By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Richmond for the final event in the 26-race regular season, there are 19 drivers competing for the final four berths in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
That's right, 19 drivers who could qualifying for NASCAR's 10-race playoff if circumstances happen to fall the right way.
Among the 19, however, there's a vast disparity in the odds of success.
Eleven drivers can clinch a Chase spot only with a victory in Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
Ryan Blaney, AJ Allmendinger, Trevor Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Paul Menard, Greg Biffle, Danica Patrick, Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Casey Mears and Landon Cassill are comfortably within the top 30 in the Sprint Cup standings, but their only path to the playoffs consists of winning at Richmond.
David Ragan (31st in points) and Regan Smith (32nd) face even longer odds. Each of those drivers can capture victory, they'll make the Chase only if they leap-frog past other drivers into the top 30 -- no small accomplishment.
In a poker game, the player who starts with the best hand is most likely to win the pot. Similarly, in the race for the Chase, Chase Elliott and Chris Buescher are most likely to earn spots in the playoff because they are starting with an advantage and control their own destinies.
If there is a repeat winner in the Sprint Cup series at Richmond, Elliott can clinch a Chase spot with a finish of 39th or better (40th if he leads a lap).
Clearly, Elliott shares one hope with the four other drivers he's battling for a Chase berth on points (Austin Dillon, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne), namely that there's no new winner at Richmond -- unless, of course, they happen to be that new winner.
Take a look at how the math changes if there happens to be a new winner who isn't Elliott, Dillon, McMurray, Newman or Kahne. (And bear in mind that, in each case, a driver can finish one position lower with a lap led and two positions lower with most laps led).
With a new winner, Elliott can clinch a Chase spot with a finish of 17th. Dillon must finish eighth or better to clinch if there's a new winner, 30th if there's not.
McMurray's case for the Chase is the most complicated. If there's a repeat winner (or if Elliott or Dillon, the two winless drivers ahead of McMurray in the standings, happens to be a new winner), McMurray clinches a Chase spot with a finish of 21st or better.
Like Elliott, Dillon, Newman and Kahne, of course, McMurray clinches a Chase spot if he wins the race. If there's a repeat winner AND Buescher falls out of the top 30 in points, McMurray is playoff-bound regardless of his finish.
The 15-point penalty Newman incurred for his No. 31 Chevrolet's laser inspection station (LIS) failure after Sunday's race at Darlington put a serious crimp in his Chase hopes. Newman's best hope at this point is to win the race or to make up 22 points on McMurray and hope there's a repeat winner.
Newman has an average finish of 11.7 to McMurray's 20.1, but it's worth noting that McMurray has finished a career-best fourth in three of the last six Richmond races and no worse than 16th in that span. After the imposition of the 15-point penalty on Wednesday, Newman likely needs a McMurray disaster to advance to the Chase.
Kahne's road to the playoffs is even more difficult. To make the Chase on points, the driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet must hope for a repeat winner AND outscore Newman by either 22 or 23 points (depending on how the tiebreaker falls) AND must have Buescher fall out of the top 30.
That's a major long shot. Kahne's best hope is to win the race, and that's a scenario he's experienced before. Back in 2014, Kahne's win at Atlanta in the 25th event of the season got him into the Chase. This time, he'd have to win race No. 26 at the track that gave him the first of his 17 career victories in 2005.
For practical purposes, Buescher will make the Chase if he loses 11 or fewer points to Ragan, his closest pursuer.
For an outright clinch, Buescher needs to finish seventh (eighth with a lap led, ninth with most laps led), but chances are he won't need a top-10 run to qualify.
In fact, the odds favor the four drivers currently in Chase-eligible positions -- Buescher, Elliott, Dillon and McMurray. To use the poker analogy, they have the best hands going into Richmond.
Then again, no one expected Buescher to win the rain-shortened race at Pocono, the victory that vaulted him into the Chase conversation.