Something’s got to give at Richmond

Published 4:54 pm Thursday, September 10, 2009

When the “Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup” format was instituted in 2004, Richmond International Raceway inherited the annual Chase “cut-off” race, the final event before the Chase field is set.

Drama at RIR has been considerable on a yearly basis since then, but clearly, this year shapes up as the most dramatic yet.

Coming into Saturday night’s Chevy Rock & Roll 400, only four spots in the 12-driver field have been clinched. Only Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin have berths into NASCAR’s playoffs. That leaves eight spots open — and 11 drivers in the running.

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Only 217 points separate fifth-place Carl Edwards from the last driver in Chase contention, 15th-place David Reutimann.

When the situation is condensed around the 12th-place bubble, the outlook becomes even more uncertain.

Matt Kenseth rolls cautiously into Richmond in 12th place. Kenseth is trying to extend a streak he co-holds with Jimmie Johnson as the only two drivers who have qualified for the Chase every year.

It won’t be easy. Kenseth has one Richmond victory, that coming in September 2002. Saturday night he’ll be fighting off three guys close behind in the points. Brian Vickers is only 20 points behind, while Kyle Busch is only 37 back. The last driver still in mathematical contention is 15th-place Reutimann, an obvious long shot, as he is 132 points behind Kenseth.

Above Kenseth in the standings, there is also nervousness: 10th-place Mark Martin is only 69 points ahead of 13th-place Vickers while 11th-place Greg Biffle is 68 ahead of Vickers, a former champion of the NASCAR Nationwide Series trying to qualify for the Chase for the first time.

“I just want to run good and be back up front where we belong,” Kenseth said. “We have a championship-caliber team as far as personnel … we’re capable of much better than this.”

“Through certain parts of the year we probably haven’t capitalized on all the races we could have and got all the points we could have, so we’re in this spot and we just have to race as hard as we can and do the things we know how to do and hope that’s good enough,” said Kenseth.

Vickers, Busch talk playoffs on NASCAR teleconference

Brian Vickers: “I think it’s very clear as to what we have to do, which is pretty much go there and win the race. That’s not necessarily the only way to get in the Chase, but that’s really how we’re going to gain the most amount of points. …

“The last thing that myself or anybody on the Red Bull team would do is wish ill upon anybody else. We don’t want anything bad to happen to our competitors. But we need them to at least not have a great night, no matter how our performance is. …

Kyle Busch: “There’s nothing you can do [about the other ‘bubble’ guys]. You can’t change what they’re doing. You can’t make race calls for those guys and tell them that they need to pit or whatever. There’s really no point in going through that frustration and trying to figure out where those guys are. You just see what it boils down to at the end of the day. …

NASCAR Sprint Cup Point Standings – Top 12

Driver Points

1. Tony Stewart 3,694

2. Jeff Gordon 3,457

3. Jimmie Johnson 3,404

4. Denny Hamlin 3,296

5. Carl Edwards 3,162

6. Kasey Kahne 3,153

7. Kurt Busch 3,152

8. Juan Pablo Montoya 3,145

9. Ryan Newman 3,138

10. Mark Martin 3,126

11. Greg Biffle 3,125

12. Matt Kenseth 3,077