RICHMOND, Va. — In sport, nothing quite puts fans on the edge of their seat like a good playoff race.
Sure, the playoffs bring excitement and intensity event after event, but there is something about the final day of the regular season that just seems to be equally — if not more exciting — than the actual finale.
In the modern era, NASCAR is no different.
Since it’s inception in 2004, some of the greatest moments in NASCAR points racing have happened in the final regular season race at Richmond Int’l Raceway. Drivers who are vying for a chance to race for the opportunity at winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship will do whatever it takes to make sure they are part of the most elite group of stock car drivers in the world.
For instance, in the 2004 Chevy Rock and Roll 400, Jeremy Mayfield was on the outside looking in. He needed to win to have any true chance of add his name to the then-10 man roster that would be competing in the Chase. He delivered in clutch fashion, leading 151 of the 400 laps, and got some help from other problem-plagued contenders en route a spot in the Chase.
On the flip side of the coin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a horrific 2007 season, plagued by engine troubles and a hefty points penalty halfway through the season. Entering the regular season finale, Earnhardt was 128 points below the cut-off line. He was in contention all night long for a chance to make it in on points, but in the final laps of the event, his engine went up in smoke and denied him a chance to make the Chase.
This race can make you or break you. It can also get so desperate that the battle does far more than just affect the outcome of the final spot. Remember ‘Spingate’ in 2013? Yeah, just ask Martin Truex and Jeff Gordon about that one some time.
Now, fast forward to this year. Following the sanctioning body’s penalty announcement on Wednesday, most people have Ryan Newman dead in the water, as he is now 22 points out of a Chase spot. But don’t let the numbers fool you, he is very far from out.
In fact, some might even say he has an advantage coming into the final race before the 10-week Chase.
Desperate men will do desperate things if their careers hang in the balance. For men like Newman, there is no more tomorrow if he and his team do not perform well. There have already been rumors that he is the one who may be on the way out the door at Richard Childress Racing at the end of the year to make room for Childress’ grandson, Ty Dillon.
A Chase berth might not only make or break Newman’s season, it might just make or break the rest of his Sprint Cup career.
But keep in mind, we’ve seen Newman do desperate things before. He put Kyle Larson in the wall on the last lap at Phoenix in 2014 to get the one additional point he needed to advance to the final round at Homestead-Miami Speedway, knocking out Gordon in the process. We know he’s not afraid to do whatever it takes.
Newman could also rely on other drivers having problems as well, though. Chris Buescher is still in danger of falling out of the top 30 in points, and if he were to regress on Saturday night and fall out of the top 30, that means Newman would be pushed into the Chase and Kasey Kahne would be the first driver on the outside looking in.
Many things can happen ahead of a playoff run, but that is what makes sports so thrilling — the fact that there is such a stark contrast between being safe and out that it can literally be determined in a matter of feet.
One driver’s fate could be in the hands of another. It could come down to one spot, one point, one move or one win to determine who races for a championship and who goes home broken at the end of 400 laps on Saturday night.
Virginia may be for lovers, but there will be no love lost during the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond.
And for Newman, that kind of brash mentality could be the difference in whether he punches his Chase ticket or leaves the race track as an afterthought.
So yes, right now, the Boilermaker is 22 points out of a playoff berth.
But just be prepared for that to all potentially change.
And whatever you do, don’t count him out until that checkered flag waves this weekend.
The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Race Chaser Online, the Performance Motorsports Network, their sponsors or other contributors.
About the Writer
Rence Brown is Race Chaser Online’s West Coast-based correspondent, who currently resides in California and carries a deep passion for NASCAR, but is a follower of multiple forms of auto racing across multiple disciplines.
Brown, 23, is going back to school to pursue a journalism degree at Pierce College.
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