It's now or never for several drivers who are trying to clinch a spot in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
The 12-driver field for the Chase will be determined after Saturday night's 400-lap race at Richmond International Raceway. Six drivers already have clinched a top-10 spot in the playoffs -- Jimmie Johnson, the current points leader, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, who won last Sunday's race at Atlanta, and Matt Kenseth, who has the most wins this season with five. Kasey Kahne has secured at least a wild card position due to his two victories this year. Kahne fell from eighth to 12th in points after finishing 36th at Atlanta.
Richmond will decide the five remaining spots in the Chase.
Right now, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano, Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch are seventh through 10th, respectively, in the point standings. Those four drivers control their top-10 clinching destiny.
Regardless of any other driver's performance, Earnhardt will clinch a top-10 spot if he finishes 32nd or better, and Logano will lock down his position if he places 11th or higher. Biffle earns a spot if he finishes ninth or better. Busch secures a top-10 in the Chase if he wins the race, comes in second with at least one lap led or takes third after leading the most laps.
Busch, who won the inaugural Chase championship in 2004 when he drove for Roush Racing, could become the first driver from a single-car team to qualify for the playoffs. He is driving for Furniture Row Racing this season before he moves over to Stewart-Haas Racing next year.
"We're in position to make history, and that's pretty exciting for everyone associated with Furniture Row Racing," said Busch, who has scored four top-10 finishes in the last five races. "It's been our goal at Furniture Row Racing from the beginning of the year to make the Chase, and we enter the final pre- Chase race controlling our own destiny. We need to get it done on our own Saturday night and not worry about what the other Chase contenders are doing."
While Busch has a good shot of making the Chase, two other former Sprint Cup Series champions are in danger of not qualifying, particularly Brad Keselowski, who won the title last year. Keselowski finished 35th at Atlanta after suffering engine failure in the closing stages of the race. He dropped four spots in points to 15th.
"We don't dictate our own fate, which is never good," said Keselowski, who is presently 28 points behind 10th-place Busch. "We have the speed and performance to get there, but we haven't put together the execution or the luck. There's only so much you can control."
Keselowski has yet to score a victory this season. He definitely needs to win at Richmond in order to be in contention for a wild card spot. Mathematically, there will be at least two drivers outside the top-10 with wins. Martin Truex Jr. holds the second wild card based on winning one race and sitting 13th in points. Ryan Newman has one victory but is 14th in the standings, just five points behind Truex.
To clinch, Keselowski would need to win the race as well as outpoint Truex by 13 and Newman by eight. If Kahne were to displace a winless driver from the top-10 (Earnhardt or Busch), then Keselowski would only need to outpoint one of those drivers. If Truex or Newman manages to displace Busch from the top-10, Keselowski can get in the Chase if he finishes higher in points than the other one-win drivers remaining outside the top-10.
"I'm ready to go to Richmond and win the race," Keselowski said. "I'm not going to worry myself with where this car is or that car is during the race. We're going to win the race, and when it's over, we'll see if that was good enough to get us in."
Keselowski's best finish in eight starts at Richmond is seventh, which came one year ago.
Gordon, a four-time Cup champion, is just six points behind Busch in 11th place. He has gained ground in points by finishing sixth and seventh in the last two races. Gordon will clinch at least a wild card spot if he wins at Richmond.
"Winning is our goal this weekend; it's what we want to do every weekend," Gordon said. "Through practice, during qualifying and during the race, we're doing every thing we possibly can to win.
"I've said all along that I think (Chase berths) will come down to the last lap at Richmond, and we're going to battle all the way to that checkered flag to try and earn one of those spots."
Gordon has won at Richmond twice, but his most recent victory here has been since September 2000.
If Truex wins at Richmond, he will earn at least a wild card spot. It's the same scenario for Newman. Both drivers have an opportunity to secure a top-10 position.
Jamie McMurray (16th in points) and Paul Menard (17th) remain in the Chase hunt, but each driver is a long shot.
Forty-four teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Federated Auto Parts 400.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Saturday, Sept. 7. Race: Federated Auto Parts 400. Site: Richmond International Raceway. Track: 0.75-mile oval. Start time: 7:30 p.m. ET. Laps: 400. Miles: 300. 2012 Winner: Clint Bowyer. Television: ABC. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.