This Week in Auto Racing September 9 - 11

It's now or never for several drivers who hope to make the Chase, as the Sprint Cup Series concludes its regular season this weekend at Richmond International Raceway. The Nationwide Series also runs at Richmond. Formula One ends its European tour for the season with the Italian Grand Prix.


Sprint Cup Series

Wonderful Pistachios 400 - Richmond International Raceway - Richmond, VA

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.

Nationwide Series

Virginia 529 College Savings 250 - Richmond Int'l Raceway - Richmond, VA

Friday night's 250-lap race is the third of four "Dash 4 Cash" races in the Nationwide Series this season.

Elliott Sadler, Reed Sorenson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the current points leader, and Josh Wise are the drivers eligible for the $100,000 bonus from series title sponsor Nationwide Insurance. They gained eligibility based on their finishes in the most recent "Dash 4 Cash" race - August 6 at Iowa. Stenhouse won the race, while Sadler finished third, Wise fourth and Sorenson sixth.

Sorenson won the cash award at both Daytona (July 1) and Iowa. Stenhouse, Sadler and Wise were not eligible at Iowa.

The October 14 race at Charlotte is final race on the bonus program.

Stenhouse comes to Richmond with a 13-point advantage over Sadler, while Sorenson, who has struggled since Iowa, is 40 points out of the lead. Sorenson finished 32nd last Saturday at Atlanta. Eight races remain this season.

"This team understands the task we have at hand here and what we need to do to get back in contention for this championship," Sorenson said. "We just want to focus on playing up our strengths and minimizing the weaknesses. It's also fun for us to be racing for the Nationwide Dash 4 Cash money again, although I understand the competition is going to be tight for it. It's a really great program, and we will definitely know where all the other guys are on the track all night."

Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Jamie McMurray are those Sprint Cup Series regulars entered in this race. Harvick is the defending winner.

"I've always liked racing at Richmond and enjoy racing at night," Harvick said. "I think everyone likes night racing. Richmond, like the other flat tracks, really suits my driving style. Plus, we've been able to run really good there. I have five wins in the Nationwide Series, including last year's fall race."

Danica Patrick will compete in her first Nationwide race since her announcement last month that she will run a full schedule in Nationwide and a partial one in Sprint Cup in 2012.

Even though Patrick has yet to compete in a stock car race at Richmond, she is quite familiar with this track, having posted four top-10 finishes in five IndyCar events here.

Forty-nine teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Virginia 529 College Savings 250.


Italian Grand Prix - Autodromo Nazionale di Monza - Monza, Italy

Formula One will run its ninth and final race in Europe this season with Sunday's Italian Grand Prix. F1 will then compete in Singapore, Japan, South Korea, India and Abu Dhabi before wrapping up the season on November 27 in Brazil.

With seven races remaining on this year's calendar, defending world champion Sebastian Vettel from Red Bull Racing holds a very comfortable 92-point lead over his teammate Mark Webber. Fernando Alonso from Ferrari trails Vettel by 102 points, while McLaren drivers Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton are 110 and 113 behind, respectively. All other drivers have already been mathematically eliminated from this year's title race.

Vettel made F1 history at the 3.6-mile (5.793-kilometer), 11-turn Monza circuit three years ago. At age 21, he became the youngest race winner and pole sitter with his wet-weather victory in the Italian GP. The young German drove for Toro Rosso at the time. Vettel moved over to Red Bull the following year.

"Monza holds incredibly special memories for me," he said. "It's where I scored my first-ever F1 win with Toro Rosso in 2008. That's something I will never forget. I had goose bumps standing on the podium with the fans below."

Alonso is a two-time Italian GP winner. Last year, the Spaniard won in dramatic fashion on Ferrari's home track. He started on the pole but endured a sluggish beginning when Button passed him for the lead heading into the first chicane on the opening lap. Alonso came charging back later in the 53-lap race when he exited the pits quick enough to beat Button's on-coming car on the track. He led the final 15 laps to give his Italian team a win in its backyard.

Alonso's first win at Monza came during his first and only season with McLaren in 2007.

"Another win this year? Why not," he said. "Monza is a unique track with a unique setup, which involves its own wings and aero set-up, so everyone is effectively back to zero. I expect we will have a very competitive car, and Ferrari will be very strong, boosted by the fact we really want to win at home."