And it all comes down to Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.
After 25 races, only the top six drivers in the point standings – Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth – along with 12th-place Kasey Kahne, whose two wins this season guarantees him at least a wild-card berth, are locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
This weekend, 10 drivers are still mathematically eligible for one of the remaining five positions in the Chase. No doubt, a win for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano, Greg Biffle or Kurt Busch – all currently among the top 10 – would guarantee a Chase seed. Ditto for wild-card hopefuls Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman, who already have one victory to their credit.
No doubt the contenders will be rooting and gouging their way on 0.75-mile short track, where rivalries can be reignited in an instant.
If Sunday’s action between Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards on an intermediate track is any indication of what can happened on a venue half that size, it will be game on in Richmond.
“Ask the 99 what his problem is,” asked Gordon Sunday night.
“I felt like he door-slammed me,” said Edwards of the No. 24 driver and questioned whether Gordon thought he was driving on dirt.
After the race, the two agreed to disagree – then later made up in the driver coach lot but not before a further exchange.
“We were racing really early and he just slides job me, and I thought it was really out of character for him and I didn’t understand what was going on there so I did everything I could not to wreck us both. So naturally the next time we were around each other I raced him as hard as I could, and then going down the back straightaway I thought he just ran into my door and it kind of tore up our right side.”
Edwards, who led four times for a race-high 68 laps, said his car turned to junk after contact with Gordon. After the drivers’ first encounter, Edwards said it was “smart” of Gordon to “just walk away.” With his 18th-place finish, Edwards fell from third to fourth in the point standings.
Gordon didn’t care for Edwards’ tact either.
“I have a problem with a guy when I apologize for sliding him and he proceeds to tell me everything I did wrong in the race,” Gordon said. “I didn’t hear him apologizing for any of the things he did. I tried to have a regular conversation and that didn’t seem possible with him.”
Gordon entered the race 13th in point standings sans a victory this season. His sixth-place finish Saturday night elevated the No. 24 team to 11th, two positions higher entering Richmond that where he was one year ago when he battled Sunday night’s winner Kyle Busch for the final transfer spot.
“We still have a fighting shot when we get to Richmond,” Gordon said. ”We know what that’s like.”
Gordon has two wins at Richmond and finished second there last September. But now in addition to running his own race Saturday he must wonder whether Edwards has payback on his mind.
Here is how the other challengers stack up:
1) Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Junior is seventh in the point standings with a 37-point cushion. He has three wins at Richmond and an average finish of 8.6 in his past three starts at the track. NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver – who has few if any enemies on the tour – locks into the Chase with a finish of 32nd or higher.
2) Joey Logano: In the past five races, Logano has vaulted from 18th in the point standings to eighth with a win at Michigan, three top fives — including second at Atlanta — and two top 10 finishes. Logano’s Richmond results haven’t been stellar but in nine previous starts his best-career finish of third occurred at the track in April. Now, if he can just make amends with Denny Hamlin between now and Saturday or finish 11th or better without leading a lap, Logano will contend in his first Chase.
3) Greg Biffle: Consistency — and a win at Michigan — has been the key to Biffle remaining in the Chase Zone for 22 of 25 weeks this season. Biffle, who is ninth in the standings, is the only driver in the top 15 without a DNF. Biffle can clinch with a finish of ninth or better — where he finished at Richmond last year. However, Biffle hasn’t had a top five at Richmond since 2006, and his average finish is 17.2.
4) Kurt Busch: Busch arguably executed the best restart of the evening in Atlanta when in a half a lap he muscled the No. 78 Chevy from 11th to second on the backstretch on Lap 293. Say what you want about the Outlaw, but there’s no driver who is consistently up on the wheel. His fourth-place finish at Atlanta lifted Busch to 10th in the standings. Busch’s last win at Richmond came in 2005, but he led 36 laps in the spring before pit strategy knocked him to ninth. He can finish second with most laps led — and provide Furniture Row Racing team owner Barney Visser his first visit in the dance.
5) Martin Truex Jr.: Despite a fractured wrist, Truex powered his way to a podium finish and 13th in the point standings. It was the bump he needed after finishing 35th at Bristol and posting his third DNF of 2013. Plus, Truex could use momentum entering Richmond, where his 23.7 average finish is his career worst at all tracks.
6) Ryan Newman: Newman finished fifth at Atlanta, climbed from 15th to 14th in the standings and still lost ground in the Chase race with Kasey Kahne dropping out of the top 10 and into a wild-card spot with his early wreck. Newman hasn’t won at Richmond since 2003, but recently tested at the track, where he holds an average finish of 11.8 – the highest of any Chase contender not locked into a spot.
7) Brad Keselowski: The defending champion has pulled off miracles before but with a 28-point deficit outside of the top 10 after Sunday night’s engine failure, even Keselowski might be incapable of mustering that kind of magic. Keselowski is 15th in points without a win. He has two top 10 finishes in nine starts at Richmond, but his average finish of 20.5 at track, where he has never led a lap, does not bode well for a comeback.