There are many appealing things about Monster Series NASCAR Cup racing at the three-quarter mile Richmond Raceway, but perhaps the strongest of them comes with the September race, this year called the Federated Auto Parts 400.
It is the last race of NASCAR’s regular season, which means it offers the final chance for some competitors to move on to the 10-race playoff that begins a week later.
As you know, any driver that does not make the playoffs has no chance for a championship. It’s pretty much that way in all professional sports.
Several drivers are already playoff bound because they have won at least one race this season. Others aren’t quite as comfortable. They haven’t won but are nestled among the top 16 in points.
But they are vulnerable.
And there are others whose only chance to move ahead comes with a victory.
What lures many of us is to see how this will all play out. The race will reveal the final starting lineup of drivers for the playoffs – and there are innumerable ways for that to happen. That’s the hook.
One driver who won’t be feeling any pre-race tension is Martin Truex Jr.
Truex Jr. finished eighth in Darlington’s Bojangle’s’ Southern 500. However, he won two more stages and locked down the regular season title. He picked up two more playoff points by winning two stages of the race and the championship paid him 15 more points.
No matter what happens at Richmond, Truex Jr. will have at least 52 playoff points. No one else has more than 20 at the moment. And in each round he advances his points carry over until the championship event.
It’s been a breakout season for the Furniture Row driver and he’s a heavy favorite to contest for the title at Homestead.
He might have won at Darlington but could not hold off Denny Hamlin, who has fresher tires. Hamlin got around Truex Jr. with three laps to go. Truex Jr. also suffered a blown tire.
But in the end, so what?
“That was unfortunate,” Truex Jr. said. “But to lock up the regular season title is a huge accomplishment for us. We’ve come a long way in a short time and continue to climb.”
That might be an understatement.
The winless drivers who were playoff eligible going into Richmond are Chase Elliott, seventh in points, Matt Kenseth, eighth and Jamie McMurray, 10th. All of them are more than 90 points ahead of 17th-place Daniel Suarez.
Clint Bowyer experienced engine failure at Darlington and finished 40th. He has to win at Richmond in order to move on. So does Suarez, Joey Logano, Erik Jones, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others.
Earnhardt Jr.’s last Darlington race wasn’t the fairy-tale ending his legion of fans hoped it would be. His Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet hasn’t been competitive all season.
“We have lost speed,” said the 14-time Most Popular Driver. “But I don’t want my guys to remember this season because we fought and fell apart and got negative and nasty and short with each other.
“I want those guys to remember it, even if we don’t’ win, or have success, I want them to remember that we worked our guts out and we stayed at it to the very end. We fought hard to the finish.”
Richmond has the potential to provide high drama. If a driver who has already won triumphs, the guys currently in on points might be able to breathe easier.
If one of the winless drivers outside the points border wins, he’ll be a very happy fellow. It’s likely one now safely within the point range won’t be.
I think among the outsiders Logano has the best shot at victory. He won at Richmond in April but the victory became “encumbered” when he sustained a post-race penalty from NASCAR.
“Encumbered” means the win does not count.
There are numerous scenarios that could be played out at Richmond.
My opinion is that the most enticing of them all is for Earnhardt Jr. to win and make the playoffs in his last season as a full time Cup driver.
It’s not likely. Sounds like something right out of Hollywood, doesn’t it?
But, as the old saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction.
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