NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: Richmond a “Must-See” Event

NASCAR’s long schedule has always become tedious for race fans who, as the season wears on, invariably suffer from stock car “burnout” to one degree or another. Expecting fans to sit through all 36 scheduled points races and the two exhibition races in a 52-week year is asking way too much and generally won’t happen. Unlike journalists, whose editors expect them to sit up and pay attention for every lap of every race, the average fan at some point will exercise their right to take a breather from NASCAR’s action and drama. Maybe spend some time matching names to faces of their family members or propping up the porch with some new 4x4s before it collapses. However, this coming Saturday evening is not the time to mend family relationships or be concerned with the fact that the house is close to being condemned by the city. Fans’ full attention should be on the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway.

The Daytona 500 is always a cinch to capture the large majority of stock car racing fans’ interest simply because it is such an extravaganza and brings in a new race season that fans welcome enthusiastically, having had time during the winter to reenergize their interest for the sport and forget the drudgery of the previous season’s schedule. However, the second race at Richmond, the last race before the Chase for the Sprint Cup, is the “must-see” event of the year for fans that continually cry out to see real, honest-to-goodness racing without drivers content to coast to protect their points positions or reluctant to swap some paint with their competitors to gain track position.

Unless the 10-race shootout for the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup becomes a real barnburner of a battle leading into the final race of the season at Homestead, this weekend’s event will be as good as it will get for stock car racing fans. No other race on the schedule will match this race for drama and excitement like the hard-nosed, race-to-win competition that fans will witness Saturday night.

All the ingredients are in place for one great show, starting with the correct venue. The ¾-mile Richmond International Raceway will provide, perhaps better than any other track on the Sprint Cup circuit, a site that will give teams struggling to maintain their top-12 Chase eligible points positions and the two drivers needing to unseat them the best opportunity to achieve their goals the old fashioned way… by earning it.

Kasey Kahne finds himself and his No. 9 Gillett Evernham Budweiser Dodge a mere 48 points outside of the top-12 Chase-eligible slots. Roush Fenway driver David Ragan, driving the No. 6 Ford made famous by Mark Martin, is surprisingly even better situated to unseat one of the drivers still on the bubble ahead of him, trailing Clint Bowyer by only 17 points for the 12th and final Chase-qualifying position. At Richmond the two hopeful drivers will be given perhaps the best opportunity they could ask for as they attempt to race themselves into contention for the Sprint Cup championship.

Kahne and Ragan, along with other drivers still very much in danger of falling out of the top 12, will settle the issue very much on their own terms. They will be required to muster up all the driving skill they can, to win the event if at all possible. Good “old-school” racing on one of NASCAR’s most storied tracks, Richmond will allow the drivers to just race and not be concerned about fuel mileage, drafting partners or next week’s race. Instead, drivers can just root and gouge their way as close to the front as they possibly can, hoping and praying that they did enough.

The gloves are off for drivers 9-14 in the points standings. Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Bowyer, Ragan and Kahne have but one goal – to outrun each other by as many precious points-paying positions as possible. Running out front is the place where each of the contenders knows they need to be, far away from the middle of the pack and the inherent risk of being caught up in a melee.

Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton are already locked into the Chase field. Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart are shoo-ins to qualify for the championship run. Add eight drivers to the mix that have only one goal going into Richmond… gaining the 10 bonus points awarded at the start of the Chase for winning. 10 valuable points that all are aware could be the difference between being crowned the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion… or first loser.

And of course there are drivers like short-track ace Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman or upstarts such as David Reutimann, AJ Allmendinger and Brian Vickers – all in the midst of mediocre seasons, each have shown flashes of competitiveness and the ability to run up front – that have little to lose at this stage of the schedule by throwing caution to the wind and going for a finish amongst the leaders.

Sure, the Chase to the Sprint Cup points format may be contrived and designed to artificially spice up a very long race schedule that wears on even the most ardent of fans. Be that as it may, there has not been any better reason to watch a Cup race since the Daytona 500 than the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 under the lights on Saturday night at Richmond. That is, unless good rough-and-tumble short-track racing with a lot riding on a good finish by many of NASCAR’s top drivers isn’t reason enough.

Maybe you could get those relatives that you have been neglecting in favor of NASCAR to fix the porch this weekend. That way, you can spend more time with them in the offseason.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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