The setting will be the same, but the scene will be very different the next time NASCAR's premier series arrives at Richmond International Raceway following this weekend's event. That early September date will carry with it the usual sticky, final vestiges of a long summer in the South, making everyone thankful for whomever came up with the idea of running under the lights. And the focus will be less on the race itself and more on the drama surrounding it, as Sprint Cup drivers gear up for the final event before the 10-race playoff that determines the champion.
There will be the usual flurry of clinching scenarios, made far less complicated by NASCAR's simplified points system. And then there will be the great unknown, courtesy of the rule implemented this year that grants the final two Chase berths to the drivers with the most race victories, meaning that we could all witness the very real prospect of one or two drivers coming to the Virginia capital city needing to win to get in.
And that's exactly what NASCAR -- and let's be honest, everybody else as well -- hopes will unfold, that some driver will make the kind of dramatic charge to Victory Lane that will further spark an evening that can be pretty electrifying as it is. For the regular-season finale at Richmond, the wild card is one more reason to buy a ticket or tune in from home. During the first 26 races, the wild card deepens the pool of drivers capable of earning a Chase berth, and gives fans of those competitors extra motivation to stay fully invested in the sport.
Last year at this time, after the eighth event of the season, there was already a stark separation between potential Chase contenders and also-rans, groups that began to diverge at about spot 17 in the standings. As it stands today, there are probably 25 drivers who honestly believe they have what it takes to score two race victories, the assumed criteria for wild card qualification. David Reutimann and Brian Vickers are down in 26th and 28th position, respectively, but both have won races before and certainly believe they can do so again. Guys like Denny Hamlin (17th), Kasey Kahne (18th), Jeff Burton (22nd) and Jamie McMurray (23rd), who have endured rough starts, surely cling to the wild card concept like a life raft. Even someone like Regan Smith, who stands 30th but has run well in almost every event this year, probably holds out hope.
Right now, almost everyone is still in it, although many of those drivers are battling for just two spots instead of 12. Even so, it's enough to keep people interested, it's enough to give fans of some popular but hard-luck drivers some reason for optimism, and it's enough to add one more wrinkle of uncertainty to a process that's always much more enjoyable -- and, to be fair, much more stressful to those competitors directly involved -- when it's a mad dash to the finish line Sept. 10 in Richmond.
As with all such things, though, there's always a price to be paid, and therein lies the rub -- what's good for the first 27 races may not necessarily be good for the Chase. As much fun and as unpredictable as the wild card may be, as much as it keeps more drivers and their fans in the mix until the end, it also raises the distinct possibility of allowing into the Sprint Cup championship hunt a team that isn't exactly capable of running for a championship. Winning a race, catching magic on a given Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon, is the essence of what NASCAR is all about. It's the reason competitors get into this in the first place. And at NASCAR's highest level, no question it's difficult. But it's more difficult to achieve the sustained level of excellence over 10 weeks that it takes to win a title. Lots of drivers have won races during the past five seasons. Only one has been at the head table at the end of each year.
The bottom line: being able to win races and contend for a championship are two distinctly different things, and just because a driver can do one doesn't mean he can automatically do the other. Which is why there could be a hangover waiting the morning after that September Richmond race, one stemming from the Chase being potentially weakened by the wild cards' presence. In other sports, wild card teams were added on top of those that got in anyway. In this case, wild cards are replacing teams that would have gained entry through their points position. And the possibility exists that the team getting bumped out could be a much stronger championship contender than the one getting in.
Just look at last season. McMurray is exactly the kind of driver the wild card was made for -- he won three times (twice before the Chase), but wound up 14th in points after the 12-man championship field was determined at Richmond this past September. Under this season's format, those victories would have earned him a wild card berth, and relegated Clint Bowyer to the championship sidelines for the final 10 events.
And yet, outside of eventual champion Jimmie Johnson, few drivers were as strong over the course of the 2010 Chase as Bowyer, who won two races in that span and would have been a factor until the final weeks of the championship hunt if not for the 150-point penalty his team was assessed for technical violations after his victory in the playoff opener in New Hampshire. McMurray, despite his high-profile and well-deserved race victories, was never able to string together consistently strong runs for more than a few weeks at a time. Granted, the way drivers and teams approach those final races can change based on what they have to run for, but looking at the 2010 numbers it's difficult to believe the No. 1 car could have put up as much of a fight over the final 10 events as the No. 33 did.
Clearly, one season does not make a trend. But a similar situation would have unfolded in 2009, where four-time race winner Kyle Busch would have bumped Greg Biffle, who would go winless that year. And yet, in almost every other key statistic -- top-fives, top-10s, average finish -- Biffle was superior. And those four wins for Busch aren't indicative of how rough the second half of the season was for the No. 18 team, which endured a fall so precipitous that it cost former crew chief Steve Addington his job. No question, Busch is a threat to win anytime he slides behind the wheel, and who knows what happens if he has a title to run for. But by the end of the 2009 season, that team was far from a championship contender, a fact evident in its results.
So what happens this year? Tony Stewart and Mark Martin are two drivers who have run well for much of the year, and yet don't have any wins to show for it, and are outside the safety zone of the top 10. No question, there's a long way to go until the circuit circles back to Richmond in September, but it's not ridiculous to think that a driver lacking only in the victory category could get ousted by someone further down in the standings who scores some wins. Hey, it all promises to make that second Richmond race as zany and unpredictable as ever. Just be prepared for the next morning, when the serious business of the championship hunt begins, and that potential hangover begins to throb.