By Jared Turner
It’s all come down to this.
With one race remaining until the 16-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is locked in, 12 drivers have already punched their respective ticket into the 10-race playoff.
That leaves four spots potentially up for grabs in Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway, host of the 26th and final race of the Sprint Cup Series’ regular season.
Following are the drivers locked into the Chase, all by virtue of having one or more wins so far in 2016: Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Carl Edwards, JGR’s Kyle Busch, JGR’s Matt Kenseth, Hendrick Motorsports’ Jimmie Johnson, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick, JGR’s Denny Hamlin, Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr., SHR’s Kurt Busch, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson, Penske’s Joey Logano and SHR’s Tony Stewart.
A 13th driver, Chris Buescher, won at Pocono Raceway in August and will advance to the Chase as long as he remains in the top 30 in points at Richmond. Buescher heads into the weekend 11 points ahead of 31st-place David Ragan.
How confident is Buescher — a 23-year-old Sprint Cup rookie once considered the ultimate Chase longshot — that he will hang on and earn a Chase berth?
Following a 17th-place finish in Sunday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, the Front Row Motorsports driver conceded that he considers this weekend’s race at Richmond to be one of the most pressure-packed of his young career to date.
“It definitely will be,” said Buescher, the 2015 NASCAR XFINITY Series champion. “I feel like we have a good cushion right now coming out of Darlington. But that is not necessarily comforting, because we still have a lot of work to do.”
Buescher is hardly the only driver on edge heading into the last race of the regular season. Joining him in that category are three winless drivers – Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott, Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon and Ganassi’s Jamie McMurray – all in position to qualify for the Chase based on their position in the standings.
Elliott, a rookie driver sitting 24 points ahead of the Chase cutoff line, is in the best spot among the three non-winners in position to transfer. Eight points behind Elliott but 16 ahead of the cutoff is Dillon, who likewise has a great chance of advancing.
The driver sitting squarely on the Chase bubble, meanwhile, is McMurray, a veteran who made the Chase for the first time last season. Just one driver – Ryan Newman – has a mathematical chance to overtake McMurray in points at Richmond.
Newman is no stranger to being near the Chase bubble heading into the regular-season finale.
“I’ve been in this situation before,” the RCR driver and 2014 championship runner-up said.
Hendrick Motorsports’ Kasey Kahne is the only other driver besides Newman with a chance of catching McMurray in points at Richmond.
Kahne could leave RIR tied with McMurray – but that would require Kahne winning the race and leading the most laps, along with McMurray finishing dead last and failing to lead a lap.
Of course, a victory at Richmond by a winless driver who’s in the top 30 in points but currently not in position to make the Chase could turn the entire playoff scenario upside down.
“We just have to keep getting better as a team, keep putting good cars out there and I need to do a good job driving, and we need to progress throughout the race,” said Kahne, who finished seventh at Darlington. “Have great pit stops, just kind of things that we did at Darlington. We need to keep doing and getting better at. I will be much happier if we can do that the rest of the season.”