You think last year's fall NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway was wild?
Well, it was. But this year's race has the potential for more craziness and more controversy, although we might hope for more of the former and less of the latter that made last year's event such a mess.
The fact that the Chase field has been expanded to 16 drivers from 12, that there are a handful of drivers still with a realistic chance of getting in, plus the win-and-you're-in rule that applies to all drivers should combine for one action-packed, unpredictable night.
Jeff Hammond, television analyst for FOX Sports and columnist for FOXSports.com, wrote that he likes the chances for some more memorable Saturday night fireworks this time around.
No matter what, we are going to see a great battle Saturday night, and when the smoke clears, and trust me, I do mean smoke, once it clears, I won't be the least bit surprised to see this race go down in the NASCAR record books as one that was wild and woolly.
In fact, all indications are that this year's race will definitely be crazier than last year's, and that's a tall order.
But here are some reasons why:
Kasey Kahne drove his way into the Chase for the Sprint Cup field last Sunday at Atlanta. Now there are about a dozen other drivers who think they can do the same in a last-ditch effort at Richmond, and they'll be driving like it from the second the green flag drops.
Among the drivers trying to make the Chase by winning the race will be Tony Stewart, who will be in his second race since a three-week layoff following his involvement in a tragic sprint car incident on a dirt track that left 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. dead. Stewart is a subplot in his own orbit and will be watched closely, no matter what he does.
Bowyer is back and is one of the drivers on the Chase bubble who may very well need to win to get in. Can the Michael Waltrip Racing driver shove what happened last year into the back of his mind and focus on the task at hand?
Will some others who nearly got screwed by his antics last year, such as Ryan Newman, play a role in what happens? Remember, Newman needs a solid run, too.
All the drivers who are already in the Chase will be going hard for a victory, too, knowing that it means bonus points at the start of the Chase.
You better believe that the five tied for the series lead with three wins apiece—defending champion Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski—want to be that one driver with the most bonus points entering the 10-race playoff.
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The race within the race that determines the final Chase participants might not involve the event winner, but it will be entertaining even if it comes down to two guys racing for eighth place.
Currently, the only driver certain to get in on points is Matt Kenseth. That will leave the next wave of guys in the mix—Newman, Greg Biffle, Bowyer and Kyle Larson—battling for the final two spots as long as there isn't another first-time winner.
Add all that up and throw these guys onto a .75-mile short track like Richmond under the lights on a Saturday night, and the sparks from underneath the cars won't be the only ones to fly. There is a sense, as Jared Turner of FOXSports.com noted, that anything can—and very well might—happen.
I personally would like to see Danica (Patrick) and Ricky (Stenhouse Jr.) cross the finish line side-by-side for the win—and Chase berth. Wouldn't that be something? I know it's unlikely, but stranger things have happened.
Turner is more correct in stating that a Patrick-Stenhouse, girlfriend-boyfriend finish is unlikely to happen than anything else.
But the fact is that the new rules for how drivers can qualify for the Chase make it one of many possibilities, however small, that are still out there for a total of 19 drivers currently inside the top 30 in points but lacking a victory.
Even though Patrick finished a career-high sixth last Sunday at Atlanta, neither side of the Danica-Ricky phenomena has shown signs of being able to win a race this season. Stenhouse is 27th in points, and Patrick is trailing by 38 points in 28th place.
It is another subplot to watch, however, on a night that is going to be filled with great ones.
Will teammates attempt to help teammates again if a Chase spot hangs in the balance?
NASCAR will be watching closely after last year's fiasco involving Bowyer to ensure that nothing of the sort goes on, but teams might believe they've found a way around that and figure the risk is worth the reward.
Last year there were fewer Chase spots available and fewer subplots around heading into this race, and it still proved to be wild.
This one has the clear potential not only to match it for craziness, but to surpass it.
Unless otherwise noted, all information was obtained firsthand.
Joe Menzer has written six books, including two about NASCAR, and now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.
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