Busch, Vickers hoping to pull a Mayfield at Richmond

The pundits that prematurely counted Kasey Kahne out of the Chase for the Sprint Cup received a wake-up call late Sunday night after the No. 9 Budweiser Dodge won at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

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Drivers, crew chiefs and owner will tell you that all races are created equal. Well, sure they are to a point — or points to be exact. For a driver that leads the most laps and wins the race, that number would be 195. That’s a game changer.

Although Kahne didn’t lead the most laps in the Pep Boys Auto 500, he earned 185 points for winning the race and five bonus points for leading laps. Kahne’s performance allowed him to leapfrog over five of his competitors to sixth in points.

Certainly, Kahne and Co. are feeling more comfortable with one race before the Chase begins. But only four drivers — Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin — are locked into the Chase.

With just 96 points separating Kahne from 13th-place Brian Vickers, a race-ending mistake or accident in Saturday night’s Richmond race from any driver from sixth-place through 12th could eliminate any hope of earning Chase status and qualifying for the NASCAR’s playoffs.

And Vickers and 14th-place Kyle Busch will be waiting for such a blunder.

In 2004, when just 10 drivers were eligible for the Chase, 76 points separated eighth-place Ryan Newman from 15th-place Kevin Harvick entering Richmond. Sitting 14th in points, 55 points behind 10th-place Mark Martin and in relative obscurity was Jeremy Mayfield.

Chase clinching scenarios at Richmond:

–Carl Edwards can clinch if he finishes 24th or better, leads a lap and finishes 25th, or leads the most laps and finishes 27th.

–Kasey Kahne can clinch if he finishes 21st or better, leads a lap and finishes 23rd, or leads the most laps and finishes 24th.

–Kurt Busch can clinch if he finishes 20th or better, leads a lap and finishes 22nd, or leads the most laps and finishes 24th.

–Juan Pablo Montoya can clinch if he finishes 18th or better, leads a lap and finishes 20th, or leads the most laps and finishes 21st.

–Ryan Newman can clinch if he finishes 16th or better, leads a lap and finishes 17th, or leads the most laps and finishes 19th.

–Mark Martin can clinch if he finishes 12th or better, leads a lap and finishes 14th, or leads the most laps and finishes 15th.

–Greg Biffle can clinch if he finishes 11th or better, leads a lap and finishes 13th, or leads the most laps and finishes 15th.

–Matt Kenseth finishes second and leads at least one lap.

— Courtesy of NASCAR

Mayfield had posted two second-place and nine top-10 finishes in the first 25 races of the season, but had not distinguished himself among possible contenders. He had been winless since joining Evernham Motorsports in 2002. Heck, Mayfield hadn’t been to Victory Lane since the first Pocono race of 2000. But the No. 19 team rolled into Richmond with an opportunity equal to the other eight drivers that were still eligible to qualify for the Chase. He qualified seventh, took the lead for the first time on Lap 99, then led the most laps and won the race. Mayfield’s performance elevated the No. 19 Dodge to ninth in the point standings and his first of two Chase appearances.

Both Vickers and Busch are still in contention. Heck, so is David Reutimann mathematically, though he trails the Chase Zone by 132 points. Reutimann would have to gain 133 points on Kenseth. With a 161-point swing possible on a race weekend, Yes, Reutimann can race his way into the Chase, but it’s not likely.

Will Vickers or Busch have the ability to pull off a Mayfield on Saturday night? Absolutely. Busch won the May race at Richmond. He has an amazing average finish of 6.1 at the .75-mile oval, propped up by seven top-five finishes in nine starts and the fact that he has completed every lap. However, there are three things that could squelch Busch’s ability to sweep the Richmond Cup races: Possible mechanical failure, problems in the pits or the driver himself. When Busch experienced a tire rub at Atlanta, his composure waivered. Consequently, so did his result, dropping from a possible top five to a 13th-place result.

That wasn’t the case for Vickers and the No. 83 team, who also led laps early and then overcame what could have been a disastrous finish after rear axle issues on Lap 250. Quick work from the pit crew — an issue the Red Bull racers had practiced for in advance — allowed Vickers to return to the lead lap and recover with a seventh-place finish.

“I can’t say enough about the guys that were involved with fixing it,” crew chief Ryan Pemberton said. “I’m not saying we have a ‘play’ for that, but we have a ‘play’ for that. The guys that fixed it without losing a lap are the same guys that worked together with me a few years back and the same thing happened and we didn’t lose a lap then.

“When it happened, I was like, ‘Okay guys, you know what to do.’ It went flawless. That was pretty cool to be able to bounce back from that and change the axle.”

Vickers doesn’t have as stellar a record at Richmond as Busch. He has two poles — including in May — and just one top 10 finish in 10 starts. What Vickers does have right now is momentum and extreme confidence in his team.

In the last seven races, Vickers has vaulted from 17th in the point standings to 13th. He scored the first win for Red Bull racing at Michigan two races ago and pulled the entire organization behind his effort.

“It’s going to be a battle to the end, I’m sure,” Vickers said. “It’s going to be wild. I’m looking forward to it. We’d like to go into Richmond locked into the Chase, but to go in there even in contention, I think for a two-and-a-half year old team, says a lot. I’m really proud of these guys — Red Bull and Toyota — how far we’ve come. Six poles, a win and we’re battling for the Chase.

“No matter what happens, I think we have to walk away with our heads held high. Nights like tonight, that’s the reason we’re in contention. We had a car that could win, we had a parts failure, but we came back from it and still finished seventh.”