Last chance to make the Chase
Richmond, VA – Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Saturday, mile oval. Start time: 7:30 p.m. (et). Laps: 400. Miles: 300. 2010 Winner: Denny Hamlin. Television: ABC. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Satellite.
Time is running out for several drivers who are attempting to qualify for the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Heading into Saturday night's regular-season-ending race at Richmond International Raceway, nine drivers have already secured a position in the 12- member field for the Chase.
Those drivers who have clinched a top-10 spot include: Jimmie Johnson, the five-time defending series champion, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman. Johnson is the current points leader (21 ahead of Kyle Busch).
With his three victories so far this season, Brad Keselowski has clinched at least a wild card berth. Keselowski is presently 11th in points.
Richmond will decide the remaining three spots in the Chase.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart are ranked ninth and tenth in points, respectively, heading into Richmond. Earnhardt Jr. is 25 markers ahead of Keselowski, while Stewart holds a 23-point cushion.
Earnhardt Jr. is hoping for a quick turnaround after struggling within the past month. He has finished outside the top-10 in the last four races, including a 19th-place run on Tuesday at Atlanta. If Earnhardt Jr. finishes 20th or better at Richmond, he will clinch a playoff spot, regardless of any other driver's performance. He has missed the Chase the past two years.
"Brad has been running great and the 14 [Stewart] is always stout, so we will just try to go in there and run better," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I am not really worried about it. I don't have time to worry about it, as bad as we have been running. We need to get our [act] together and run good. Or it doesn't matter where we are in the Chase, and doesn't matter if we are in or not."
Stewart is guaranteed a playoff spot if he finishes 18th or better. He gained points on Keselowski after his third-place run at Atlanta. Keselowski finished sixth there.
"Those points are big going into [Richmond], for sure," Stewart said. "I wish what we did [at Atlanta] transferred over to Richmond, but it doesn't."
Even though he's qualified for the Chase, Richmond will be a very important race for Keselowski. If he moves into the top-10 in points at Richmond, his three wins so far would determine his seeding for the playoffs. Otherwise, he will start the Chase in one of the wild card seeds (11th or 12th).
If Denny Hamlin wins at Richmond, he will earn at least a wild card position. Hamlin sits 12th in points (42 behind Stewart), but his win in June at Michigan has him currently holding the second wild card spot.
Hamlin, who hails from nearby Chesterfield, VA, has won the last two fall races at his home track.
"Regardless of whether we win or whether we run top-five or whatever, we know we're going to go there, and we're going to be competitive," he said. "We feel like we will be. We always look at the schedule, and luckily for us, some of our best racetracks are the three to four that lead into the Chase."
His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, has won the last three spring races at this 0.75-mile track.
"It seems like here lately with giving so much information to [Kyle Busch], he's been the guy we've had to kind of harness here lately," Hamlin added.
Hamlin does not have to win this weekend's race at Richmond to make the Chase. If he stays ahead of all one-win drivers, and if there are no other two-win drivers inside the top-20 in points, he's makes the playoffs.
Or if Keselowski advances into the top-10 and if there is a two-win driver from 11th to 20th in points at the conclusion of the Richmond race, Hamlin can qualify as long as he's higher in points than any other one-win driver.
Right now, Paul Menard is the only driver other than Hamlin in the top-20 that has one win. Menard, 20th in points, won his first career Sprint Cup race in August at Indianapolis.
Those drivers who are outside the top-20 and have a win for the season include: Marcos Ambrose (21st in points) David Ragan (23rd) and Regan Smith (26th). Smith has already been mathematically eliminated from Chase contention.
With the exception of Hamlin, Menard, Ambrose and Ragan, those drivers without an already-clinched Chase spot need to win at Richmond, be in the top-20 in points and have various finishes from other competitors in the race to earn a position in the playoffs.
Forty-six teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Wonderful Pistachios 400.