Did you get him the cheese plate? That looked lovely on the registry.

3. Despite being in the thick of the championship battle, Elliott Sadler hasn't won this season on the Nationwide Series. Will he snap that drought at Richmond, his home track?

Jarrod Breeze: No. As long as Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski and his boss, Kevin Harvick, and even the likes of Joey Logano compete in the Nationwide Series, Sadler will not win. He couldn't beat them in Cup, and he won't beat them in Nationwide, either.

Jill Erwin: And now we're back! No Nationwide questions for my last Smack, and I felt like a fish out of water. Sadly, no. I think Elliott could very well win the title, but I just don't think he's going to win this weekend. Sadler has talked about how much pressure there is at the home race, plus all the extra time needed to see people/family/friends, I just don't think he's got it in him this week. And wow, JB, just wow. I love smacking with you because you don't couch anything. You're like the anti-Rodman!

Dash4Cash | Driver chat

The four drivers competing for the Dash4Cash program at Richmond will join Joe Menzer for a live video chat at 1 p.m. ET Friday. Submit questions for Reed Sorenson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Elliott Sadler and Josh Wise. Then log on to NASCAR.COM on Friday to participate.

David Caraviello: Ah, the perennial Track Smack question. I'm going to say no, and it has nothing to do with Elliott's ability behind the wheel. Like Jill said, it has everything to do with how hard it is to win at "home" tracks given all the stuff drivers deal with when they go back to these places, like obligations with friends and family and arranging tickets for people. I remember Tony Stewart talking about how that always made Indianapolis such a pain. Of course, he eventually found a way to get past it and win, so maybe Sadler will, too.

Jarrod Breeze: Home track, away track, somewhere in between track -- doesn't matter. Sadler is not going to win.

Jill Erwin: Did he steal your toy at recess once, JB? Yeesh!

David Caraviello: JB, man, that was a little harsh! Seems like all season we've been chatting about the improved chances of the Nationwide guys to win against these moonlighting Cuppers, given that we've seen more of it this year. And then Jarrod brings down he hammer on poor Elliott Sadler. What did Elliott ever do to you? Did you have a bad experience at the Sadler's truck stop outside Emporia?

Jarrod Breeze: Let me ask you this -- what has he done to think he can, or will, win? It's nothing personal -- I don't expect Dale Jr. to win in Cup, either -- it's just they haven't done it in so long it's hard to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Jill Erwin: Heck, Elliott can have Hermie do the ticket arranging. Hermie is a likeable fella. And, contrary to JB's very clearly stated opinion, I do think Sadler can and could win this season. He's in top-flight equipment, he has 10 top-fives in 26 starts, and he's won three poles. It's not like he's just out there turning laps.

Jarrod Breeze: The sun will rise in the East, Jimmie will win the Cup, Kyle or Carl or Kevin will win the majority of Nationwide races, and the sun will set the West. Beddy-bye, everyone. Poles, schmoles. Most overrated thing in racing.

Jill Erwin: Is it boring living in a black-and-white world, JB? I'd miss the colors.

David Caraviello: Come on, now. Sadler has had a pretty nice season. What makes you think he can win this week? Oh, probably the fact that he's been in the running almost every other week, with 18 top-10s and 10 top-fives, and that he's not too far south of Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s championship lead. It's no given, that's for certain, but I wouldn't just rule the guy out, either.

"It's always important for me to do well, but there's always added pressure when your family is in the stands. I have family members that to this day still have reserved seats by the start/finish line there."


Jarrod Breeze: And let me clearly state this: I don't think any Nationwide regular can win as long as Kyle and Carl and Kevin and Brad are racing in that series.

Jill Erwin: But they have, JB. They have!

Jarrod Breeze: Yeah, mostly in standalone races where those guys haven't competed. Yes, it happens in so once in a while -- so does Halley's Comet.

David Caraviello: Well -- technically all four Nationwide-only winners have come in events that have not been in tandem with Cup, and theoretically not presented fields as stacked as a tandem weekend would see. But come on, wins are wins, man. You can't break them down to that level ... or can you?

Jill Erwin: Top three in Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s win: Stenhouse, Edwards, Keselowski. Justin Allgaier won last year at Bristol, which was a track at which Busch swept later in the year.

David Caraviello: Boom! Take that, bourbon boy!

Jarrod Breeze: All of which means Sadler finished behind Edwards and Keselowski, in a respectable fifth.

Jill Erwin: Oh, now we're moving the goalposts. You said no Nationwide regular could beat Cup regulars, did you not?

Jarrod Breeze: I said it's rare -- and it is. I could also grow to be 7 foot, but it's not likely to happen.

Jill Erwin: Tall, or wide? Kidding, JB. But last year's Bristol race won by Allgaier, order of finish: Allgaier, BK, Busch, Edwards, Harvick, Biffle.

Jarrod Breeze: Point made, but I think mine is too, and I think people know where I am coming from. It can happen, but it's not likely. That's all I'm saying -- and I don't think Sadler will win Friday night, or this season.

David Caraviello: If memory serves me right, there were several Nationwide-only (goodness I hate that phrase) drivers in the mix in the first Richmond event this year. Justin Allgaier was third, and the pride of Emporia was fourth. Yes, Denny Hamlin won the race, but he's not entered this time around, and you can't just dismiss Elliott out of hand here.

Jarrod Breeze: If I was allowed to root for someone, it would be him. Best of luck to him, however.

Jill Erwin: To quote: "He couldn't beat them in Cup, and he won't beat them in Nationwide, either." Yep, you definitely allowed that it could happen there. Good call. That being said, I'm with Caraviello. I hate "Nationwide-only" but I have no idea what else to use. I'm open to suggestions, however.

Jarrod Breeze: You asked if he could win Friday night ... I said no. Now I feel as if I'm on trial.

David Caraviello: Initial hearings in the case of Sadler v. Breeze convene next week. In the meantime, we'll be prepared for a potential Elliott Sadler victory party on Friday night in Richmond. Just for Jarrod, we'll ensure crow is on the menu.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.