By Jared Turner
The regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway typically offers a lot of suspense as it’s the race where the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup field is locked in.
But, barring an unforeseen set of circumstances, Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at RIR is going to be little more than a formality in terms of its impact on setting the championship field.
With 25 of 26 regular-season races in the books, the only current Chase driver in any real danger of falling out is 16th-place Clint Bowyer.
But with a healthy 29-point buffer on Aric Almirola, his closest pursuer, Bowyer is actually in a really safe spot.
In fact, the most plausible scenario for Bowyer getting booted would be a driver who hasn’t won a race this season, finally doing so at Richmond.
This would leave one less spot for a winless driver in the Chase – at Bowyer’s expense. Right now, 11 drivers are in position to qualify for the playoffs based on having one or more wins in the regular seasons. Five drivers are position to make the Chase based on where they sit in the standings. Bowyer is lowest in points among the winless drivers.
How is Bowyer feeling about his prospects of advancing? Justifiably so, he couldn’t be much more confident heading to Richmond – a track, by the way, where he’s a two-time race winner.
“I think we’re still in good shape,” Bowyer, who is in his final season with Michael Waltrip Racing, said after finishing 17th on Saturday night at Darlington Raceway. “You’re never good until you’re in, but we did the best we could. We didn’t have much of a piece tonight.”
Almirola, meanwhile, knows he faces a gargantuan task at Richmond, if he wants to leapfrog Bowyer for the final Chase spot.
“We will go on to Richmond and race like hell there and see what happens,” said Almirola, a Richard Petty Motorsports driver who made last year’s Chase.
Almirola believes his best bet for making the Chase is to win at Richmond. He’s not counting on overtaking Bowyer for the final spot, based on points.
“We need to try to get to Victory Lane,” Almirola said. “We need a really good night at Richmond and hope for some bad luck for the 15 (Bowyer), but if that doesn’t happen, we don’t have anything to hang out heads about, to be honest with you. We have been solid all year. We have been consistent. We just haven’t quite found the speed that we need. If we ever find the speed, we will be in good shape.”
Joey Logano, one of the drivers already locked in the Chase, expects Richmond to be wild – as some drivers go for broke in an attempt to score a Chase-clinching victory. Others, like Bowyer, don’t need to take nearly as aggressive of an approach.
“You will have some guys with different agendas,” Logano said. “Some guys will want to just finish 20th and some will say they have to finish top five, and some will have to win. It is just different mentalities for each driver when you get to Richmond and really (Darlington) as well, and probably the previous three or four races for what they have to do to get into the Chase. That is the goal.
“If you are sitting there on the bubble and know you have to finish in the top 20 to do it, it is hard to say don’t go for the win. You want to go for the win no matter what, but you don’t want to finish 40th. You don’t want to screw up your chance to go for a championship. Everyone has a different agenda when they get out there.”
5 to watch at Richmond
Kurt Busch won at Richmond in dominant fashion earlier this year. There’s no reason he can’t complete the season sweep on Saturday night.
No driver left Darlington more disappointed than second-place Brad Keselowski, who had the fastest car. He’s defending race winner at Richmond.
Aric Almirola needs an absolutely flawless night at Richmond to have any chance of moving up and snaring the final Chase spot. That’s a tall order for any team, especially one that has been hit-and-miss all season.
A four-time Richmond winner, Kyle Busch knows his way to Victory Lane at the Virginia short track like few others. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s last victory here came all the way back in 2012, however.
It just so happens that the driver on the Chase bubble, Clint Bowyer, is a two-time Richmond winner. While Bowyer might go conservative to maintain his position in the championship standings, he could also make the Chase in style – with a win.