By Jared Turner
The playoff scenario entering Saturday night’s regular season-ending Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway couldn’t be any simpler, really.
Thirteen drivers have earned automatic playoff berths by virtue of winning a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race this season. The remaining three playoff spots in the 16-driver championship field will likely be filled by Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth whom are positioned highest in the standings among winless drivers.
The points gap from Kenseth — who currently holds the final transfer spot — back to the next driver is so substantial that Kenseth can’t be overtaken at Richmond based on points. Ditto for McMurray and Elliott.
For a driver outside the playoff cutoff to race his or her way in at Richmond, there’s only one option: Win.
“You come to all these race tracks with an urgency to win, just like we did at the Daytona 500,” said Stewart-Haas Racing’s Clint Bowyer, whose hopes of potentially making the playoffs sans a win went out the window with a blown engine at Darlington. “Richmond is a good track for us. We’ll go there and do the best we can.”
Bowyer, whose first career NASCAR premier series victory came at Richmond in 2008, is at least outwardly projecting confidence as the series prepares to return to the three-quarter-mile D-shaped short track for its 2017 regular season finale.
“Obviously, the way the playoffs look right now, we’re not out of this thing,” Bowyer said. “We’ve still got a good race track coming up for us. We’ll just go there and do the best we can and put all the cards on the table over there.”
Like the proverbial NASCAR Hail Mary?
Well, it’s going to take one for a driver not currently playoff eligible to leave Richmond as part of the championship field.
“It’s pretty simple,” Team Penske driver Joey Logano, speaking after last weekend’s race at Darlington, said of the difficult scenario he faces to make the playoffs. “You could almost write an article without talking to me.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., meanwhile, not only needs to win at Richmond to make the playoffs. He’ll need to win in spite of being penalized for having two loose lug nuts on his car during last weekend’s Bojangles’ Southern 500.
“We’ll work through that,” said Earnhardt Jr., whose crew chief, Greg Ives, will be suspended for Richmond. “It doesn’t concern me about this team. This team can handle this type of stuff.”
While Logano, Bowyer, Earnhardt Jr. and others on the outside looking in will arrive at Richmond with every intention of going for broke, the three winless drivers in position to make the playoffs will no doubt have a different strategy.
“I just hope we can have a clean race and not have any issues next week,” said Elliott, who is in the best spot among the three winless drivers who are now playoff eligible.
As for the 13 drivers guaranteed entry into the playoffs, well, they just want to win the race and leave Richmond with as many playoff points as possible. The driver currently leading all others in playoff points is Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr., who in addition to winning the regular season championship will begin the playoffs with a sizeable points advantage over everyone else.
Those playoffs points, earned mostly through race wins and stage wins, will carry over to each round of the playoffs, with the exception of the season-ending Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“It’s a big advantage, but it’s well-earned,” Denny Hamlin said of Truex’s playoff points. “Anytime anyone can dominate the regular season essentially like he has, he deserves to have a mulligan in each round, so I applaud them and hope we keep it the same going forward.”