Pressure will be on Saturday night at Richmond

I really like the fact that the last race before the Chase for the Sprint Cup starts is at Richmond.

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Richmond is such a unique track. By the strictest of terms, it is a short track, but at the same time it races a lot like Atlanta, Michigan or some of the superspeedways.

I like it because it is hard enough on brakes where you have to respect it, yet it is easy enough on engines, so that allows you to take that concern off the table. Historically, Richmond isn’t a place where mechanical issues become a problem.

You just have great racing at Richmond. You have an upper groove. You have a lower groove. Drivers love having options like that. I hate to throw rocks at any other track, but I sure as heck would rather decide the Chase lineup at Richmond than, say, Loudon. Up there, it’s hard to pass, there isn’t any banking and it’s just a hard place to race.

I just really like what NASCAR has done, and to me it’s the perfect racetrack for the final event before the Chase starts. The track is right in the middle in my book. It gives you a little bit of everything. It’s a short track with a big-track mentality. It just has all kinds of good things about it. They couldn’t have picked a better place on the circuit to decide this thing. It’s really the ideal track.

The thing the teams are going to battle is the normal stuff when we come to Richmond. They are going to be focusing on getting the car into the corner and making it turn. You carry so much speed into the corners here. Then once you do get it to turn, you will hear guys complaining about it being loose.

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

Turn 2 at Richmond is a very tricky part of the racetrack. It can give guys fits because it doesn’t have the banking like it has on the straightaway. Coming off Turn 4 and with the front straightaway banking, you can really get aggressive. Turn 4 is so much easier than Turn 2.

If you hustle the car too hard all night long, then you are going to hear guys complaining about their brakes. You can have a really good race car, but if you abuse those brakes, well, all of a sudden you don’t have a very good race car. You have to get a good setup under the car that gets it balanced.

I think the fuse of frustration was lit a long time ago, so I expect to see it blow up Saturday night like never before. Realistically, we have guys that are OK in the points but not great. At the same time, you have several cars that are racing for their lives. The Roush-Fenway group comes to mind.

As an organization, they have to be feeling like someone has a foot on their neck. Carl Edwards’ bad luck continued last weekend. Matt Kenseth’s bunch did a tremendous job to rally back, but they are holding onto that 12th and final Chase spot by their fingernails. Greg Biffle also had a bad Atlanta race but was able to make something out of it. Let’s face it, Roush-Fenway is in bad shape right now.

They simply don’t have enough pad built up in the points going into Saturday night’s race. Plus, you have to add in that Richmond isn’t one of the organization’s better racetracks. They will tell you that their short-track program isn’t where it needs to be. So trust me, collectively they are sweating bullets. It sure wouldn’t take a whole lot, especially for Kenseth, at the end of the night to find himself on the outside looking in for the 2009 Chase.

I have learned in my many years in this sport to never say never. Will team orders come over the radio from the owner for possibly teammates to give up spots? Maybe, because I have seen stranger things happen. So, yes, I think Saturday night there will be guys out there that are spoilers. Look at Atlanta last weekend. Kevin Harvick, who has been having a miserable year, was up front all night and finished second. Well, that took some points off the board for some of these Chase guys who desperately needed those points.

So my point is Saturday night if you have guys running up front who aren’t going to make the Chase, it can make a big difference at the end of the night because of the possible points they kept from someone else.

We haven’t talked a lot about it, but there is going to be a ton of strategy being played out by these teams Saturday night. If you miscalculate Saturday night, it could spell disaster for some Chase hopes. To me at this point, you have to work from the assumption that Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch are going to finish first and second in the race. Both those cats will be swinging for the fence.

So working on the assumption they finish 1-2, you have to work your calculations and work your strategy and run your race based on that. So quick math tells you based on that assumption, for Matt Kenseth to get into the Chase, he has to finish third. My point in all this is the pressure. There is a ton of pressure on these guys just inside or outside the Chase to perform. Using the cliche, the tension will be so thick you can cut it with a knife.

I just think so many guys didn’t run as well as anticipated at Atlanta that it has turned this whole thing upside down. For example, Juan Pablo Montoya and Mark Martin aren’t out of the woods. All they did in Atlanta was put themselves a few spots further ahead between them and 13th spot.

So it all comes down to this one race. I truly expect one of the highest-rated races on TV this year come Saturday night. This race doesn’t come down to one or two people. It literally is 11 people fighting for the last eight spots in the 2009 Chase. The only time those guys just inside the top 12 will breathe easy is if they look up and see that Vickers and Busch have been in a wreck or blown an engine and there’s no mathematical way they can then make it into the Chase. Other than that, you won’t know until the checkered flag waves.

Trust me, it really might come down to one position on the racetrack. One position could easily make all the difference between who is smiling and who is frowning after Richmond.

FOX race analyst Jeff Hammond led Darrell Waltrip to two of DW’s three Winston Cup championships as his crew chief. They also teamed to win the 1989 Daytona 500.

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