As the Sprint Cup Series heads into its regular-season finale at Richmond on Saturday night, eight drivers have already clinched berths in the Chase: Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman.
For this octet, all that matters at RIR is winning. If you're already locked into the Chase, after all, there is no difference between finishing second or 43rd; what these drivers want is the three-point victory bonus that would carry into the 10-race playoff. What will this mean for Saturday night? For these eight drivers and teams, it probably will translate into aggressive driving and aggressive pit strategy -- especially as the laps wind down.
Three other drivers are sitting in good position to clinch the final three spots in the Chase. They're among the five to keep an eye on when the green flag flies on Saturday night:
Currently ninth in the standings, Earnhardt only needs to finish 20th or better and he makes the Chase for the first time in three seasons. This sounds easy, but it may not be for Earnhardt, who has struggled at Richmond in recent years. In his last five starts at the .75-mile oval, he's only finished 20th or better once (last spring when he came in 19th). Drivers behind Earnhardt in the points would need very strong races to knock him out of the Chase, but it certainly could happen.
The larger question for Earnhardt is this: If he does make it into the Chase -- and, for the record, I think he will -- can he be a legitimate championship contender? At this point, that looks like a stretch. He still hasn't won a race since the summer of 2008 and he's been a middle-of-the-pack driver for most of the summer. Sure, it would be a big boost to NASCAR's TV ratings if its most popular driver were to be a factor this fall, but it's just hard to envision that happening.
Stewart, 10th in the standings, needs to finish 18th or better to clinch a spot in the playoffs. He had an extremely impressive late surge on Tuesday in the rain-delayed race at Atlanta, cruising from seventh to third over the final four laps. That could end up being a turnaround moment for the No. 14 team, which earlier this year looked as strong as anyone, contending for four wins in the opening months of the season but failing to capitalize on any of those chances.
Stewart finished 16th in this race last year; he'd obviously settle for the same result Saturday night. It says here he makes the Chase.
Though he's had a mostly forgettable season, Hamlin should make the Chase as a wild card as long as Clint Bowyer, A.J. Allmendinger or Greg Biffle don't take the checkered flag and Hamlin doesn't have a disastrous night at the place that Hamlin, a native of Chesterfield, Va., considers his home track.
I think Hamlin advances to the Chase on Saturday night with a strong run. He's won two of the last four Cup races at Richmond, including this event last year. It's unlikely that Hamlin, a year removed from nearly dethroning Jimmie Johnson, will make much noise in the Chase this year given his struggles this summer, but he should qualify for the playoffs for the sixth straight season.
Bowyer has to win on Saturday night and make up 12 points on Hamlin to earn the last spot in the Chase. If he could pull it off, it would be one of the most unlikely, incredible events of the Chase era -- but I don't see it happening. In 11 career starts at RIR, Bowyer has one victory and an average finish of 9.5.
Biffle has had a tremendously disappointing season. Back in February at Daytona, many in the garage thought Biffle could be a legitimate championship contender in 2011, but it simply hasn't happened. He's 15th in the standings, has zero wins, and only one top-five finish. To make the Chase, he basically needs to win, have Hamlin get knocked out early and hope that both Bowyer and A.J. Allmendinger struggle mightily. So there's virtually zero chance that Biffle, who has never won at Richmond in 18 career starts at RIR, will be a player in the Chase this fall.
My pick to win on Saturday night is Hamlin, who still genuinely believes - admirably -- that he can take down Johnson this November. But he's about the only one in the Cup garage who shares that sentiment.