There are a lot of scenarios that could play out in the final race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup’s regular season Saturday night at Richmond.
Some of the things to watch include whether Tony Stewart will remain in the top 10 or be forced to join the Chase as a wild card, whether Kasey Kahne will remain the first wild-card qualifier by being the only driver 11th-20th in the standings with two win; will either Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano manage to snag a second win for the wild card, and could Carl Edwards or Paul Menard put themselves in the Chase with a win.
Of course we can’t forget about the guys already in the top 10. Since they have clinched a spot in the Chase, they can gamble and go for the win, which would give them three bonus points when the Chase starts next Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. The top 10 in points will be seeded by how many wins they have, while the two wild-card qualifiers will not get bonus points for victories.
There are a lot of different scenarios where the above drivers could make the Chase, and some are more extreme than others.
But the real battle here will be between the No. 18 of Kyle Busch and No. 24 of Jeff Gordon. Busch currently sits in the 12th and final qualifying spot with a 12-point lead on Gordon. They each have a win, so if either wins, they are in the Chase. However, if neither is close to victory, then Gordon will need to have a 13-point advantage over Busch to make the Chase. Along with finishing that many spots ahead of Busch, Gordon can also get a point each for leading a lap and leading the most laps.
But leading at Richmond is something that Busch is accustomed to. He’s won three of the last five races there and those wins weren’t simply good luck. In those five races, Busch has led 493 laps, the most of any driver. He’s finished in the top 5 four times in those fives races and the other finish was sixth. That all adds up to an average finish of 2.2 in his last five trips to Richmond.
It would be hard for anybody to compare to those numbers favorably. They just can’t be topped. But Gordon has at least been respectable at Richmond the last five times out. He has two top-5 finishes and has led 155 laps. So it’s not inconceivable that Gordon could win on Saturday night. He’s visited Victory Lane 86 times in Sprint Cup career. so he knows how to win. And being 13 points better than Busch at Richmond seems like a stretch. So for Gordon, too, just like the rest of the one-win drivers sitting 11th-20th in points, it’s pretty much win or miss the Chase.
The regular season ends with the Saturday night race at Richmond. It’s get in the top 12 or miss the Chase for those who will still have a chance, so there could be some desperation strategy late in the race. But there are a handful of drivers who have a strong record at Richmond, so that’s what the picks are based on this week, not theoretical possibilities that may or may not play out at the end of the race.
1) Kyle Busch – He has four wins at Richmond and an average finish of 4.7 in 15 races. And he needs at least a good finish, and possibly a win, to make the Chase.
2) Denny Hamlin – He’s got two wins and seven top fives in 13 races at Richmond and he’s on a roll at the right time.
3) Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – If he’s going to be a title contender in the Chase, three bonus points for a win would sure help him. He’s got three victories at Richmond.
4) Jimmie Johnson – Even though he took himself out with an accident last week, the No. 48 will be one of the favorites at each track for the rest of the season.
5) Tony Stewart – He’s desperate for a good finish and this is the place where he could get it. He’s got three wins at Richmond, too, and an average finish of 10.6 in 27 races there.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda – Jeff Gordon. I had him as a possibility to win here. With Busch’s record at Richmond, Gordon and his team pretty much knows they will need a victory to make the Chase. He’s had some success there in the past with two wins and 15 top-5 finishes, but a top 5 might not be enough to make up the 12-point gap between him and Busch.
Here’s a look at how last week’s picks fared at Atlanta.
Kasey Kahne – 23rd. Loved this pick going into the race, but he was never factor.
Tony Stewart – 22nd. He started on the pole, so this looked like a strong pick, but he faded quickly after the early laps and never really got the handling figured out.
Carl Edwards – 36th. He was in the top 10 for much of the race, until a grenade engine ended his night.
Jimmie Johnson – 34th. He wasn’t having a great night, but hopes were dashed when it ended in an accident.
Kyle Busch – 6th. He was the only respectable pick I had. He did lead 66 laps and did contend, but couldn’t get to the front on the final restart.
41 Top 5s
57 Top 10s
Grade for the week: D. Only Busch saved this week from being a complete disaster.
One last thing: Hamlin has a chance to win three straight races as he and Busch are the two favorites. The last driver to win three straight was Jimmie Johnson in 2007, when he won four straight with victories at Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix..
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