There’s just one more race to go in the regular season for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and it goes down Saturday night when the Federated Auto Parts 400 runs at Richmond International Raceway (6:30 PM ET, ABC).
We’ll walk through each step in the process of picking the 12 drivers who will make the playoffs (The Top 10 in points, plus two wild-cards). The Cliff’s Notes version is that this likely comes down to a battle between Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon for one spot, with Martin Truex dueling Ryan Newman for the other. But there are still several plot twists that could upset the applecart. Here’s the step-by-step layout of the landscape…
*Six drivers are all but locked up for the postseason. The only way Saturday night’s race matters to any of the following is if they win the race and strengthen their playoff position (click here for a complete, layman’s explanation on the rules for playoff qualification and scoring).
–Matt Kenseth has five wins, and stands to be the leader when the postseason begins
–Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch are right behind with four wins.
–Then there’s a dropoff, down to Kevin Harvick, who has won twice
–Carl Edwards has one victory
–Clint Bowyer is currently second in the points standings, but his zero victories will send him to the back of the class when the playoffs start next week. But give Bowyer his props for consistency, as he’s been near the top all year and his postseason berth never in doubt.
*The seventh driver up is Dale Earnhardt Junior. He has a 37-point cushion to qualify for the playoffs, which should be sufficient—it would take an early wreck for Junior to even be at risk.
*It’s the race for the final three spots that has been most fluid all year along and that will continue right to the end. The last spots are currently held by Joey Logano, Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch.
*Jeff Gordon is only six points behind Busch though, making possible an interesting parlay. A year ago at Richmond, Gordon was right on the heels of Kyle Busch for one playoff berth. Gordon overtook him and got into the Chase. Now Gordon is trying to do the same to the other Busch.
*Even though there are two wild-card spots, Busch and Gordon will not get them. You need a win to qualify for a wild-card spot and neither has won a race. And if they do on Saturday, they’ll end up in the Top 10, and out of the wild-card discussion in either case.
*The importance of wins can be seen in the case of Kasey Kahne. Even though he’s 12th, he’s all but clinched a spot in the postseason, as sure as any of the top six drivers. Kahne’s position won’t be as strong unless he makes the Top 10, but because of his two victories, Kahne will get his chance. He’d have to drop out of the Top 20 not to make it, and that’s almost literally impossible.
*The big battle is for the second wild-card, which is currently up for grabs between Martin Truex and Ryan Newman. Each has one win, meaning it would come to points, where Truex has a five-point lead.
*On the surface then, this would mean there’s really two different battles going on that define Saturday night. It’s Kurt Busch-Jeff Gordon for the last automatic spot in the Top 10, and Martin Truex-Ryan Newman for the last wild-card. That’s understandable, and frankly the most likely outcome. But there’s still more to the story than that.
*Logan and Biffle each have one win, but a bad night could drop them out of the Top 10. Yet each has enough of a cushion on Newman/Truex, that the former could still finish ahead of the latter on points.
*And all of our speculations assume that either one of the eight playoff locks (the top six, plus Junior and Kahne) or one of the non-contenders will win the race and not completely jumble the equation.
*Jumbling the equation is realistically all Brad Keselowski has left. He’s yet to win a race, and is now 28 points out of the Top 10. It would require a miracle for him to qualify for the postseason without being a wild-card, and he can’t be a wild-card unless he wins. Last year’s champion is driving strictly for first place.
THE RUMBLE AT RICHMOND
Kyle Busch has owned this track, with four wins since 2009. The circuit comes here twice a year, with Harvick winning back in the spring. What makes it an ideal venue for the final race of the regular season is that’s a track whose structure—short distance, combined with high banks—virtually invites multi-car pileups. And anything that causes a contender to get knocked out early has the potential for chaos in the standings.
I talked to TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill, and he offered a piece of NASCAR inside baseball that might provide a tip as to where a potential rumble might start. Earlier this year, Tony Stewart—who is also a team owner in addition to a driver—told Newman that he (Stewart) didn’t have the money to start up a fourth team, and Newman would have to find somewhere else to drive. Now, lo and behold, Stewart is going to start up a fourth team…and do it with Kurt Busch.
A love triangle is interesting in any case, and here we have two of the drivers in Newman and Busch—whom Bill told me already dislike each other—being two of the most prominent drivers of the night. And being in a position where a crash wrecks either’s season. Might one of them take a chance and start driving a little too close to the other? Or get one of their friends to do it for them?
It’s going to make for an exciting last night of the regular season. Kyle Busch is the 5-1 betting line favorite, with Kenseth, Johnson and the desperate Keselowski all at 7-1. Kahne is 8-1, Gordon is 10-1, with Bowyer a 12-1 shot to get his first win and enhance his playoff position.
I’m pulling for Keselowski to get it, the same as I was for Carl Edwards last year, when he was in desperate straits without a victory. But the odds, needless to say, aren’t very good and it looks likely the circuit will be assured of a new champion before the playoffs even begin.