NASCAR

Fight for last Chase spot now a duel

Sprint Cup Series driver Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon (No. 24) will know where Kyle Busch is this week, and vice versa.
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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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Virginia may be for lovers, but this Saturday at Richmond International Raceway will be a battle royale.

With the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup field all but decided, typical short-track racing will be all the "rage."

Yes, there’s still a wild-card spot up for grabs, but that contest likely will come down to Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch.

For all intents and purposes, Carl Edwards watched his Chase dreams expire along with his engine on Lap 264 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Although Gordon finished second on Sunday night, he’s still questioning his decision not to “move” race winner Denny Hamlin out of the way on the final lap. Will Gordon’s philosophy be different at Richmond? It better be if he hopes to take on Busch, who has won four of the past seven races on the three-quarter mile track (though all of those wins came in the spring).

Busch has been in striking distance of the Chase all season but out of the top 10 in the point standings since his back-to-back engine failures in June. Gordon’s last win at Richmond occurred in 2000, when Busch was 15, Busch knows the four-time champion “could give us a run for our money.”

“I feel like that's the guy we're racing — the 24 car,” Busch said. “We'll just have to see how it all plays out.”

Although the spotlight will initially shine on the wild-card contenders, Richmond also provides the first opportunity since Bristol two weeks ago for drivers to exact revenge from previous run-ins.

NONSTOP ACTION

NASCAR heats up Atlanta. PHOTOS.

Here are 10 rivalries for the Richmond radar:

1. Smoke vs. Matt the Brat

“Every chance I get” was Tony Stewart’s initial response after his dustup with Matt Kenseth at Bristol. Certainly, Smoke’s demeanor has mellowed somewhat. Add into the equation Stewart’s need for a primary sponsor replacement for Office Depot, and he might likely have a behavioral restrictor plate on for the remainder of the season. Still. Kenseth says Stewart has been racing him over-aggressively since Sonoma or perhaps since the soon-to-be Joe Gibbs Racing driver failed to return the Stewart Haas Racing's co-owner's inquiries regarding his job status for 2013. Regardless, this should be an epic battle down the stretch.

2. JP vs. Rocketman

Juan Pablo Montoya reignited a long running feud with Ryan Newman when he turned right — right into the No. 39 Chevrolet at Bristol. And if Newman's disdain isn't enough, Montoya also collected Jeff Burton in the process at on a night when the CAT car appeared competitive again for the first time in a long time.

3. Motor City Madman vs. Rowdy

No, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch have not spoken since Watkins Glen. Neither driver sees the necessity. But does Busch believe that Keselowski's tap on the last lap at the Glen was unintentional? Maybe we’ll find out at Richmond if Busch takes his eyes off the prize.

4. Slap Happy vs. Bad Brad

Water-bottlegate, really? Sure, Kevin Harvick watched a Nationwide Series win slip from his fingers on Saturday night when NASCAR called a caution for debris after the Richard Childress racer led 157 of 195 laps. Harvick believed the cause of the caution stemmed from Keselowski’s water bottle, but that was not the case. Still, Harvick expressed his displeasure with the driver immediately after the race and playfully patted Keselowski’s cheek before wishing him sweet dreams in the postrace press conference. Many competitors have weighed in on Keselowski of late for both the water bottle and his outspoken nature. Right now, the No. 2 Penske racer could be the ultimate silent assassin if he minds his own business and sets his sights on the title.

Cup stars in a drought

DROUGHT CONDITIONS

These drivers still can't find their way to Victory Lane.

5. Junior vs. Four-Time

Certainly, Jeff Gordon has greater issues on his plate right now than reigniting an internal feud with NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. It’s not a fight he’s going to win. Although these Hendrick Motorsports racers have endured their share of close calls of late, Gordon is too smart to sacrifice an opportunity at a Chase bid over a momentary loss of composure.

6. Five-Time vs. Sideways Sam

Why is it that Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet has been a magnet for Sam Hornish over the years? Yes, Hornish was once a champion, too — in open-wheel racing, where bumpers didn’t exist. While Sunday’s altercation involving the Nos. 22, 48 and 39 just appeared to be a racing incident, it would be advisable for Hornish to offer Johnson more real estate in the future.

7. Kurt Busch vs. Ryan Newman

Can’t we all just get along? The former Penske Racing teammates once worked well together. Now, with both drivers competing on the racetrack and as free agents off the racetrack, the pair have provided plenty of rivalry fodder this season.

8. Marcos Ambrose vs. Regan Smith

Yes, Ambrose publicly apologized to Smith after taking the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet out of contention at Michigan on Lap 75. Still, Ambrose went on to finish the race fifth while Smith was relegated to 29th. Smith has gained momentum since crew chief Todd Berrier came on board at Indy. He posted consecutive top 10s in the two weeks that followed. Although Smith is not the type of racer who seeks retaliation, after five seasons in the Cup series, the driver, who turns 29 later this month, needs to stand his ground. Both he and the driver of the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford are in contract years, and Smith has to know if he’s in close proximity of that car Ambrose isn’t going to lift.

9. Ryan Newman vs. Joey Logano

POLL

  • Who has best shot at wild-card spot?
    • Kyle Busch
    • Jeff Gordon

These drivers have been under the weather the past few weeks, but their feud from two years ago grew legs at Kentucky when the pair tangled on Lap 160. Newman punted Logano and collected innocent bystander Clint Bowyer in the process. Yes, these two drivers are on the market and tensions are high. Will their tempers ignite at Richmond? Stay tuned.

10. Smoke vs. Darian Grubb

After Grubb led Denny Hamlin to his fourth win of the season, is it possible that Stewart is experiencing a bit of buyer’s remorse? Grubb has proven that he’s a championship crew chief. On Sunday, Hamlin won his second intermediate-track race of the season while Smoke floundered after starting from the pole and finished 22nd. Stewart’s average finish the past four races is 25th — and he was complaining that the No. 14 team had issues about the same time last summer? Grubb still doesn’t know why he was released at the end of 2011, but with the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team in a position to be sitting on top of the standings once the points are recalculated for the Chase, chances are this crew chief will have the last laugh.

Tagged: Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Marcos Ambrose, Regan Smith, Brad Keselowski

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