for a spot in
's Chase for the Big Doorstop.
and Carl Edwards, too. Use soft lead, and keep an eraser handy, just in case.
Winning the Matthew and Daniel Hansen Purple Bag Whisky 400 (as Busch did) or posting a top-shelf finish at Richmond International Raceway in April by no means guarantees a playoff berth come September.
A good night at the 3/4-mile D-shaped oval, however it comes, is a promising omen for the remainder of the season.
RIR is not only unique, but its races are uniquely positioned. The spring race is one-quarter of the way through the season, one-third of the way through the regular season.
Folks in the garage make the point that every race is equal, as it pertains to scoring. But the fact that RIR's fall date is the last stop before the Chase field is set signifies that some races are a little more equal than others.
"Every track that's part of the Chase,"
said, "those 10 races that are a part of the Chase and of course this one — make this the 11th one — are very important in the spring time. You have to learn and be on top of your game."
While it's a stretch to attach too much significance to one race or one track in a 10-month marathon , here are a few nuggets to mull over: In the past five years, 46 of 60 drivers who qualified for the Chase (77 percent) had at least one top-10 finish at RIR that particular year.
In that same span, at least five drivers who eventually made the Chase finished in the top 10 at the spring race. In 2007, nine of the top 10 at the spring race made the playoffs that fall.
"This race is a lot like the Chase, in a sense," five-time champ
said. "There are 10 Chase tracks that we look at, and when we go to them the first time we want to make sure that we're right. And this track falls into that category. So, we all focus very hard on Richmond."
As a point of comparison, since 2006 the
has had no more than five drivers who made the playoffs finish in the top 10 and as few as two.
If Daytona is too much of an early-season, restrictor-plate crapshoot to provide a fair comparison, then consider Charlotte in late May — when most teams have a pretty fair idea of which way their sway bars are adjusted.
Since '06, the top 10 at the
600 has included as many as seven Chase qualifiers, but as few as three.
"To say that we put more emphasis because this could be a make-or-break track for making the Chase,"
said, "I don't think we can do any more than what we're already doing."
Gordon said that where the team sits in the points race as RIR's fall race approaches, combined with how he ran here in the spring, dictate the course of action — extra testing, or perhaps building the car a little differently.
"If we come out of here with things going well," said Gordon, whose top-five car was wrecked out with 99 laps remaining, "then that's going to give us some confidence and give us some really valuable information to stay strong and hopefully be even better when we come back here the next time.
"If we come out of here with a poor performance, then obviously we will (increase) our efforts, knowing that this could be very important."
"Could" being the operative word. For instance,
raced his way into the Chase here in 2006 with a sixth-place finish in September. That came after a fourth-place finish in the May race.
On the other hand, Kyle Busch won the previous two spring races here. He comfortably made the playoffs last year, but just missed in 2009 because he roller-coastered through the regular season.
"It's hard to say we focus any harder on things because we're all at 100 percent all the time," Johnson said, "but when you leave here and you run well, you can kind of rest a little bit knowing that you have a good starting point coming back.
"If not, you might sacrifice a little at another track or during the week preparing to focus on your short-track program or Richmond-style setup and take something away from somewhere else."
There's still ample time for teams outside the Chase window to move into contention, just as the best teams to this point can slip with a poor month.
"We certainly hope to run well leaving here," said Johnson, who recovered from early troubles to post a top-10 finish here Saturday. "Even though we're sitting good in the points, you have no clue what's going to happen between now and September."
No, you don't. But Richmond results provide a fair indicator.