A look at the drivers who will race for the Chase at Richmond
NASCAR's regular season comes to a close Saturday night and for a number of drivers, the hope of a Chase berth hinges solely on their ability to pull into victory lane. A “good points day” is irrelevant as the Chase berths based on points are virtually locked up. Another Left Turn takes a look at the drivers who have the most to race for in Richmond and their chances at taking home the checkered flag.
To be eligible for NASCAR's playoffs, a driver needs to win a race during the regular season or be among the highest point finishers of those who have not won a race. He or she must also be inside of the top 30 in points and have attempted to qualify for each race during the regular season (unless granted an exemption by NASCAR, as Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin have). So David Ragan, sitting in 32nd position is the furthest down in the field of those with a mathematical chance to get in. While he's outside of the top 30, he's 23 points behind Michael Annett and by winning, would likely make up that gap.
Realistically speaking, Ragan and several others are unlikely to pull off the feat despite their hopes. We have a 25 race sample size to date and most teams are who they are at this point. So Ragan, David Gilliland, Michael Annett, Justin Allgaier, Danica Patrick, and Ricky Stenhouse (ranked 27-32) would need a miracle of Hoosier-like proportions to win in Richmond... and Coach Norman Dale isn't walking through the door any time soon.
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The remaining drivers fall into one of three categories
Best Bets – Greg Biffle (16th), Jamie McMurray (21st), Tony Stewart (26th)
In terms of sheer driving talent and experience, it's hard to bet against any one of these three drivers. Biffle is in the safest place of the three. If the season were to end today, he'd be in the Chase by virtue of his position in the points as he sits 23 points ahead of Clint Bowyer. So if any of the current winners should take the checkered flag on Saturday, Biffle just needs that “solid points day” to secure his spot in the playoffs.
On the other hand, McMurray and Stewart are both too far away to get in on points. But both have the ability and the equipment to pull off the win. McMurray has been up front on multiple occasions this year, including 148 laps led at Bristol just over a week ago. That race slipped away from him but the ECR cars are capable of getting to the front and Jamie is capable of winning in them. Meanwhile, Tony Stewart is a former three time series champion. He was the victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time at Atlanta but anyone counting Smoke out at Richmond would be making a huge mistake.
The talent is there, but... – Clint Bowyer (17th), Kyle Larson (18th), Austin Dillon (20th)
These three drivers all have the talent to win a race and make NASCAR's playoffs. However, they have fairly significant factors working against them. In the case of Bowyer, it's a matter of equipment. Despite Michael Waltrip's protestations to the contrary, MWR has been a step behind the elite teams all year long. Part of that is Toyota's inferiority to the Chevrolets. But Joe Gibbs Racing has put its cars in victory lane so clearly MWR is facing something else. The offseason loss of sponsor NAPA and the #56 team cannot be understated. Bowyer simply doesn't have the same kinds of resources that his competition has and its shown on the track.
Larson and Dillon present a different kind of challenge. The two drivers are competing their maiden voyages on the Sprint Cup level and are in close competition for the rookie of the year trophy. Both have won races at the Nationwide level and have bright futures at NASCAR's highest level. But they also are still learning their trade as stock car drivers. It's one thing to be fast (both are). It's another thing entirely to be consistently fast and neither has shown the ability to do that yet. A win by either rookie this weekend would have to be considered a surprise.
The Long Shots – Paul Menard (19th), Brian Vickers (22nd), Marcos Ambrose (23rd), Casey Mears (24th), Martin Truex Jr. (25th)
The remaining five drivers currently inside the top 25 in points are the longest of long shots to win at Richmond. All have won races at the Sprint Cup level so the chance is not an impossibility. And all compete for teams that have equipment good enough to win before; Menard, Mears and Truex with Childress cars, Vickers with MWR, and Ambrose with Roush/Yates equipment at Richard Petty Motorsports.
Yet while the equipment is good enough to win, it is a step behind that of the elite teams. RCR fields competitive teams but none of their drivers have won yet this season. As noted before MWR is a tier two team in its own garage as Joe Gibbs Racing remains the premier Toyota team in NASCAR. The same can be said for RPM, who are not at the same level as Ford teammates Penske Racing. They have suffered from the same lack of speed as the Roush Fenway Racing cars. That's no surprise, considering RPM purchases its cars from RFR.
Yet if the stars were to align, these long shots could well find themselves pulling into victory lane Saturday night at Richmond. And that's why each will likely be running flat out from the moment their cars unload at the track. The potential rewards are enormous- as is the potential for on-track mayhem, something we at Another Left Turn examined earlier this week here. Will one of the above get the job done? Or will another driver already in the Chase add to their win total and seize the momentum heading into NASCAR's playoffs?
In only a few days, we'll know for sure.