RICHMOND, Va. — official release — Drew Hallowell/Getty Images North America photo — A numbers game will play out under the lights at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night.
There will be winners. And losers. With way more hopes popped than champagne bottles. But for the few who do earn a spot in this thrilling new playoff – the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup – they know this: After a grueling 26-race regular season … they have earned it.
That numbers game? To start with…
14: That’s the number of drivers who are locked into the Chase (and, come Friday at 5:45 p.m. when they qualify, it will be official). Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth added their names to the clinched list at Atlanta.
Two: The number of Chase spots remaining.
19: The number of drivers not locked in who remain in mathematical contention for those two spots. Two of those – Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle – control their own destiny in some shape or form. Two others – Clint Bowyer and Kyle Larson – can earn a spot without a win, though it’ll be tough. Fifteen others can only earn a Chase spot with a victory (13 of those are win-and-in propositions).
Let’s take a look at some of the drivers vying for the final spot…
Newman controls his Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup destiny no matter who wins at Richmond.
If there is a repeat winner – or a Matt Kenseth victory – Newman is guaranteed a spot in the Chase as long as he finishes 41st or better, 42nd with at least one lap led, or 43rd with the most laps led.
Conversely, if there is a new winner that is not Kenseth, Newman can fulfill his Chase aspirations with a finish of 18th or better, 19th with at least one lap led; or 20th with the most laps led. He can finish lower as long as he holds his current points ranking among winless drivers.
The No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet driver has put himself in position to clinch by posting two top-five and nine top-10 performances this season, combined with just two finishes worse than 30th.
Even though he made himself a near-lock to make the Chase with his seventh-place finish at Atlanta, Newman was not satisfied.
“It was a good day, just not the day we needed it to be,” Neman said. “I like Richmond, but right now I am not sure what we need to do to lock ourselves in. We are close, it should be a lot of fun.”
Newman has one victory to go along with six top-five and 15 top-10 finishes at Richmond. In recent years, he has been solid yet unspectacular there with six top-15 performances, but just one within the top-five – a third place finish in last season’s regular season finale.
A little over a month ago, Biffle’s chances of making the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup were looking shaky at best.
He ranked 19th on the Chase grid following Indianapolis and faced added pressure to perform after it was announced Carl Edwards would leave Roush Fenway Racing.
Since then, Biffle has been a model of consistency, stringing together five consecutive top-10 finishes to thrust himself into the 16th and final spot on the grid with a cushy 23-point lead over Clint Bowyer entering the final regular season race at Michigan.
If there is a repeat victor, or if Matt Kenseth or Ryan Newman wins, Biffle is guaranteed a spot in the Chase if he finishes 22nd or better, 23rd with at least one lap led, or 24th and the most laps led. If there is a new winner – other than Kenseth or Newman – Biffle needs to beat Newman by 19 points and stay ahead of Bowyer and Kyle Larson. A new winner would be a nightmare scenario for Biffle. Unless, of course, Biffle is that new winner.
Biffle won’t be resting easy. Although 10 of the previous 12 races entering Atlanta were won by repeat winners, Kasey Kahne proved how unpredictable this season has become. Furthermore, Bowyer showed that a collapse can happen when his 31-point hold on the Chase’s 15th spot turned into a 23-point deficit with him on the outside looking in
Richmond hasn’t been too kind to Biffle either. In 24 starts in Virginia’s capital, Biffle has produced just two top fives and an average finish of 16.9.
If Biffle survives, he would make the Chase for the sixth time in seven years.
If Larson didn’t win in Atlanta, he needed either Clint Bowyer or Greg Biffle to implode to put him in position to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup via points.
It looked like Larson caught his lucky break in the Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway when Bowyer was forced into the garage early. But his luck disappeared when winless driver Kasey Kahne blew past Matt Kenseth on the final restart to seize his first victory of the season and clinch a spot in the Chase.
“So happy for Kasey,” said Larson of the fellow Chevrolet driver. “But that pretty much ends our Chase hopes, unless we win.”
Going into the final race at Richmond, Larson sits 18th on the Chase Grid, trailing Biffle by 24 points for the final Chase spot and Bowyer by one point for the 17th position. So, though he can mathematically land a Chase spot without a win, it’s unlikely.
Larson said it best. Unless Biffle completely collapses, his only hope of getting into the Chase is by winning Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on ABC).
In his lone NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start at Richmond earlier this season, Larson finished 16th after winning the pole. The 22-year-old rookie, known as “The Phenom,” owns one top-five and two top-10 NASCAR Nationwide Series finishes there.
By pulling off the victory on Saturday night, he would become just the second rookie ever to make the Chase. The only driver to pull off the feat was Denny Hamlin in 2006.
The nightmare scenario unfolded for Clint Bowyer in Sunday night’s Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Entering the race a comfortable 31 points above the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup cutoff line in the 15th position on the grid, Bowyer seemed to be safely in the series’ postseason. Eighty laps into the race, things took a turn for the worse. Bowyer’s shifter broke on the 80th lap, causing him to finish 38th, and Kasey Kahne clinched the checkered flag, eliminating a Chase spot for winless drivers. By the end of the night, Bowyer plummeted to 17th on the Chase grid, 23 points below Greg Biffle for the final spot.
“It seems like if it weren’t for bad luck, we wouldn’t have any luck,” Bowyer said. “We’ve been good at Richmond but we are going to have to have a really good finish, if not a win, to make it into the Chase.”
Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on ABC) could not come at a better time for Bowyer. Barring a minor miracle, he needs to win to get into the Chase and Richmond is a place where he’s a proven victor. Arguably his best track, Bowyer boasts two wins, three top fives and nine top 10s at the .75-mile, D-shaped course.
For all others, this is it. It’s win or go home.
Here are the drivers who MUST win at Richmond to earn a Chase spot: Paul Menard, Austin Dillon, Jamie McMurray, Brian Vickers, Marcos Ambrose, Casey Mears, Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Danica Patrick, Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett, David Gilliland, David Ragan and Cole Whitt.
All except Ragan and Whitt would automatically be in with a win. Ragan and Whitt would both need some help locking up a top 30 spot in the standings, which is also a factor in making the Chase.
With all the scenarios laid out, who will be the final two to cement their names on the Chase Grid and contend for a championship?
We’ll find out Saturday night after 400 laps.