One of the most anticipated stops on the entire Sprint Cup schedule is the September race at Richmond International Speedway. The Saturday night short track event is “the” race that finally sets the Chase field that determines which drivers will move on with the opportunity to run for the title over the last 10 races of the season.
While there has been some very exciting Richmond races in the past leading up to the Chase, the reality of it is that seldom has the outcome of the race given more than a couple of drivers an entry into the championship round. Even this year with the field of drivers advancing to the Chase increased to 16, only a couple of drivers had to use the event to earn their ticket to competing for the title.
After the checkered flag waved Sunday at New Hampshire, it became very apparent that the three knockout rounds of three races leading up to the final race of the season would provide us with three additional “Richmond” races. The weekend’s event at Dover International Speedway will see nine drivers all within 18 points of the 12th points position which is the cutoff point for drivers that will move on to the second round of three races known as the Contender Round.
Chase drivers scored seven of the top-nine positions at New Hampshire, showing that picking up a significant amount of points can be very difficult once the Chase begins. That has added more pressure on the pit crews with each stop and the result has been more mistakes being made on pit road. The pressure has also reached behind the wheel as several drivers have been caught speeding on pit road.
What we saw on Sunday was that pit road was not the only place that drivers were losing precious points as several Chase drivers were involved in wrecks. Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth lost any chance they had of cashing in on a good day when they were involved in five-car wreck. Jeff Gordon, late in the race while running in the top five, cut a right front tire and ended up in the wall, leaving him with a finish of 26th.
All of the problems that have accumulated at Chicagoland and New Hampshire have now left over half the field in danger of not having the opportunity to continue to run for the title after next weekend’s race. Matt Kenseth (+8), Carl Edwards (+8), A.J. Allmendinger (+7), Kasey Kahne (+6) and Ryan Newman (+6) are in the top-12 going into Dover, but such a small lead can be easily lost by stumbling just a few spots in the final standings of a race.
Just outside that precious 12th points position sits Denny Hamlin (-6), Greg Biffle (-6), Kurt Busch (-8) and Aric Almirola (-10), who are still in striking distance, but their best option for moving on will be by making a visit to victory lane on Sunday. Only Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have secured their place in the next round of the Chase as the Penske teammates have won the first two races.
The rules in the Chase have been tweaked, but bonus points for leading a lap and leading the most laps still count for the first nine races with the final race at Homestead Miami not awarding any bonus points as it will come down to the highest finishing driver among the four eligible drivers. If a tiebreaker comes into play after next week’s results, only the finishes in the three races in the Challenger Round will count. Ties will be broken by the most second-place finishes; third-place finishes and continues on until the tie is broken.
PIT NOTES: Rookie Kyle Larson’s second-place finish at New Hampshire was the 20th time this season that he has been the highest finishing rookie. Fellow rookie Austin Dillon has been the highest finishing rookie in the other eight races, but in the season-long battle for rookie honors, Larson has a 60-point lead over Dillon.
Event: AAA 400
Track: Dover International Speedway (1.0-mile oval, 24 degrees of banking in the turns)
Date: Sept. 28, 2 p.m.
Def. Champ: Jimmie Johnson