Burning Questions Ahead of NASCAR's 2014 Regular Season Finale at Richmond
With 14 drivers locked in already, most of the questions have been answered as far as who will make this year's expanded Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Sure, there are two spots still left to fill in the 16-driver field heading into Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
But at the same time, there are still are a number of questions in search of answers, not just about who fills those final two Chase spots, but several other queries that need to be resolved, as well.
Let's look at eight of the most burning questions heading into Saturday's race:
Sitting in 15th, Is Ryan Newman a Lock to Make the Chase?
While the numbers would seem to indicate that he will, nothing is definite.
Newman holds a 19-point edge over Greg Biffle heading into Richmond. But more importantly, Newman holds a 42- and 43-point lead respectively over the guys behind Biffle: Clint Bowyer and rookie Kyle Larson.
Of course, if someone who has yet to win a race this season takes the checkered flag, and Biffle finishes at least 19 places higher than Newman, then Newman is out and Biffle is in.
Newport News (Va.) Daily Press: "Newman is as close to a lock of making the Chase as anyone not yet in. He has the most points of any driver who hasn't qualified yet, and only needs to finish 18th or better to nail down a Chase berth, even if a driver without a win takes the checkered flag."
That shouldn't be a problem for Newman, who has finished 15th or better in 10 of his past 11 trips to Richmond. If a driver already with a victory this season wins at Richmond, Newman qualifies for the Chase with a finish of 41st or better.
Will Greg Biffle Stay on the Right Side of the Bubble and Make the Chase?
Right now, Greg Biffle is on the right side of the bubble. He's been hanging on to that last Chase-eligible spot for most of the last several weeks.
Biffle historically has made the Chase more often (six times) than he's missed it (four times) in its first 10 years. He's also one of those drivers who seems to rise to the occasion when the most pressure is on him.
And there's no doubt Biffle arguably has a ton of pressure on his shoulders right now, perhaps more so than any driver that is still eligible to make the Chase's version of the Sweet 16.
"If the 5 (Kasey Kahne) wouldn't have won, we would have been close to getting locked in with the way all the points shook out," Biffle said following his 10th-place finish at Atlanta according to the Miami Herald. "I don't think we would have been able to lose two spots, but it is what it is. We've got to race as hard as we can. We know if one of those guys behind us (in the point standings) wins next week, it bumps us out, so we'll run as hard as we can."
One thing will work against Biffle this weekend, though: his track record at Richmond. He'll be making his 25th career Sprint Cup start at the .75-mile track, and his record to date is far from stout, with zero wins, just two top-5 and only four other top-10 finishes.
Making the top-10 just six times overall in 24 starts isn't exactly a confidence booster. Even worse: The Biff has finished in the top-10 at RIR just once since 2007.
What's Happened to Clint Bowyer Making the Chase?
With just three top-5 and seven other top-10 finishes in the first 25 races of 2014, Bowyer has uncharacteristically struggled this season.
Even worse, he hasn't won a Sprint Cup race since October 2012 at Charlotte.
Heading into last Sunday night's race at Atlanta, Bowyer looked like he'd sneak into the Chase. Unfortunately, he had one of his worst outings of the season at Atlanta, finishing 38th thanks to a broken transmission shifter, and knocked himself off the 16-driver Chase grid.
Now that he's 19 points behind Greg Biffle and a massive 42 points behind Ryan Newman, Bowyer essentially has two options:
1) Win. That's the only way he can assure himself of making the Chase.
2) Drive like he stole it in the race and finish at least 20 positions higher than Biffle. (And even that may still not be enough).
ESPN.com on Bowyer: "Just one driver has ever pulled a Jeremy Mayfield — not surprisingly, Mayfield himself, a decade ago — to launch themselves into the Chase at Richmond from the outside. And a must-win situation in the 1-versus-42 scenario of a race is much more difficult than in a head-to-head sporting event. Even when racing well, odd things happen, like gear shifters and transmissions breaking."
Since his first full-time season in 2006, Bowyer has made the Chase five times and missed it three others.
Right now, Bowyer's odds are 50-50 at best. About the only thing in his favor is his overall record at Richmond: In 17 starts, he has two wins, five top-5 and nine top-10 finishes.
Which Dark Horse Driver Has the Best Chance to Make the Chase?
This is a toughest and most burning question of all.
With 14 drivers currently on the outside of the bubble yet still eligible to make the Chase—but only if they win at Richmond—it's pretty much a given that this could be the wildest race we'll see all season.
