Saturday is no-excuses night for several
drivers at Richmond International Raceway.
and his legion of fans. If Junior has the horses late, bump-drafting obligations won't interfere.
, the season's biggest disappointment. If Hamlin can't run with the lead pups at his favorite track, where can he?
And none for
, mired in 22nd place in the points standings. If Burton can't post his first top-10 finish of the year at a track where he's won twice, making the Chase for the fifth time in six years might prove beyond problematic.
Saturday's 400-lap affair on Laburnum Avenue is the Cup crew's ninth of 36 races and comes more than four months before the Chase playoff field is determined. So no one is conceding the championship to points leader
or dismissing Hamlin, last season's runner-up.
But some trends are striking.
Start with Earnhardt, whose five top-10 finishes this year match his total for all of 2009. Earnhardt still hasn't won since 2008 at Michigan, a 101-race stretch, but he's certainly been more competitive than 2009 and '10, when he failed to make the Chase.
Earnhardt finished second at Martinsville earlier this month when
passed him with four laps remaining, but his most notable outing was two weeks ago at Talladega, where he pushed Hendrick Motorsports teammate and five-time defending Cup champ
Junior's fourth-place finish and a jump from sixth to third in the points standings didn't appease fans who believe he had the car to beat.
Earnhardt — he's finished no worse than 12th since wrecking late in the
— said he willingly helped Johnson in a two-car draft virtually mandated by the superspeedway's restrictor-plate conditions.
Johnson's win, by two one-thousandths of a second over
, matched NASCAR's closest checkered flag of the past 14 years.
"Man, it was a bummer," Bowyer said Tuesday on a media teleconference. "It's so hard to win these races, and when you're losing by that close, like man, why couldn't it have just as easily been the other way around? And it could have been.
"The sheer excitement of being in a race that finishes well like that did, it was big."
Richmond's three-quarter-mile configuration makes for slower, closer, every-man-for-himself competition. Adding to the Junior intrigue: Earnhardt has won three times at RIR, most recently in 2006.
Richmond is ideally timed, also, for Hamlin, an obvious title contender after leading last year's Chase until the season-finale in Florida. Hamlin has won the last two September races at RIR, a long iron from his native Chesterfield County, and has six top-10s there in 10 Cup starts.
Among active drivers, only Hamlin,
and Bowyer have average career finishes of better than 10th at Richmond.
And Hamlin certainly could use a lift. A Chase regular since joining the Cup circuit full-time in 2006, he's 17th in points with a seventh-place at Las Vegas his sole top-10.
Racing teammates Busch and
each have suffered engine failure this season, prompting Hamlin to ask aloud to Scenedaily.com, "What the heck is going on?"
Burton must wonder the same. He's made four of the last five Chases, earning a contract extension from Richard Childress Racing, only to have 2011 crumble early and often.
A blown engine relegated Burton to 36th at Daytona, and an 11th-place at Texas in his high-water mark. Burton won at RIR in 1998, and his average finish there the past three years is 9.2.
Among Burton's recent quality efforts at Richmond was the 2008 spring race in which Busch punted Earnhardt with two laps remaining, gift-wrapping the checkered for Bowyer.
Does Bowyer mind that the Busch-Earnhardt feud overshadowed his second career Cup win?
"I don't care," he said. "I know where the trophy is at."
Expect similar attitudes and fender-bending on a no-excuses Saturday in Richmond.