Richmond preview: Who'll make the Chase and who won't
Few moments in American motorsports are more charged with high-rpm intensity than the instant on pit road at Richmond International Speedway just before the Sprint Cup drivers slide into their cockpits and fire up their engines for the final race of the regular season. As the drivers on the playoff bubble stand next to their cars in the Virginia twilight, with the track lights on and the stands humming with anticipation, they'll eye other warily, as if they're all wondering just how far each of them will push their cars -- and what chances they'll take -- to make the Chase. For these drivers, a season's worth of work is distilled into three hours of short-track, fender-to-fender racing -- three hours that, in some cases, will define careers.
With 25 regular season races complete, seven drivers have locked in a spot in the playoffs: Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne. So as the circuit roars through Richmond on Saturday night, five Chase spots remain to be filled in this finale. Ten drivers are mathematically still alive, but Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard are such long shots that we won't include them in our breakdown of the drivers vying to earn a place in the 2013 Chase. But, as Brad Keselowski proved last season, anything can happen in the NASCAR playoffs; underdogs can slay giants.
So here's who will -- and who won't -- advance to the Chase among the final eight still in legitimate playoff contention.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (seventh in points)
Of the drivers who have yet to lock up a spot in the playoffs, Earnhardt has the easiest job on Saturday night: He simply needs to finish 32nd or better and he's in. Considering that Richmond is, statistically, his third-best track on the schedule -- his career average finish on the .75-mile oval is 13.8; he's better only at Bristol (11.5) and Martinsville (13.4) -- he should cruise into his third straight Chase with relative ease.
Bottom line: Earnhardt is in.
2. Joey Logano (eighth)
If Logano finishes 11th or better, he'll qualify for his first Chase. But even if he falters on Saturday night and drops out of the top 10 in the points standings, he's still a solid bet to advance. He has one victory, which means he'd probably have to get leapfrogged in the standings by Martin Truex Jr., who also has one and who currently trails Logano by 25 points, which roughly translates to 25 positions on the track.
And remember: Over the last six races, no driver has scored more points than Logano, who came in second last Sunday in Atlanta. Logano, who finished third at Richmond in the spring, is peaking at the perfect time.
Bottom line: Logano is in.
3. Greg Biffle (ninth)
Biffle needs to finish ninth or better to guarantee a berth. This could be tall order for him: In his last 13 starts at Richmond, he has only one top-10.
It says here that Biffle will struggle on Saturday night, but that doesn't mean his playoff hopes will be dashed. If he falls out of the top 10, he merely needs to out-point Truex (most likely) to secure a wild card. The Biff is currently 23 points ahead of him.
Bottom line: Biffle is in -- as a wildcard.
4. Kurt Busch (10th)
No driver from a single-car team has ever made it into the Chase, but Busch is in prime position. Driving for Furniture Row Racing, he can automatically clinch a berth by finishing second and leading one lap. If he doesn't do that, he probably needs to beat Biffle by at least 10 positions. I think Busch, who led 36 laps at Richmond in the spring and finished ninth, will accomplish that on Saturday night.
Bottom line: Busch is in.
5. Jeff Gordon (11th)
Gordon controls his own destiny -- barely. He'll clinch a wild card berth if he reaches Victory Lane.
The bad news: He hasn't done that since the 2012 season finale in Homestead, which means he's currently on a 25-race winless streak. The good news: He finished second in this event last year and third in 2012. Gordon, the 42-year-old four-time champ, is my pick to take the checkers on Saturday night.
Bottom line: Gordon, in a mild upset, is in.
6. Martin Truex Jr. (13th)
The schedule doesn't favor him. If Truex wins, he'll at least secure a wild card spot, but Richmond isn't one of his stronger tracks. In his last six starts at RIR, he has finished no higher than 17th.
The most likely scenario for Truex qualifying for his second Chase would be to finish in the top-five and have Gordon and Busch struggle mightily, but that seems highly unlikely.
Bottom line: Truex is out.
7. Ryan Newman (14th)
Newman is 20 points out of 10th place, but he still can power his way into the playoffs with a victory. Could he pull it off? He does have one career win at Richmond, but that was back in 2003. He finished 15th at RIR in the spring.
Bottom line: Newman is out.
8. Brad Keselowski (15th)
These are desperate times for the defending Sprint Cup champion. After finishing 35th at Atlanta last Sunday evening, Keselowski fell from 11th to 15th in the standings. Now it would require a bigger upset than the one he pulled off over Jimmie Johnson in last year's Chase for Keselowski to make the 2013 playoffs.
Winless this season, he is 28 points out of 10th place. Basically, Keselowski must take the checkered flag -- something he's never done in eight-career starts at Richmond -- and then hope that both Truex and Newman sputter to back-of-the-field finishes. Could this happen? Of course. Will this happen? Of course not.
Bottom line: Keselowski is out.