NASCAR Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: 2010 Air Guard 400 at Richmond Edition

Editor’s Note: The esteemed Matt McLaughlin is off for one more week, ready to return after the Richmond race. So in place of MPM2Nite debuts a new column idea that will also serve as a sneak preview on what to expect for this weekend’s regular-season finale, four burning questions we’ll attempt to answer here and then watch intently to see how they play out over 400 laps on this Virginia short track.

Love the column? Hate the column? Please let us know how you feel in the comments section below; your thoughts will go a long way in determining whether you see it pop up in the future!

1) Is there any way Clint Bowyer or Greg Biffle doesn’t make the Chase?

Mike Lovecchio: Clint Bowyer did exactly what he needed to do last week in Atlanta, holding serve and forcing an all-important all-or-nothing Saturday night showdown for the final Chase spot. For Bowyer, the gameplan going to Richmond is simple: stay out of trouble and take care of the car. Expect him to do just that and finish the 28th or better he needs to make the exclusive cutoff before the final 10 races. History is on Bowyer’s side, with nine top 20s in his nine career Richmond starts, including a win in 2008. Not only does he run well at the short track, he finishes, completing every lap in those nine races. While I expect Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman to both do whatever it takes for a win, even a victory won’t be enough if Bowyer handles his business – and there is no evidence to support the notion that he won’t.

Tom Bowles: Let’s put it this way: Greg Biffle is only part of this question because we have to slap him in there. Even if the engine does blow on the first lap, leaving the No. 16 Ford dead last, the only way he’d miss the Chase is if Newman won, led the most laps, and Bowyer gained 45 points on him. That’s like saying Boise State is going to go from beating Virginia Tech to taking down the Super Bowl champ New Orleans Saints this weekend. Sorry, folks; not happening.

Looking at Bowyer’s recent history, Mike’s got it pegged: Richmond’s one of his best tracks, and 3/4-mile ovals like this one have typically been RCR’s biggest strength. It’s hard to completely guarantee staying out of trouble at RIR, but Bowyer will dial it back, play it safe, and bring it home somewhere within the top 20. Keep in mind that even if he did have trouble, McMurray and Mark Martin would have to win in order to pass him. If one of those guys finishes second, Bowyer still moves on unless, in McMurray’s case, he’s 41st or worse. Newman’s really the only one that can put on the pressure if Bowyer wrecks, but even he needs a solid top-five finish – and we haven’t seen one of those out of him in weeks. So don’t buy into that ESPN drama and digest this major storyline instead; Richmond’s going to be fun to watch because the Chase will be the last thing on anyone’s minds.

2) Are there real problems at Joe Gibbs Racing heading into the Chase – and does Denny Hamlin need a win or something close to it at his hometown track to keep his title-contending status?

Mike Lovecchio: In order for Joe Gibbs Racing to have any success in the Chase with either of its top-two drivers, they must first overcome a severe psychological disadvantage. Denny Hamlin’s season of inconsistency has ranged from starting the year without a top 10 until mid-April, to winning three of five races and marching to third in points in the summer, to having an array of problems in the last month that have seen him finish worse than 30th three of his last four races and drop to 10th in the standings. The No. 11 team is a mess right now, and the only thing that can right the ship before New Hampshire is a win Saturday. For Kyle Busch, it doesn’t matter if he leads every lap and wins in Richmond – the pressure will crank back up when the Chase starts because it doesn’t matter how hot he is going into the final 10 races. We’ve all seen him collapse before, and believe me when I say that is still dead center in the No. 18 team’s mind going forward.

Tom Bowles: Honestly, Hamlin’s Chase chances may largely rest on the confidence derived from his Richmond performance. Reliability issues remain a huge problem for the No. 11 Toyota, two mechanical failures right in line with the type of issues that have dogged them for four straight falls. There was a daylong team meeting in the JGR shop Tuesday, the goal to rebuild momentum and get the chemistry clicking back in the right direction. But when you haven’t won a race since mid-June, it’s hard to change the perception you’re stuck in reverse even when you’ll start the Chase as no worse than the second seed.

A win would give them a larger cushion, inject the team with a fresh batch of energy and set them back into the right mentality heading into the postseason. But if Hamlin blows a tire while leading here, a la the 2008 disastrous finish? God help them. God help them all.

3) Despite Tony Stewart’s victory Sunday, there are still five Chase drivers (Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Bowyer) winless heading into this year’s playoffs. Any chance another one gets off the schnide?

Mike Lovecchio: Looking at the list of winless drivers going into Richmond, is there really a name that jumps and says: that’s your winner? Not for me. Sure, Jeff Gordon is always a threat at the short tracks, Carl Edwards is the hottest driver on the circuit and RCR should give Bowyer one of his better cars this year, but at this point in the season it’s difficult for any winless team to get over the hump. Tony Stewart’s breakthrough last weekend was a huge boost for the owner/driver and gives the team momentum heading into the Chase, but I expect Saturday night’s race to come down to a few guys looking for 10 more crucial bonus points instead of their first. Keep Jimmie Johnson, Busch and the slumping Hamlin in mind as bigger threats.

Tom Bowles: I’m going with Edwards as my darkhorse pick to win this weekend. Not typically known as a short-track specialist, he was fifth in the spring when the No. 99 Ford was busy running like molasses. The surefire missile they’ve become makes them the Blue Oval’s biggest title threat, and certainly dangerous in a year where no one stands out in a list of crowded favorites to challenge Johnson.

Who not to look for in victory lane: Gordon and Matt Kenseth. It’s funny how their Martinsville squabble in March robbed each one from a long-awaited race trophy – and now, six months later, they’re well on their way to both ending the season winless. What a missed opportunity…

4) What driver has the better debut Saturday night: Mattias Ekstrom on an oval for Red Bull Racing, or Terry Labonte in his return to Cup as a driver/owner?

Mike Lovecchio: I don’t expect either to have a top-20 run, but among these two drivers/teams, I vote for the inexperienced driver in good equipment over a former champion in unknown circumstances. Sure, Terry Labonte has help from Bill Stavola and engines powered by Earnhardt-Childress, but don’t for a minute think these are the same ponies powering Bowyer, Harvick and Co. Since I don’t believe the car will mechanically stay together for 400 laps its first time on track, I give the edge to Mattias Ekstrom, who will most likely be trying to stay out of everyone’s way while logging laps in his first oval start. Prediction: Ekstrom 31st, Labonte 37th.

Tom Bowles: As much as podcast listeners know I love Ekstrom (Ja) I’m going to give the edge to Labonte and Stavola. The B-rate RCR equipment isn’t all that bad (see: Smith, Regan) and remember when Labonte scored a top-10 here while semi-retired, running JGR equipment back in 2005? Yeah, that seems like light years ago, but the Iceman has proven that this track is one where he hasn’t lost a step due to old age. It’s Labonte: 25th, Ekstrom: 36th and an ugly DNF, learning the hard way that just because you want to run an oval doesn’t mean your NASCAR peers will respect you enough to leave you running all 400 laps. He’s going to get in someone’s way, tick them off and… eventually head back to Europe emptyhanded.

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