By the time Saturday night's race is over, there may be enough wrecked cars left from Chase wanna-be's to fill a junkyard.
Looking at the 14 drivers still eligible, only a handful of names stick out and seem to have the most realistic chance of winning to make the Chase.
There's Clint Bowyer, who we've already covered, rookie Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray and Tony Stewart. The rest of the Chase hopefuls will likely need a miracle to make it.
Unfortunately, miracles are hard to come by in NASCAR.
Can Danica Patrick Win at Richmond and Still Make the Chase?
Yeah, right, Danica makes the Chase. Ha ha, that's a good one.
But you might want to stifle that laughter because Patrick could be the one with the last laugh come late Saturday night.
After her career-best sixth-place finish at Atlanta this past Sunday, suddenly anything seems possible for Patrick, including making the Chase.
FoxSports.com on Patrick making the Chase: " Could Patrick, who is 28th in points, turn the NASCAR world upside down and pick up her first career victory just in time to land the 16th and final spot in NASCAR's 10-race payoff? While the odds of this happening aren't overwhelmingly great — especially in light of Patrick's past NASCAR struggles at the .75-mile venue — this is racing, after all, and that means anything is possible."
There's also one other thing to consider. Given how the drivers at the top of the Chase heap will be fighting tooth-and-nail to earn the top seed (meaning if one of the five drivers currently with three wins each wins a fourth time at Richmond), there's the potential for some serious beating, banging and wrecking.
At the same time, Patrick could drive a smart race, pace herself and potentially be in the right place at the right time when it counts the most—smiling and waving to drivers of any wrecked cars as she goes by.
Also look for Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick to work hard to help her and team co-owner Tony Stewart in any way they can to get one of them into the Chase.
The only way for that to happen would be with a win, but Busch and Harvick could make formidable blockers and maybe even take one for the team if it means Stewart or Patrick also make the playoffs.
What Did NASCAR Learn from Last Year's SpinGate at Richmond?
SpinGate was one of NASCAR's darkest moments in years. Ty Norris, executive vice president of Michael Waltrip Racing, attempted to manipulate the final finishing order at Richmond last year to allow then-MWR driver Martin Truex Jr. to make the Chase.
Unfortunately, NASCAR caught on to Norris' hi-jinks and not only suspended him for the remainder of the season, the sanctioning body also fined MWR a record $300,000 penalty.
FoxSports.com: "For MWR, the consequences of trying to fix the outcome of the race were devastating and far reaching. NAPA, who had sponsored Waltrip as a driver more than a decade earlier and stuck with him through thick and thin, severed its relationship with MWR."
Given what happened last year in this race, it's practically a given that NASCAR will be keeping the closest eye it ever has on Chase hopefuls to make sure there's no funny business this time.
Which Driver Will Have the Best Momentum Coming out of Richmond?
This is a tough question. With five drivers already having three wins apiece, they have momentum almost by default.
But if you break things down, to me, there are really only two guys who have already qualified for the Chase that will have momentum in their corner heading into the playoffs, regardless of what happens at Richmond.
Those two are Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon, who has held the Sprint Cup points lead (14 weeks) more than any other driver in the first 25 weeks, and the driver who has been closest to Gordon this season, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"Most of what's happening for us this year is we're committed, we're working hard and working in the right direction and we've got a good team," Gordon told NASCAR.com recently.
My gut tells me it will be a Gordon-Earnhardt, 1-2 punch heading into the Chase when the standings are reseeded.
Can Tony Stewart Still Make the Chase?
After finishing 41st at Atlanta this past Sunday in his comeback following a three-race absence from racing due to the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy, Stewart's chances to make the Chase appear very remote.
But wait, this IS Tony Stewart we're talking about here. Do you recall how quickly he went from starting 12th to as high as fourth after just the first 16 laps at Atlanta?
Stewart appeared to be a man on a mission until he was involved in the wreck that ended his day later in the race.
There's absolutely no reason whatsoever to think Stewart can't have that same kind of drive and determination at Richmond.
Associated Press: "It’s not important whether Stewart makes the Chase. Moving forward and trying his best to pick up the pieces is all that matters now, and that made Sunday’s race something of a small victory."
What's more, Richmond is one of Stewart's favorite and most successful racetracks. In 30 prior starts there, he has three wins, 11 top-5 and 19 top-10 finishes. That's a pretty stout record.
And given the way Atlanta ultimately played out for him, Stewart will likely be more determined than perhaps he ever has been in his racing career to win at Richmond.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski