By Jerry Bonkowski – In the previous nine editions of the Chase for the Sprint Cup (nee Nextel Cup), there have some good races in the final qualifying event at Richmond.
Then again, there have been some not-so-good races, as well.
But I don’t think there’s ever been as great a lineup or as many different storylines with so many drivers on the bubble as we have for Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400.
Think of it: from Dale Earnhardt Jr. (seventh, 31 points ahead of 10th place) to defending Sprint Cup champ Brad Keselowski (15th, 28 points behind 10th), there are nine drivers that will play a four-wheeled game of musical chairs on Saturday.
And of those nine, six will make the Chase and three others won’t.
It doesn’t get much better than this, for sure!
Without question, the guys with the most to lose – and, conversely, practically must have the race of their lives to qualify for the Chase – include Earnhardt, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon and Keselowski.
It’s no coincidence that none of those four have won a race yet in 2013. And that’s why they’re all in the mess they’re in right now, worrying and fretting and nibbling their nails in angst that they’re going to fall short.
And even though Earnhardt is still 31 points to the good coming into Richmond, one need only look at what’s happened to teammate and points leader Jimmie Johnson in the last few races to see that Earnhardt’s Chase bid is far from secure. Johnson lost 35 points after finishing 40th at Michigan and lost another 25 points after finishing 36th at Bristol.
So if Junior fans think their driver is secure to make the Chase, they may want to reconsider.
In fact, it could be one of the greatest ironies of Chase lore if either of Earnhardt’s other teammates also trying to make the playoffs, Gordon (six points out of 10th) or Kasey Kahne (10 points out of 10th), rally to make the Chase and knock him out in the process.
Gordon took a huge step towards that end by winning the pole Friday.
And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that the nine drivers vying for those six locked in or wild-card spots are going to be driving like men possessed in Saturday’s race.
In fact, I’m going to go on record and predict that we’re going to see a Talladega-style race Saturday more so than the typical Richmond affair.
In other words, lots of drivers taking crazy chances – much crazier than they’d normally take – to make the playoffs. Ergo, more craziness will likely equal a lot more wrecks than usual, given the significance of this race.
And we know what happens when there lots of wrecks: innocent drivers get caught up in someone else’s mess. All it will take for guys like Earnhardt, Busch, Gordon or Keselowski to wreck – or more importantly, BE WRECKED – early in Saturday’s race and their Chase hopes will quickly be over.
For some reason, I draw a similarity between what may take place Saturday to what happened to Jimmie Johnson in the final two races of last season.
Think about it: Johnson fell too far behind Keselowski and the rest of the field too early at Phoenix, uncharacteristically got flustered, tried to gain back big chunks of ground too quickly – and ultimately wrecked.
Johnson was so far behind the eight ball to begin with going into Phoenix that after pushing too hard, he wound up being behind the nine ball, too.
And then going into the season finale at Homestead, Johnson knew what he had to do and began doing it – only to fall victim to an unexpected and rare mechanical failure that came at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ergo, Keselowski went on to win the championship and Johnson’s day and season ended early.
Saturday’s race at Richmond will be like a microcosm of how those last two races in last year’s Chase played out for Johnson. And therein lies the rub for the nine guys still hoping to have a chance to make this year’s playoffs.
Gordon and Kurt Busch are in the driver’s seats, at least for the first few laps, by virtue of sitting on the front row Saturday. Unless something unexpectedly goes south in a hurry immediately after the race-starting green flag is thrown, it’s a safe bet that they have the best chance on paper to make the Chase going in.
I’m also not totally convinced Earnhardt is going to make it, and likewise for Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr.
In fact, when all is said and done, those three drivers could be the three that don’t make it.
If you can’t tell, I’m excited, pumped – use whatever verb or adjective you want – about Saturday’s race. But no matter who makes it, they’ll have fought just a little harder and dug just a little deeper than the three guys that ultimately don’t make it.
For the record, here’s the 12 drivers I see making this year’s Chase:
Given: Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth.
Will earn their way in Saturday: Gordon, Kahne, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman.
Won’t make it: Earnhardt, Keselowski and Truex.
Who do you think will or won’t make it?