Breaking Down the Chase Picture Before Richmond

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By Jerry Bonkowski

It’s come down to this: win and you’re in.

Anything less and you’re done.

That’s the scenario for Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, the final qualifying race for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Fourteen drivers are left with one last chance to make the Chase: Aric Almirola, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, AJ Allmendinger, Casey Mears, Danica Patrick, Tony Stewart, David Ragan, Sam Hornish Jr., Trevor Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Justin Allgaier.

Given the hard-luck season most of them have had in 2015, it’s hard to envision them winning in the season’s most pressure-packed race (other than the championship-clinching finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway).

And that’s not to say that the quintet of drivers currently on the Chase qualifying bubble are safe, either.

The man in the most precarious position is 16th ranked Clint Bowyer, with a 29-point lead over Almirola and 31 points over Kahne.

If Bowyer has a bad race Saturday, it would mark the second consecutive year he that went into Richmond appearing as if he’d make the playoffs, only to leave there on the outside looking in.

Jeff Gordon (18 points ahead of Bowyer) and Paul Menard (10 points ahead of Bowyer) are also far from safe, both in the same boat as Bowyer:

If either (or both) has a bad race at Richmond, he’s potentially out of the Chase and either Almirola or Kahne make it on points – or some other driver who hasn’t won up to this point in 2015 finally does so and makes it in by virtue of taking the checkered flag at Richmond.

And if that happens, it would be heartbreaking for Gordon’s and/or Menard’s fans.

If Gordon misses the Chase in his final season in Sprint Cup, it not only would kill any hope of a rally in the playoffs after a less-than-spectacular first 26 races, it would ultimately be a sad postscript to a fantastic career, one that included four championships and 92 wins (at this writing).

If Menard falls short, he’d miss making the Chase for the first time in his Sprint Cup career.

So, you can see that the win and you’re in scenario also extends to Menard, Gordon and Bowyer, as well.

About the only driver who is safe is Jamie McMurray, who is 44 points ahead of Bowyer.

And following the same “consistency at all costs” playbook that got him into last year’s Chase and ultimately a second-place finish in the 2014 season standings, Ryan Newman, who is 32 points ahead of Bowyer, is also likely to make the Chase again unless he wrecks or is beset by mechanical failure.

Newman could certainly enhance his chances with a win, as well, particularly since he hasn’t visited Victory Lane since his win in the 2013 Brickyard 400, more than two years ago.

Granted, anything can happen at Richmond. The .750-mile D-shaped track is one of the trickier tracks on the circuit. Some drivers call it a shorter version of Darlington, or a longer version of Bristol – both two of the hardest places to win in NASCAR.

Of those still eligible to make the Chase by virtue of a win, Stewart may have the best chance, even though he has yet to come anywhere close to Victory Lane in 2015.

But at Richmond, his fans can have some consolation at least in knowing Stewart is tied for second on the active winner’s list with three triumphs.

Meanwhile, Bowyer has won there twice and Kahne and Newman once each.

So, who ultimately makes the Chase and who doesn’t?

I learned a long time ago that one of the best words for Richmond as a race track also best describes the fate that faces as many as 19 different drivers on Saturday:

Unpredictable.

Jerry Bonkowski writes for NBCSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.

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