One race, two spots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
That’s the reality headed into Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway, the 26th and final race of NASCAR’s regular season.
Nine drivers – Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick — are guaranteed to leave Richmond in the top 10 in points.
Tenth-place Tony Stewart is guaranteed a Chase slot as well, although whether he goes in as a member of the top 10 or as a wild card remains to be seen.
Stewart, the three-time and defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, leads 11th-place Kasey Kahne by a mere 18 points in the race for the final top-10 spot.
To stay in the top 10, Stewart needs to finish 14th with no laps led, 15th with at least one lap led or 16th with the most laps led. Stewart finished third at RIR in April and has three victories at the D-shaped 0.75-mile track.
Kahne (-18), Kyle Busch (-23) and Jeff Gordon (-35) are the only three drivers who could race their way into the top 10 and knock Stewart out. Kahne’s two victories make him the first wild card, with Busch currently holding the second spot.
Marcos Ambrose, Ryan Newman, Joey Logano, Carl Edwards and Paul Menard are also mathematically alive for a wild-card slot going into Friday night’s race.
According to NASCAR, here are the various wild card scenarios for the eligible drivers:
KASEY KAHNE — A Richmond victory clinches a wild card. If Stewart stays in the top 10, Kahne automatically clinches. If Stewart falls out of the top 10, Kahne will clinch a spot if a one-win driver outside the top 10 does not win. If Busch knocks Stewart out of the top 10, and Gordon wins, Kahne clinches a spot by finishing 13th or better, 14th with at least one lap led or 15th with the most laps led. Kahne has one Richmond victory and finished fifth in April’s Richmond race.
KYLE BUSCH — If Stewart remains in the top 10 or if Kahne makes it into the top 10, Busch will clinch a Chase spot by losing 12 or fewer points to Gordon and by losing 40 or fewer points to Ambrose. A win would guarantee Busch a Chase berth. Busch is a four-time Richmond winner (including April) and has an average finish of 4.7 here. Based on statistical data, Busch is the overwhelming favorite to win the second wild card.
JEFF GORDON — If Stewart remains in the top 10 or if Kahne makes the top 10, Gordon will clinch by finishing 13 points ahead of Busch and by losing 28 or fewer points to Ambrose and 37 or fewer points to Newman. If Busch knocks Stewart from the top 10, Gordon would clinch a Chase berth with a win and by finishing 18 points ahead of Kahne at Richmond. Gordon has won twice at Richmond but not since 2000.
Now we get into long-shot territory.
MARCOS AMBROSE — The Tasmania native makes it in if he wins and Stewart stays in the top 10 in points. If Ambrose doesn’t win and Stewart remains in the top 10 or if Kahne moves into the top 10, Ambrose will clinch by finishing 41 points ahead of Busch and 29 points ahead of Gordon. A fifth-place finish in the fall of 2010 is Ambrose’s best Richmond effort. His average finish of 16.1 is nearly six positions higher than his average start.
RYAN NEWMAN — The Stewart-Haas Racing driver can only clinch a Chase berth with a win. If either Busch or Gordon knocks Stewart out of the top 10, Newman will be eliminated. Newman’s one Richmond victory came in the fall of 2003.
JOEY LOGANO — The lame-duck Joe Gibbs Racing driver needs the exact same circumstances as Newman: A race victory and Stewart to remain in the top 10. Logano has never finished higher than fourth at Richmond.
CARL EDWARDS — On Saturday night, Edwards needs to win and Busch has to finish 24th or worse (with no laps led) and Gordon has to finish 12th or worse. If Busch or Gordon knocks out Stewart from the top 10, Edwards will be eliminated. Edwards finished second in this race last year.
PAUL MENARD — The Richard Childress Racing driver needs to win and Busch has to finish 34th or worse (with no laps led) and Gordon has to finish 22nd or worse. If Busch or Gordon supplants Stewart in the top 10, Menard will be eliminated. Menard has never finished better than 13th at RIR.
All other drivers have been eliminated from Chase contention.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.