Dustin Off the Next Race: Air Guard 400 at Richmond International Raceway
And then there was one. This weekend settles the final two spots heading into the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Some drivers appear to be locked in, while others are going to fight tooth and nail just to get close. The battles in the points are going to come down to the final lap, and nothing is certain until the checkered flag flies.
But, that's not all that is going on leading into Saturday night's race. This past Sunday, Tony Stewart ended his winless streak by taking the checkered flag in Atlanta. He heads into Richmond with a lot of momentum for he and his No. 14 team.
Meanwhile, guys you would expect to run well had struggles at some point. Denny Hamlin dominated the first part of the race, but an engine failure left him with a 43rd-place finish. At the same time, points leader Kevin Harvick was charging through the field, but a blown tire late in the race caused a lot of damage to his No. 29 car.
He was relegated to a 33rd-place run.
If either of these drivers want a chance to get momentum heading into the Chase, they need solid runs in order to keep their hopes alive.
The big thing every driver in the Chase is hoping for is that the struggles Jimmie Johnson has experienced this year are real. These last 10 races, Johnson and the entire No. 48 team usually turn up the heat, but this year, they enter the Chase way behind in momentum.
Johnson would start the Chase in second at this point, but he has not been running well. He needs a good run at Richmond to start these last 10 races on a high note.
So many stories, so many drivers. What can happen after 400 laps at RIR?
Anyone can win this race, so why waste any time and let me dust off...wait, no let us dust off the Air Guard 400 at Richmond.
Yes, this is a special edition of the "Dustin Off" article as fellow writer Kara Martin and I are both going to be at the track for Saturday's action. So, it is only fitting that she and I go head to head in deciding who are the drivers to watch out for, and some who could be lurking in the background.
Let the debate begin.
Kara: Favorite—KYLE BUSCH
Busch dominated Richmond in May, leading 226 of the 400 laps in the Crown Royal 400 and beating Jeff Gordon to the finish line after a late race restart with just five laps to go.
In the final race before the Chase, look for a repeat performance from him on Saturday night.
Last year at this time, Busch fought hard to make the Chase and came up short, just eight points behind 12th-placed Brian Vickers, who clinched the Chase and left Busch sitting not so pretty on the outside looking in.
Busch heads to Richmond third in the points standings and a strong Chase contender. Look for him to be racing hard for another win to add to his Victory column with its coveted 10 bonus points.
Dustin: Favorite No. 1—DENNY HAMLIN
Simply put, when it comes to Richmond, Hamlin has the fans on his side. He grew up not far from this track, and has won in every type of car here.
Sure, it took him until last fall to finally gain a victory among the Cup ranks, but the statistics speak for themselves. Four top fives and five top 10s, and an average finish of 8.8.
He is capable of getting the win here, but more importantly, he needs a win here. The last few months have not been good for the No. 11 team. Since his last win at Michigan, Hamlin has not tasted victory lane. More importantly, he's been overtaken in the standings.
He started out the Chase with the lead over Jimmie Johnson, but would not have the momentum heading into the final 10 races. When Hamlin finished the 2009 season with his victory at Homestead, he told everyone that this team would win a championship in the next few years.
He and the team have the chance to put that to rest just one year later. But, in order to do so, this team needs a victory leading into the Chase. They cannot get momentum midway through, otherwise it will be too late.
Hamlin can definitely do it, and if there's any track where he can get the job done, it's at Richmond. The FedEx Toyota will definitely be the one to watch when the lights come on.
Kara: Sleeper—JEFF BURTON
This Virginia native has already clinched a spot in the Chase, currently sitting sixth in the points standings. Burton will head to Richmond with just one thing on his mind, the one thing that he has yet to achieve this season...a win.
RIR holds special meaning for Burton who takes great pride in running well there and welcomes the return to his home state.
"Being from Virginia, Richmond is where I went as a kid to watch Cup Series racing and it’s a special place for me to come back to,” Burton declared.
He has won once at his hometown track in September 1998, but has proved to be a force to be reckoned with, chalking up one pole, eight top fives and 14 top 10 finishes, and has led 899 laps of competition in 32 starts.
He is long overdue for a win and one in Richmond would be sweet victory indeed.
Dustin: Sleeper—JEFF GORDON
I cannot put this man in the favorite category because I just don't know what it is going to take to get him to victory lane. This team, and this driver, have done everything they could to get the chance to hoist a trophy.
His statistics here are good, two wins, 14 top fives and 23 top 10s are nothing to write off. His last win at this track came in 2000 following an intense battle with Dale Earnhardt.
Just this past spring, he got beaten by Kyle Busch late in the going, so he is extremely capable of getting the job done here. But, the question becomes what will happen to possibly keep him from getting the victory this time?
He was on a tear last week in Atlanta, possibly had the fastest car on the track other than Stewart. But, one bad set of tires and everything went downhill from that point.
He cannot afford to keep falling back as the weeks progress. Gordon right now is stepping into the Chase with zero victories, meaning he would be starting way back in the standings. As of the end of the race on Saturday, his second-place position right now would be meaningless.
He needs a victory, for himself, his team, his family, and his fans. The No. 24 DuPont/National Guard Military Intelligence Chevrolet is gunning for a victory.
Kara: Chase Sleeper—RYAN NEWMAN
Newman rolls into Richmond in the 13th position, 636 points behind leader Kevin Harvick and just 117 points behind 12th-placed Clint Bowyer.
Last week's eighth-place finish bumped Newman up two positions in the standings and put him into contention to make the Chase, but he's going to have to work for it. Last year, Newman, along with boss and fellow driver Tony Stewart, made history by both making the Chase, something that no one predicted for the newly formed Stewart-Haas racing team.
Stewart has already locked his place in this year's Chase. That fact, coupled with the support and determination of the SHR organization should be the momentum needed to vault Newman back into contention.
Newman has nothing to lose and everything to gain on Saturday night, so look for the Rocket Man to make a no holds barred charge to the front of the pack and fight hard to advance his position and make the Chase.
Dustin: Chase Sleeper—JAMIE MCMURRAY
It is going to take a lot for the No. 1 team to make it into the Chase, however, it is not impossible.
McMurray sits 128 points out of the bubble position, but the drivers he is trying to get past have been much more successful at Richmond than him. Both Newman and Clint Bowyer have a victory at the track, both averaging a finish of between 10th and 11th.
On the other hand, McMurray averages a 25th-place finish with only three top 10s.
He needs a lot of work to make it in, but if this season has been any indication, McMurray can get the job done when the situation calls for it.
At Daytona, he weaved his way to the front to get the biggest win of his career. Then, at Indianapolis, after teammate Juan Pablo Montoya fell out due to a wreck, he gave Chip Ganassi the trifecta.
The pressure is back on this team this weekend. There is an outside chance that he will make it in.
All McMurray needs is a chance, and he will make the most of it.
One Last Race...
There's no more waiting, no more time to prepare. Saturday night is the final race of the 2010 regular season.
So much is at stake, and the pressure is being felt by everyone. Strap in, because this one is going to be wild.
Coverage will begin at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN with "NASCAR Countdown." The race coverage will switch over to ABC a half hour later.
NOTE: Special thanks to Kara Martin for her assistance in making this special edition of "Dustin Off."