The Top Story Lines Heading into NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Richmond

Joe MenzerFeatured ColumnistSeptember 4, 2013

The Top Story Lines Heading into NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Richmond

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    Outside of the season-opening Daytona 500, there is arguably no other race on the Sprint Cup regular-season schedule that generates as much excitement as the fall race at Richmond International Raceway.

    This year is no exception. The final race before NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship commences is important for several different race teams for varying reasons.

    Those at the top of the point standings are jockeying for the most favorable seeding positions entering the 10-race Chase. Those not yet locked in—only seven drivers have officially clinched Chase berths heading into the Federated Auto Parts 400—are looking to secure their shot at the 2013 title. A total of 10 drivers still remain mathematically in the hunt for the final five of the 12 Chase berths, which will include the top 10 in points after Saturday night's race and two wild-card entries (drivers with the most wins and most points not in the top 10), according to SportingNews.com

    Let the questions begin, with the answers to follow when the checkered flag is claimed late Saturday night.

Can Jeff Gordon Repeat Richmond Magic?

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    Last year heading into Richmond, Gordon was chasing Kyle Busch for the final spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup field.

    Gordon trailed Busch by 12 points at the beginning of the race and struggled with an ill-handling race car throughout the night. But he and crew chief Alan Gustafson never gave up. Even after falling a lap down at one point, with his Chase chances looking hopeless, they continued to conspire over adjustments that could be made to the No. 24 Chevrolet and they applied them at every pit stop.

    Gordon drove like the four-time Cup champion he is, eventually taking second behind only race winner Clint Bowyer, and finished three points ahead of Busch to grab the final Chase berth.

    As hard as that was, this year it may prove even more difficult for Gordon to pull off such a miracle. He needs to win the race outright or finish at least seven positions in front of Kurt Busch while also hoping Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne doesn't run well enough to get back inside the season's top 10 in points by the end of the night. If Kahne qualifies as a non-wild card, it likely will push Gordon to the Chase sidelines unless the four-time champ wins the race.

Is There Another Tony Stewart In The House?

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    Tony Stewart is injured and out for the remainder of the 2013 season, so he won't be a factor in this Chase.

    But his ghost could rise again. That would be the Tony Stewart ghost of 2011 when he proclaimed prior to its start that he didn't deserve to be one of the 12 drivers left running for the championship—and then promptly won five of 10 Chase races to claim his third Cup title.

    At the time when he made his comments that his team didn't deserve to be in the Chase, Stewart had not won a single race and had only two top-five finishes through the first 26 races of that season. He had even already determined to fire his crew chief Darian Grubb at season's end.

    Against all odds and most Chase history, Stewart rose from virtually nowhere—well, 10th in the points with zero wins—to win it all. No one this season has given a hint of that happening again, but then again there was little evidence that Stewart could do it in 2011 when he began gaining Chase momentum with a strong seventh-place run at Richmond. The best candidate to pull a similar stunt this year might be Clint Bowyer.

Can Kurt Busch Complete the Cinderella Story?

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    Who in their right mind would have projected that Kurt Busch, driving for the single-car Furniture Row Racing operation, would enter the final race of the regular season holding down the 10th and final non-wild-card Chase berth?

    Well, Busch himself probably projected it. But then he's rarely been accused of being in his right mind.

    The pressing question now is whether he can run well enough at Richmond to hold onto it. He'll need either to win his first race of the season to secure it, or to hold off a bevy of others gunning for him from behind. Jeff Gordon is one of those; Kasey Kahne is another.

    Keep in mind that the elder Busch brother enters this race with a slim six-point lead over Gordon. That's half of what Gordon made up on younger bro Kyle last year to claim the final Chase spot as a wild card. And without a victory, Kurt has no chance to sneak in as a wild card.

Will Kyle Busch Be Kissing Again?

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    Speaking of younger bro Kyle, he's entering Richmond this year in a position light years better than the one he occupied a year ago.

    He officially clinched his spot in the Chase by winning last Sunday at Atlanta. And with four wins on the season now, Busch's main motivation at Richmond will be to build on the momentum he has established and go after the top Chase seed.

    Each regular-season victory is worth three bonus points to start the Chase, with the standings otherwise swiped clean for championship contenders. Busch already has 12 bonus points and in all likelihood at least the No. 3 seed locked up—but a win at Richmond would tie him with Matt Kenseth, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, for the series lead on the season. By virtue of almost certainly finishing ahead of Kenseth in points (Busch is 18 ahead coming into Saturday), Kyle would then claim the No. 1 seed via tiebreaker.

    They would both open the Chase with the same total of bonus points, but so what? It would give Busch a psychological boost on top of a momentum builder—and more importantly, both JGR drivers would begin the Chase with a slight advantage over five-time champ Jimmie Johnson, who, like Kyle, enters Richmond with four wins and designs of his own for claiming the top Chase seed.

Is The Defending Champ Cooked?

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    How bad does it look for defending Cup champion Brad Keselowski?

    At 15th in points, with no wins, and with the three drivers immediately ahead of him in the standings all owning at least one victory, Keselowski admitted to Yahoo Sports and other reporters, "We don't dictate our own fate, which is never good."

    So now Keselowski is in the unenviable position of not only having to win at Richmond, but also making up a pile of points on the likes of Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman. Sorry to say, Blue Deuce Backers, but it isn't going to happen.

    Keselowski might be drinking some Miller Lite after Saturday night, but not in celebration of making the Chase.

Whatever Happened To ... ?

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    Denny Hamlin always has loved racing at Richmond, which isn't far from his hometown of Chesterfield, VA.

    But this year, he hasn't enjoyed racing much of anywhere since an early-season crash left him with a compression fracture in his lower spine. The injury sidelined him for the better part of five weeks and has forced him to deal with back-related pain the entire season. Add in the fact that he also suffered a sprained thumb during an accident at Bristol in August, and it's been a lost season for Hamlin—who had hoped to return from the back injury, win some races, and qualify for the Chase by climbing back into the top 20 in points.

    He never came close to making such a heroic return. He enters the Richmond race winless and 26th in points per ESPN.com, but could salvage some pride by mustering a strong finish at one of his favorite venues. Otherwise, it's time for him to focus on 2014 and hope better times lie ahead.

Is Clint Bowyer For Real?

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    This is Clint Bowyer's chance to stamp himself as true Chase contender.

    Although he enters second in points only behind Jimmie Johnson, he'll leave much further behind Johnson and at least seven other Chasers who already have won races if he can't get to Victory Lane at RIR. Even though he's been incredibly consistent all season with his finishes—which include eight top-fives and 13 top-10s per ESPN.com—Bowyer knows he needs to prove he can win if he's going to seriously challenge for the championship.

    This is a good place for him to take a stand. He's won twice before at RIR, including last year's fall race. And his No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota showed speed at Atlanta last week before blowing up with him leading the race.

    Now would be an excellent time for him to finish the job, if his equipment doesn't fail him again. Then he could enter the Chase in a more competitive frame of mind.

Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. Make Statement?

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. would love to do more than ride around in a bunch of circles this Chase.

    So would his fans, of course, and really just about everyone connected with NASCAR. A Junior in championship contention could do wonders for the sport, in terms of television ratings and the sheer attention it would draw.

    So a strong run at Richmond—dare we suggest even a victory at Richmond—would go a long way toward erasing the perception that he's likely to be lost in the Chase shuffle almost as soon as it starts. He's won three times in his career at RIR, but the last time was in 2006. Other than a second-place run in last spring's race there, he has only one other top-five finish in the 14 races since he won in '06 per racing-reference.info.

    That makes the chances of him making a positive statement heading into the Chase unlikely.

Is Joey Logano Gaining on Matt Kenseth?

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    During the first part of this season, the Sliced Bread vs. Wisconsin Cheesehead showdown was no contest.

    But lately Joey Logano, the Sliced Bread end of the equation, has been coming on strong. Matt Kenseth, the self-professed Green Bay Packers Cheesehead, still has a firm grip on the better overall season with a Sprint Cup Series-high five victories to only one for Logano.

    This Chase could go a long way toward determining whether Joe Gibbs Racing truly did the right thing by cutting ties with the 23-year-old Logano to make room for the 41-year-old Kenseth heading into this season.

    Both drivers have incentives to finish the regular season strong at Richmond: a win by Logano could move him up to as high as the No. 5 seed for his first career Chase; a win by Kenseth would clinch the No. 1 seed for him and give him the most bonus points heading into the decisive final 10 races.

How Wild Will Night Be for Wild-Card Contenders?

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    What is sure to be a wild night for all involved could easily get even crazier for all the drivers on the Chase bubble.

    Discarding all the mathematical possibilities, it's almost certain to boil down to six drivers competing for the two wild-card slots. And the key to it all could be the No. 5 Chevy driven by Kasey Kahne for Hendrick Motorsports. With two wins but currently sitting 12th in points per ESPN.com—four behind Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon and 10 behind Kurt Busch in 10th—Kahne desperately wants to finish the 26-race stretch in the top 10 so he can have Chase bonus points in the bank. If he goes in as a wild card, he gets no bonus points for his race wins.

    So if Kahne (who has already clinched at least a wild-card berth) gets in as a non-wild card, he'll need to finish at least 11 positions better than Kurt Busch and at least five better than Gordon. That then would leave Busch, Gordon, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman and, as an outside longshot who would need virtually all of the others to have off nights, defending Cup champ Brad Keselowski to battle each other for the two wild cards. Truex and Newman would have the edge in that scenario because they've already won one race apiece. Busch and Gordon would need to win the race to push them out, and Keselowski could win and still be left on the outside looking longingly in.

    Suffice it to say all drivers in this mix will do just about anything in terms of beating and banging on each other, or forcing the issue by making risky three-wide moves, to get what they want.