With one race left until NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup playoff starts, seven drivers so far are guaranteed to be part of the 10-race championship hunt.
Five spots remain open in the 12-driver Chase, and several drivers — including reigning champion Brad Keselowski and four-time champion Jeff Gordon — are among those who still have a shot at earning a Chase berth.
It will all be decided Saturday night at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, a 0.75-mile oval that serves as the stepping stone to the first Chase race the following weekend at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.
“I’ve said all along that I think [the Chase field] will come down to the last lap at Richmond,” Gordon said.
The top 10 drivers in points after Richmond qualify for the Chase. So do two wild-card drivers who are the highest among those 11th to 20th in points and also have the most wins in that group so far this season.
The current top six drivers in points have clinched a spot in the Chase: Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth.
Kasey Kahne also has clinched at least a wild-card berth because he’s 12th in points and has two wins this year. No other driver among those 11th to 20th in points has more than one win.
For the others, there are various scenarios under which they could make the Chase, either by finishing among the top 10 in points or earning the other wild-card spot.
There are 43 cars in each NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, and points are awarded on a sliding scale from 43 points for winning down to one point for finishing last.
The winner also gets three bonus points and can add a point for leading a lap and one more for leading the most laps. So a driver can earn up to 48 points with a single race win.
Besides the seven drivers already in the Chase, Dale Earnhardt Jr. appears to have the best shot at gaining a berth.
Currently seventh in points, Earnhardt needs only to finish 32nd or better at Richmond, or finish 33rd with at least one lap led, or 34th with the most laps led. And Earnhardt is a three-time winner at Richmond.
It will be tougher for Gordon, Earnhardt’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon, 42, is trying to make his eighth consecutive Chase and he’s 11th in points without a victory this year.
But if Gordon can win at Richmond — he’s a two-time winner there — he’ll get in as a wild card. Even if he doesn’t win, a strong finish could propel him into the Chase because he’s currently only six points out of the top 10 in the standings.
“We do have a shot,” Gordon said.
Joey Logano, 23, also has a strong chance of making the first Chase of his career. He heads to Richmond eighth in points and with one victory this season, which would come in handy if he slips out of the top 10 in points and needs a wild-card berth.
“We are not going to look at doing anything different this weekend than we have been doing the last several weeks,” said Logano, who drives the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford.
“I’d be lying if I said we also weren’t going to be paying attention to the competition,” he said. “We get ourselves a good finish and we will lock ourselves into the Chase.”
The outlook is much dimmer for Keselowski, Logano’s teammate. After suffering engine failure and a 35th-place finish last weekend in Atlanta, he is 15th in points without a victory this season.
That means Keselowski not only must win or come close to a victory Saturday night, he needs other contenders to falter if he’s to make the Chase and try to defend his title.
“We’re going to win the race,” Keselowski said, “and when it’s over we’ll see if that was good enough to get us in.”