by Ryan Isley
It’s appropriate that Saturday night’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Richmond International Raceway is sponsored by Federated Auto Parts, because some of the cars are going to need to make a trip to the parts store afterward.
With this being the last race before the Chase for the Sprint Cup field is set, there are 17 drivers who will be looking to pick up their first win of the season and lock themselves in before heading to Chicago next week for the first round of the Chase. I said last week that tempers would be flaring (and they did) and I would expect more of the same, if not worse, this week.
The drivers who have still not won a race this season but would clinch a Chase spot with one this week are Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson, Paul Menard, Austin Dillon, Jamie McMurray, Brian Vickers, Marcos Ambrose, Casey Mears, Martin Truex, Jr., Tony Stewart, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Danica Patrick, Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett and David Gilliland. While Gilliland is currently outside of the top-30, a win would vault him into the top-30, as he trails Annett by just one point.
Newman would clinch a spot on points if none of the drivers without a win are able to win this weekend, and Biffle leads Bowyer by 23 points and Larson by 24 points for the final spot on points should none of the 17 drivers win. Other than Newman, Biffle, Bowyer and Larson, the other 13 would have to win to get into the Chase.
The bad news for those drivers is that the last driver to pick up their first win of the season in the Richmond fall race was Jeremy Mayfield in 2004. Since then, the winner of the race has had at least one win on the season entering the weekend.
Among the drivers trying to get their first win of the season who are in Chase contention, there are three who are among the top six drivers in terms of best average career finish at Richmond with a minimum of three races. Tony Stewart (3rd, 11.1), Ryan Newman (5th, 11.3) and Clint Bowyer (6th, 12.0). I guess it should come as no surprise that all three of those drivers have picked up wins in their careers at the track, with Stewart winning the fall race in both 1999 and 2000, Newman winning the fall race in 2003 and then Bowyer winning the spring race in 2008 followed by the fall race in 2012.
On the other side of that coin, Danica Patrick (average finish of 31.0) has the fifth worst career average finish at Richmond and David Gilliland (29.9) have the seventh worst average finish. Patrick, however, is coming off a career-best sixth-place finish at Atlanta last weekend, where she was magnificent in the closing laps and restarts. Gilliland has just one finish inside the top-20 this season, but sits 31st in points and could move into the top-30 and Chase eligible with a win.
With so many drivers still having a shot at making the Chase thanks to the new qualification system this season, it could lead to some heated racing and probably more than a few run-ins on the track. Hopefully nothing as crazy as what happened at this race last year, however.
Remember – this is the race where in 2013, Clint Bowyer spun (intentionally) late in the race and ended up costing Jeff Gordon a spot in the Chase. NASCAR changed the rules at the last minute and granted Gordon entry into the Chase as an extra participant due to the events at Richmond.
Speaking of changing the rules to allow a driver eligibility into the Chase, one story to watch will be to see if Stewart can find his way to victory lane for a third time in his career at Richmond. By missing three races after the incident involving the death of Kevin Ward, Jr., Stewart should have been ineligible to qualify for the Chase under the 2014 rules. However, NASCAR made a decision that would allow him to compete in the Chase should he win one of the final two races before the field is set. He finished 41st last week after blowing a tire and hitting the wall.
The 14 drivers already locked into the Chase also have something to race for this weekend as well. Each win gets a driver an extra three points once the standings are reset heading into the Chase and with drivers being eliminated in stages during this year’s Chase, every point matters. Currently, there are five drivers – Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson – tied with three wins and then two others who could join them with three wins as Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick have two wins each.
So while the Chase may start next week, there will be plenty of playoff style racing this weekend with drivers trying to get into the Chase and others trying to get as many bonus points as possible. Sit down, buckle up and enjoy the ride.