Going By the Numbers · Kevin Rutherford · Monday September 2, 2013
Whatever your opinion of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ Chase format, it’s tough to deny the drama that surrounds the playoffs entering this weekend’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond.
Since Daytona, 40-plus drivers have battled for just 12 spots in NASCAR’s postseason, hoping to earn a Chase berth either through consistency — that is, a season good enough for the top 10 in points — or a bevy of wins, enough to pull through in the wild card race for the final two spots in the Chase.
Now, it’s down to one more race, where 10 different drivers will duke it out for the five final berths. Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne — the latter by virtue of his two wins — have locked themselves into the Chase entering Richmond.
Who will join them?
Obviously, it’s not a level playing field for a number of reasons, meaning that early favorites have emerged. There’s the simple fact, to start, that some are further ahead than others in points, putting Dale Earnhardt Jr., who merely needs a 32nd-place finish or higher, at an obvious advantage and Paul Menard, a driver who needs a win at Richmond and very unfortunate things to happen to a number of other contenders, at a severe disadvantage.
But then there’s two other key ingredients: past stats at Richmond and the results one’s been attaining over the last few weeks.
Let’s check out all 10 drivers and assess their chances, given these factors.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Richmond Stats: 3 wins, 9 top fives, 12 top 10s, 1 pole, 13.8 average finish
Last Five Races: 1 top five, 3 top 10s, 17.8 average finish
Richmond Stats: 2 top fives, 2 top 10s, 17.3 average finish
Last Five Races: 1 win, 3 top fives, 5 top 10s, 1 pole, 4.4 average finish
Richmond Stats: 2 top fives, 6 top 10s, 1 pole, 17.2 average finish
Last Five Races: 3 top 10s, 11.8 average finish
Richmond Stats: 1 win, 4 top fives, 8 top 10s, 17.9 average finish
Last Five Races: 3 top fives, 4 top 10s, 10.0 average finish
Richmond Stats: 2 wins, 16 top fives, 25 top 10s, 2 poles, 14.3 average finish
Last Five Races: 1 top five, 3 top 10s, 13.6 average finish
Martin Truex Jr.
Richmond Stats: 1 top five, 2 top 10s, 23.7 average finish
Last Five Races: 2 top fives, 2 top 10s, 14.4 average finish
Richmond Stats: 1 win, 5 top fives, 13 top 10s, 1 pole, 11.8 average finish
Last Five Races: 2 top fives, 2 top 10s, 11.4 average finish
Richmond Stats: 2 top 10s, 20.5 average finish
Last Five Races: 1 top five, 2 top 10s, 17.0 average finish
Richmond Stats: 3 top 10s, 23.3 average finish
Last Five Races: 15.8 average finish
Richmond Stats: 26.0 average finish
Last Five Races: 1 top five, 2 top 10s, 16.6 average finish
What kind of perspective do those numbers bring?
It certainly backs up the likelihood that Earnhardt and Logano are basically locks for the Chase. Let alone Junior’s strong points showing at the moment in comparison to his contemporaries, he’s also a stout competitor at Richmond, with three wins and an average finish of 13.8 throughout his career there. Logano’s in a similar boat. He needs to finish 11th or higher without a lap led to lock himself in, and though he’s never been brilliant at Richmond, he does have a hefty amount of good vibes rolling with him right now, what with a 4.4 average finish in the last five races — the best in the series by far.
From there, it’s trickier. Biffle and Kurt Busch have shown they belong in recent weeks with strong showings in the past few races, the latter’s 10th-place average finish being second best only to Logano of full-time drivers. In addition, both have shown power at Richmond in the past. Neither has an average higher than 17th, but both have wins at the track — Biffle’s two to Kurt’s one.
It’s recent prowess that separates Biffle and Busch from Jeff Gordon. Though Gordon’s been decent as of late and has his share of wins at Richmond, he has to surpass two drivers who have been even better over the last few races. That’s a tall order, though one can never count out the wily former champion.
Meanwhile, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman have had stellar seasons in recent weeks but are in a battle of their own. Truex currently holds the second wild card spot, with Newman five points behind and right on his heels. There’s the chance both could lose the wild card, but it only seems likely if Gordon wins and remains outside the top 10. In all, it could come down to Newman’s 11.8 average finish at Richmond versus Truex’s 23.7.
Of course, both are trying to stay ahead of defending champion Brad Keselowski, who’s only eight points behind Newman and 13 behind Truex. The difference? Keselowski can’t just beat them — he has to win the race itself. In fact, same goes for McMurray and Menard, both drivers who don’t have wins and whose only hope is to win at Richmond. Even then, there’s the possibility any of the three still might not make it into the Chase. It doesn’t help that none of them have fairly decent past results at the short track.
All told, it all seems to suggest that, while the top 10 in points may remain the same, the real battle may be for the wild card, where Ryan Newman just might come out on top over Martin Truex Jr.
That is, unless Jeff Gordon has anything to say about that come Saturday.
Stay tuned, race fans.
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