Driver Jeff Gordon gets ready to sign autographs after practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Va., Friday, Sept. 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Chet Strange)
Chet Strange
September 11, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) Jeff Gordon knows a 17th-place finish Saturday night guarantees him a spot in NASCAR's playoffs in his final season. Based on his history, that's exactly where he expects to run in the last race of the regular season.

''What I will tell you is that throughout my career, every time I went into a race and someone said that I have to finish 17th or better, we usually hovered around 18th all night,'' Gordon said Friday.

It has the four-time NASCAR champion slightly stressed as he head into the final race to set the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field. A year after he narrowly missed advancing to the final round of the Chase, he's winless and in danger of not being eligible to run for the fifth title that's eluded him the last 14 years.

''Certainly there is no comfort in where we are,'' Gordon said. ''It is so easy for things to go wrong and you are just trying to focus on doing everything right. We can't overthink it and stress too much about the pressure that is on us.

''You just fight hard for every position on every lap. We have to be smart and not get too far outside our comfort zone and do things too crazy, but we also can't be too conservative. That is the downside of the position we are in.''

Only the 11 drivers currently locked into the field have a sense of comfort at Richmond International Raceway. There are four spots up for grabs, and a first-time race winner Saturday night could jumble the standings.

Should Saturday night produce a repeat winner, then Gordon, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer should take the remaining slots. Jamie McMurray will qualify for the Chase for the first time in his career when he takes the green flag.

The others all have conditions they must meet to avoid being bumped from the playoffs field.

Newman makes it by finishing 31st or better; Menard needs to finish ninth or better. Both are guaranteed to make the Chase - as is Gordon - if there's a repeat winner.

Bowyer, with a repeat winner, needs to finish 28th or better to clinch.

''We've got a good enough of a point pad that if we go out there and do what we're capable of doing, we're plenty good,'' Bowyer said. ''If somebody were to win or something happens, then it wasn't meant to be. At the end of the day, we've done all we can do.''

Newman wants to be informed Saturday night of where others are running. He joked that it will be obvious he's in trouble if Kyle Larson, Kasey Kahne and Aric Almirola - drivers who will make the Chase with a win at Richmond - are running 1-2-3 in the final five laps he won't need anyone to tell him he's in trouble.

But Newman said it can be helpful for his team to communicate the circumstances Saturday night.

''You are only in control of what you are in control of, that sounds so cliche,'' Newman said. ''But at the same time you like to know what is going on around you. It might calm your nerves, but it doesn't change anything.

''In the end you still have to do your job.''

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