The race for the Chase is likely to generate more interest than the race for the checkered flag this weekend at Richmond International Raceway.
In the sort of scenario NASCAR architects dream about, some of the Sprint Cup Series’ leading drivers will be wrestling for entry into the Chase for the Sprint Cup “playoffs” in Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400, the last race of the Cup regular season.
The numbers are wacky entering the 26th race of the Cup schedule, and almost anything is possible as drivers in the 11th through 20th positions shoot for the two wild-card entries into the Chase.
Complicating the situation is the current standing of last year’s champion, Tony Stewart, who appears to be limping – at best – into this year’s playoff run.
Entering Richmond, Stewart sits in the 10th – and final Chase qualifying – points position. But he is only 18 points in front of 11th-place Kasey Kahne. If Stewart has a bad run at RIR and Kahne shines, Kahne could move into 10th and drop Stewart into the wild-card mix, a circumstance that would be like turning on a popcorn machine.
With three seasonal victories, Stewart is a lock to make the Chase regardless of his Saturday night finish. But, if he qualifies using a wild card, he will not receive the bonus points (three per race) awarded to each top-10 driver for regular-season wins.
Kahne leads the wild-card horde with two victories. None of the other contenders has more than one. Strangely enough, however, a weird turn of events could knock Kahne from the Chase. If Stewart drops out of the Chase and claims one of the wild cards, and if Kyle Busch or Jeff Gordon win Saturday and jump ahead of Kahne in points, he would be in trouble.
Speaking of Gordon, the four-time champion came within one position of practically locking himself into the Chase Sunday night at Atlanta as he finished second to Denny Hamlin. On Saturday night, he needs a win or a points move in front of Busch.
“That race is always intense,” Gordon said of Richmond. “I've been a part of it where I've either been trying to get in like this or trying to stay in the Chase. There's so much on the line, trying to win the race.
“That race is always intense, but when you look at how many guys have to win the points and everything else, I mean, it's going to be a pretty crazy night. We got a lot of pressure on us, so we're going to be going there guns loaded and ready to do battle. … I think everybody expects there to be a little more pushing and shoving on the short track. So that's definitely going to ramp up the intensity.”
Busch has the second wild card entering Richmond. He doesn’t necessarily have to win to keep the card, but he must keep an eye in his rear-view mirror on the other contenders.
Carrying very long odds this weekend is Carl Edwards, who must win – something he hasn’t done since March of last year – and move ahead of several other drivers in points to make the Chase.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.