1. Who’s in? Who’s out?
It’s the final race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup regular season this Saturday night, and four Chase spots are still up for grabs. As of right now, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer are occupying the final four spots in the postseason, and for the most part they should all be relatively safe. Newman and Gordon have a large enough points cushion to essentially be safe entering the race, as it would take a catastrophic set of circumstances for either one of those two to fall out off the Chase grid.
Menard and Bowyer have a bit more to worry about. Menard only has a two-point advantage of Bowyer. What this means is that if a driver who is currently off the Chase grid were to win the race and lock themselves in (think Kyle Larson, Tony Stewart, etc.), Bowyer and Menard would likely be fighting over the last Chase spot on points. Aric Almirola (29 points behind Bowyer) and Kasey Kahne (31 points) technically have a shot at making the Chase on points, but given how far back they each are, they likely will need to win to get in.
That might not sound like much potential drama, but the nature of the win-and-you’re-in system could still very easily turn the Chase grid upside down. If someone like Larson, Kahne or Stewart is in contention for the win late, it could seriously change the landscape of the postseason. With that in mind though, I’ll stay conservative and say that the drivers currently in the Chase entering the weekend will all clinch their postseason berths by the end of the night.
2. Could Kyle Busch grab the uncontested number one seed?
As most of you know, the first round of the Chase is seeded based on the number of wins that each of the Chasers have. Each win nets a driver three bonus points toward the first round of the Chase, meaning that as of right now, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch would enter the Chase tied for the lead with 12 bonus points apiece.
That essentially sets up a scenario where a win on Saturday night could net either Johnson or Busch an uncontested points lead entering Chicagoland. It would be especially newsworthy in Busch’s case, given that he missed the first 11 races of the season.
The crazy thing is, that very result is not just possible, but likely.
Busch is statistically one of the best drivers in the series at Richmond, boasting a 7.35 average finish at the track for his career that is tops among active drivers. He’s also the winningest active driver at the track with four victories total.
In other words, we might be in store for a special edition of the Kyle Busch Show on Saturday night.
3. Will a softer tire revitalize the racing at Richmond?
As Mike Neff and I discussed on my podcast earlier this week, the racing at Richmond has been incredibly hit or miss over the past half decade or so. Other than a pair of classics that took place in the fall of 2011 and the spring of 2014, the racing at Richmond has not lived up to its usual standard in recent years. The culprit? Rock-hard tires.
For whatever reason, Goodyear has brought extremely hard tires to Richmond for almost every race at the facility since the middle of the Car of Tomorrow era, and the racing has generally suffered as a result. The good news, however, is that this is slated to change on Saturday night.
Goodyear is bringing a specially designed soft tire for this weekend’s race that is similar in construction to the one used at Darlington last Sunday night. As we saw in that race, soft tires helped put on a whale of a show, and as such, there is little reason to believe that the new tires won’t have the same positive benefits for Richmond.
Look for more tire wear, more aggression and more passing on Saturday night as the series looks to reverse the trend of tepid races at Richmond International Raceway.
4. Can an underdog actually pull off a win and a Chase berth?
Building on the first question, it is important to note heading into Saturday’s race that there are literally 18 drivers who could still mathematically get into the Chase. Only six of them can make it on points, but all 18 can lock up a berth with a victory.
That means everyone from Almirola in 16th to Justin Allgaier in 30th has a shot to still make the Chase.
But do any of them actually have a shot at making it happen?
For at least four drivers sitting far outside of the Chase cutoff, the answer is an emphatic yes. Larson (19th), Stewart (24th) and David Ragan (25th) have all had top-10 speed just about every week this summer. Larson in particular has turned things around as of late and was on a strategy last week that could’ve netted him a victory if a series of late cautions didn’t fall. These guys have nothing to lose, everything to gain and just enough speed to put themselves in contention late in races.
That’s a dangerous combination of which the rest of the Chase contenders should be mindful.