Strip away all the win-and-you're-in long shots and complicated algorithms that indicate that Paul Menard -- Paul Menard? -- still has a chance at making the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and the battle for the final Chase berth in Saturday's regular-season finale at Richmond basically comes down to Kyle Busch versus Jeff Gordon.
Could there be a greater contrast between two drivers? Gordon is a 20-season Sprint Cup veteran who exudes corporate charisma. Busch is a 27-year-old youngster whose obvious racing talent is often overshadowed by his even more obvious punkish attitude. Gordon's nickname during his early days on the circuit was "Wonderboy." Busch is known as "Rowdy." One of Gordon's primary sponsors this year is the Drive to End Hunger charitable program. The Nationwide Series team that Busch owns is sponsored by Monster Energy Drink.
In fact, just about the only thing the two drivers have in common is the ability to win races -- a lot of races. Gordon is third on the all-time Cup victory list with 86, with nearly half those wins (42) coming by the age of 27. Busch hasn't been able to maintain quite that rapid of a victory pace -- of course, nobody has -- but he has accumulated 24 wins by the same age, which already places him 26th on the all time list.
If either Busch or Gordon wins Saturday night at Richmond, they will secure a spot in the Chase. A win there is certainly possible for either driver, since Busch has taken the checkered flag at Richmond four times and Gordon twice. In terms of points, Gordon trails Busch by 12 in the standings. So if Gordon doesn't win the race, he would have to finish at least 12 spots ahead of Busch, which could be difficult considering that Busch has finished outside the top 10 only twice in 15 starts at Richmond.
Three other drivers -- Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman -- could also race their way into the Chase with a win at Richmond; though Newman is the only one of the trio who has been to Victory Lane at the track and that happened nine years ago. Menard and Carl Edwards are mathematically still alive, though neither is likely to make it. There also is an extremely convoluted scenario in which Kasey Kahne could lose his wild-card berth and allow both Busch and Gordon to get in, but there is no need to waste brain cells on that unlikely possibility.
So in all likelihood, the final Chase berth will go to either Busch or Gordon. This raises the question: which of those drivers is in greater need of making the Chase? The answer would seem to be Gordon. At age 41 he is undoubtedly closing in on the final laps of his career. He has been stuck on four career championships since 2001 and has managed a total of only five victories over the past five seasons. Realistically he has only a few seasons left to be a serious title contender. In that sense, he needs to make the Chase this year because his opportunities to win that elusive fifth title are rapidly dwindling.
Busch, on the other hand, figures to have at least another 15 years of quality racing ahead of him. With his talent it seems almost certain that he will eventually win a championship and possibly multiple ones. Would it truly be that big of a blow if he missed the Chase this year?
Actually, I think it would be. Let's face it, no matter what Gordon does Saturday or the rest of this season or the remainder of his racing career, his place among the sport's all-time greats is already established. He's been with the powerful Hendrick Motorsports operation for 20 years and undoubtedly has a spot within the organization for as long as he wants. He could race competitively for another decade or pull back and become a part-time driver in the near future or even retire from racing entirely. Regardless of what he does, Gordon's legacy is secure.
Meanwhile, despite all of Busch's success early in his career, he still has not reached his potential -- lately he's actually shown signs of regressing. Busch has only one victory over the past 38 Sprint Cup races, dating to August 2011. And even when he was winning more often, he has never proven to be a serious championship contender. His best finish in the final standings is fifth place, and that was five years ago. He missed the Chase entirely in 2009 and finished 12th out of the 12 Chase drivers last season.
In addition, Busch's accomplishments are too often clouded by his immature actions both on and off the track. As recently as last November, NASCAR parked him for the Sprint Cup and Nationwide races at Texas Motor Speedway after he intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. under caution during the Truck Series race. He has been on better behavior this year but still comes across as churlish during interviews -- that's when he speaks at all. If Busch is in a bad mood following a race, he is sure to bolt from the track without talking to the media; that certainly can't sit well with his sponsors, who are paying big money to get television time and those inevitable sponsor references that drivers drop during interviews.
As in all sports, such behavior is tolerated when an athlete is performing well and helping the team win. But as soon as the performance dips even a notch, owners and teammates and sponsors become less tolerant of the bad-boy act. And the fact is, Busch is in danger of having his on-track performance drop off to the point that some people might feel like he no longer is worth the trouble.
He was basically fired by Hendrick Motorsports in 2007 because of his attitude, and that was after winning four Cup races by 22. He has gotten away with a lot during his five seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing, primarily because he has been such an impressive talent on the track. If that goes away, then Gibbs could easily cut ties with him as well.
So in that regard, Busch desperately needs to make the Chase this season, especially since he has the lead heading into the final race. If he lets this opportunity slip away, it will be the second time he has missed the Chase in four years, which simply is stunning for a driver of his ability. Gordon wants to make the Chase because, at his age, he knows his future in the sport is running out. Busch needs to make the Chase because, if he isn't careful, his future might not be quite as lengthy or as successful as we had all imagined it would be.