In a season that has been nuts with wild-card talk, one more hand must be played this Saturday under the lights at Richmond International Raceway.
That will be wild in itself, but the way the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup is shaping up, it hardly will be the end of all the craziness. You thought last year's Chase, which eventually boiled down to a two-man battle between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, was compelling? This year's Chase may be even better.
Ten of the 12 spots have been clinched in the wake of Denny Hamlin's victory at Atlanta last Sunday, and the 11th player is all but determined.
The top nine in the points standings have not only clinched spots, but three points for each win they've recorded thus far this season (with three more up for grabs at Richmond). It's time to forget where they all are in points beyond how it affects the Chase seeding, for finishing first or second in points means essentially nothing now without victories to back it up. (Although Jimmie Johnson recently made a good point when he suggested that the regular-season leader in points ought to at least get something for it, like perhaps three additional bonus points to start out the Chase).
Anyway, those top nine drivers in the current standings – Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick – have all clinched Chase spots based on the points they've earned throughout the first 25 races. No one behind them can knock them out of the top 10 now.
Defending champion Tony Stewart has clinched at least a wild-card spot, but needs to avoid disaster at Richmond and fend off Kasey Kahne, who is 18 points behind him, to ensure that he'll get in on points and thus be able to utilize the nine bonus points that would then come with his three wins. Kahne, with two victories and a virtual stranglehold on the first of two wild-card Chase spots, would like to catch Stewart and crack the top 10 so he, too, can begin the Chase with a bit of a bonus-points head start.
The two wild-card entries do not get to carry over any bonus points for their regular-season victories. Kyle Busch currently holds the second wild-card spot, but a victory at Richmond by any one of four other drivers – Jeff Gordon, Marcos Ambrose, Ryan Newman or Joey Logano – would get them in. That guarantees a fun night of wild racing at RIR.
But after that? Who knows? And that's the beauty of this year's Chase. Pretty much anyone could rise up and win it. From the looks of it now, though, there appear to be three distinct groups heading into the fray.
This select group includes the hottest driver in Sprint Cup right now, Hamlin, as well as the two drivers who have combined to win the last six championships (okay, so Jimmie Johnson won five in a row before Stewart won last year).
Hamlin has won the last two races and now heads to his favorite track at Richmond, so he's obviously building momentum and confidence at the right time. But Johnson can never be counted out. And after last year, when Stewart seemed dead in the water when the Chase began, only to reel off five wins in the 10 Chase races, the same has to be said of Smoke.
The real wild card in this group is Brad Keselowski. It's no coincidence that the calling card to get into this select club is a minimum of three race wins (Hamlin now has a series-high four). Like the rest, Keselowski has proven he can get to Victory Lane and it's likely going to require at least one or two more trips there to win the title. Keselowski also has developed a determined edge to him, dating back to midway through last season, that seemingly will serve him well in his second Chase.
Don't underestimate the fact that Dodge, the manufacturer that is leaving the sport after this season, would love to go out on top and will be funneling every possible resource into Keselowski's championship charge. Not that the other manufacturers won't do the same for their guys, but Dodge may pour more energy and effort and dollars into it than all the rest.
The Possible Contenders
Biffle heads up this second group. He has two wins this season and has been at or near the top in points virtually all season. He can't be dismissed lightly and also seems to be building momentum at precisely the right time.
The others who could rise up? Well, Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs to prove he can win at a track other than Michigan, and more than once every Presidential election, but he's been remarkably consistent all year. He also seems more calm and confident than at any other point recently in his career, which should serve him well in the Chase.
Yet the guys who really could surprise and make some noise are the two wild-card entries, especially if they end up being Kahne and either Kyle Busch or Jeff Gordon -- the combination that seems most likely (with Stewart getting in on points). Kahne has had fast cars all year long and finally seems comfortable in his Hendrick Motorsports ride. Busch and Gordon have both endured more than their share of bad luck this season, but have the potential to muster up a Stewart-like Chase run if they can just get in the hunt.
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Click here So it wouldn't be a total shock if any of these guys made a strong Chase run. But it would be at least mildly surprising if any of them actually pulled off winning the championship.
This group includes Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth. Given the rest of the stout field, it would be somewhat of a shocker if any of these guys actually won the championship under their unique circumstances.
Harvick, still seeking his first win of the season, recently changed crew chiefs -- going back with Gil Martin, the guy who got him to the Chase a year ago but then was removed from the position when Harvick's title hopes fizzled over the final 10 races. It might be the right move (Martin is a solid crew chief who never should have been removed in the first place), but it smacks of Hail Mary-like desperation at this late stage of the season.
Truex and Bowyer already have overachieved in their first season together at Michael Waltrip Racing. Bowyer, who has one win, also has experience at contending in the Chase and is the best bet to beat the odds to rise up and challenge for the title. He admitted the other day that he's in a good spot and feels relaxed, like he's playing with house money because his team already has exceeded expectations. Truex should have won at Atlanta and at this point it truly does seem to merely be a matter of time before he gets to Victory Lane. But with only one win in his Cup career to date -- one that came in 2007 -- it seems a stretch to think he's suddenly going to rise up and run with the top dogs in the Chase pressure cooker.
That leaves Kenseth, who won the season-opening Daytona 500 and has remained consistent enough to rank third in the points heading into Richmond. But he's already announced he's leaving Roush Fenway Racing at the end of the season (it finally becomes official that he's headed to Joe Gibbs Racing this Tuesday). He's in a lame-duck situation that's bound to only get stranger as this Chase progresses. There's little doubt that RFR will be trying to push Biffle, who will remain with the organization following this season, a little harder toward to the title than the guy who's already got one foot out the door on his way to a major competitor who fields cars from a rival manufacturer.