We’ve reached the end of the line in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Or at least the first end of the line. After tonight’s race at Richmond International Speedway, the field of the top 10 points leaders, plus two wild-cards will be set. While the remaining ten races will have normal fields, only those 12 drivers will be eligible to win the Cup. The importance of the Federated Auto Parts 400 is sufficient that ABC is skipping its normal Saturday night college football coverage, preferring to televise the race from Richmond.
Three factors are important as we get set to cross over into the next part of the season. The first, and most obvious is the act of qualifying. The second is to finish in the Top 10, as the automatic qualifiers are given a points advantage over the wild-cards when the standings hit the re-set button next week. And the third is to have the most wins among the Top 10, as its outright wins—not total points that will determine the leader of the re-set standings.
No driver has owned Richmond in recent years like Kyle Busch—he won a race in late April held here. And of the two races Richmond hosts, Busch also won one in both 2010 and 2011. Since he currently holds the second wild-card spot, that’s as good a place as any to start. If Busch continues his Richmond dominance, he’ll wrap up the second wild-card. But he only leads Jeff Gordon by 12 points, and a Gordon win—or at the very least, a huge advantage of Busch, could result in the two flipping spots.
For several weeks, TheSportsNotebook has been fixated on Carl Edwards. The driver who only lost the championship on a tiebreaker last year hasn’t won a race yet this season and doing so is a prerequisite to winning a wild-card. Consequently his 12th-place standing wasn’t going to be enough for him to make it unless he produced an outright win. Last Saturday night in Bristol was the big tease. Edwards led about three-quarters of the way through, but not only didn’t win, he ended up dropping to 14th in the standings. Tonight he must not only win, he must beat Busch and Gordon decisively enough to move past them in points.
Three other drivers could completely upset the applecart with a win. Marcus Ambrose, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman have no chance to catch Busch on points, but each has won a race. And with wins being the first tiebreaker, if any of these three take the checkered flag, they’d sneak into the postseason through the backdoor. Although we should note that Ambrose is more of a road-course driver and unlikely to win here. But if none of these three pull a shocker, or if Edwards doesn’t win big, the final berth will be determined by the Kyle Busch-Jeff Gordon joust.
Kasey Kahne is in 11th and with two wins—more than anyone outside the Top 10, he’s all but assured of a wild-card berth. He’s 18 points back of defending champ Tony Stewart for an automatic berth and increased point totals, but Kahne lost ground in this race last week after a strong run had pulled him in striking distance. It would take something pretty extreme to alter the drivers who will be in the Top 10.
Finally we come to wins themselves—Denny Hamlin is on a roll, and with his two straight wins, he stands to be the leader when we begin The Sprint For The Cup next week. Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Stewart have three wins and could pull into a tie. That Stewart has three wins while only being 10th in the standings illustrates his inconsistency, but the NASCAR rules are geared toward favoring outright wins. On the flip side of that, points leader Greg Biffle has only won twice and absent a win tonight will be in the middle of the pack.
What to look for tonight then? TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill, said simply “It’s short track, but it’s a fast track.” The combination of the track and the urgency of the moment promise to ramp up the speed tonight in Richmond.