News & Media

Wild card madness descends upon Richmond

September 07, 2012, Joe Menzer,

Cup drivers already locked into Chase are jockeying for postion as well at RIR

RICHMOND, Va. -- So much of the focus for Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway appears to be on the Chase for the Sprint Cup wild-card contenders that the drivers locked into the Chase have become almost afterthoughts.

But keep this in mind: Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle and the rest of those who have already made their Chase reservations are racing for something important, too. They made it very clear on Friday that winning Saturday and adding three bonus points to reset total they'll begin the Chase with is a big deal to them.

Federated Auto Parts 400

Practice 1
2.Earnhardt Jr.125.31321.546
4.Hornish Jr.125.11021.581
5.Truex Jr.121.58322.207

"It would be really big for us," said Biffle, the current points leader who owns two wins this season. "If we won [Saturday] night, we'd go into the Chase second in points. That would be really neat for us -- instead of going into the Chase as the fifth seed. We know it's only three points, but the championship was decided last year by zero [when Tony Stewart won in a tiebreaker after he and Carl Edwards finished with the same number of points]. So we're going to do everything we can to win."

Biffle has some work to do. His fastest lap of 121.329 miles per hour ranked only 11th on the speed chart in Friday's final practice for the race.

The fastest car in the last practice was the No. 99 Ford driven by Carl Edwards, Biffle's teammate at Roush Fenway Racing who turned a top lap of 122.321 mph and needs not only a victory but plenty of help from others to even make the Chase. Edwards was followed on the speed chart by Jimmie Johnson (122.260), Jeff Burton (121.869), Jeff Gordon (121.797) and Martin Truex Jr. (121.583). Others in the Chase or on the Chase bubble who were in the top 10 included Kevin Harvick (sixth, 121.496), Kyle Busch (eighth, 121.463) and Paul Menard (ninth, 121.343).

Other notables were Marcos Ambrose (13th, 121.082), Matt Kenseth (14th, 121.011) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (16th, 120.390). It was not a good Happy Hour for the likes of Clint Boywer, Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart -- all of whom either are in the Chase or residing on the bubble, and all of which were 21st or worse on the Happy Hour speed chart. Stewart Haas Racing teammates Newman and Stewart particularly struggled, with Newman 38th and Stewart 41st out of the 45 drivers who took to the track.

"I was talking to Martin Truex Jr. before practice started and he put it best: this weekend for us feels like the All-Star Race, where you just go out and race and you don't worry about anything else," said Brad Keselowski, whose top lap of 120.016 mph that was 28th-fastest didn't worry him much because he's already locked into the Chase with three wins.

"You don't want to wreck. But if you do, you kind of just shrug your shoulders and say, 'Oh, well.' You're just hoping you get another win. I think all the guys in the top 10 feel that way.

"And, certainly, there are some other things going on that you want to be respectful of with the battle for the last spot in the wild card and so forth. But, for me, it feels like a very low-tension, high-reward weekend that is going to be a lot of fun."

Hamlin, currently slated to be the top seed when the Chase starts because of his series-high four Sprint Cup wins, agreed with Keselowski -- but only partially.

"For 10 guys, it's definitely going to be a lot more fun than it is for the other six or so who are battling for the wild card," Hamlin said. "But I don't know if it really has an All-Star-type feel to it -- because for the All-Star Race you're usually bringing a one-off car, things like that, to it. I think everyone is bringing the best they have to this race, to try to see what they're going to have for the Chase. You're going to get probably a pretty good idea of who you're going to have to battle once you leave here.

"The thing is, when you come to Richmond in the fall, everyone has a different agenda. For us, it's to do everything we can to win and get bonus points. It's the same for the other 10 guys in our position right now. Those guys who are having a race within the race [for the final Chase spots] are probably going to drive a little more aggressively. You just kind of have to know that when you're around them."

Johnson, who is teammates at Hendrick Motorsports with Gordon, is well aware of that mentality. But if anyone thinks Johnson, who has three wins and is locked into the Chase, is going to sacrifice three possible bonus points and a chance to steal the top Chase seed from Hamlin to help Gordon win so the No. 24 can get in, too, is sadly mistaken.

"We are teammates and we do everything that we can, but I'm not interfering with anything on the race track to get a teammate in the Chase," Johnson said. "It's just so much bad karma, bad ethics, bad everything that it would never cross my mind. Of course I will give him room and if he's better than me I don't want him to beat up his tires passing me. There are things that are just a common flow on the track that I will always respect with teammates, but outside of that I'm not playing a hand in fate. There is no way."

Plus, he has to think of himself and his No. 48 Chevrolet team.

"Highest seeding and max points would be key," the five-time Cup champion said. "I want to take every point that I can into the Chase, and I've missed out on a few opportunities here of late. I would love to get a few bonus points more to take in with me and then the momentum it would give the team is very useful, too. It's a great shot in the arm for everyone."