Two Chase spots up for grabs in regular season finale

Kyle Larson. (Getty Images)
Kyle Larson. (Getty Images)
Kyle Larson. (Getty Images)

Two spots, and just one opportunity remain for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers to seize their Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup dreams.

Nineteen different drivers still have a chance to lock themselves into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET on ABC) at Richmond International Raceway.  The question looms: Who will capture the opportunity and who will let it slip?

At the moment, Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle fill out the final two spots on the Chase Grid. Both have comfortable grasps on their positions at 42 and 23 points above the cutoff line, respectively, but still have work to do, especially if there’s a new winner.

Only a collapse of monumental proportions would keep Newman out of the Chase. He controls his own destiny no matter who wins at Richmond. If there is a repeat winner or a Matt Kenseth victory, all he has to do is finish 41st or better, 42nd with one lap led, or 43rd with the most laps led. If there’s a new winner, Newman needs to hold his spot in points standings where he sits a cushy 19 points ahead of Biffle.

Clinching will be a little trickier for Biffle. If a repeat winner, Newman or Kenseth takes the checkered flag at Richmond, Biffle can guarantee himself a spot in the Chase with finishes of 22nd or better, 23rd with at least one lap led or 24th with the most laps led.  If a new winner ranked below him in points arises, the Roush Fenway driver would be in major trouble – needing to out-point Newman by 19 points and stay ahead of Clint Bowyer and Kyle Larson.

With the new win and you’re in Chase format, hope is not lost among drivers currently outside the top 16 on the grid. Bowyer and Larson are prime candidates to play the spoiler.

Richmond could not come at a better time for Bowyer, who plummeted from 15th to 17th on the Chase Grid at Atlanta, following a 38th-place finish caused by a broken shifter, Kasey Kahne’s win and a top-10 performance from Biffle. Arguably his best track, Bowyer boasts two wins, three top fives and nine top 10s at the 3/4-mile, D-shaped course.

“As far as the Chase, I think it’s pretty much spelled out, from a points standpoint, what we have to do to make the Chase,” Bowyer said. “We just have to concentrate on qualifying well, getting a good starting spot and run our race.”

Larson proved he could run fast his lone NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start at Richmond earlier this season by winning the pole, even though he finished 16th. The 22-year-old, known as “The Phenom,” claims one top-five and two-top 10 Nationwide finishes there. By winning Saturday, he would make history as the second rookie to ever qualify for the Chase (Denny Hamlin, 2006).

“For this weekend, it’s pretty simple for us, we need to win,” Larson said. “Our Target Chevy has continued to be fast, and I know we have the ability to win the race.”

JR Motorsports drivers attempt to further separate from pack at Richmond

It’s shaping up to be a tussle between teammates for the NASCAR Nationwide Series title.

JR Motorsports comrades Chase Elliot and Regan Smith rank 1-2 in the driver standings, separated by 15 points. Next in line is Richard Childress Racing’s Ty Dillon, who trails Smith by 20 points and Elliott by 35.

“This could be a championship battle that comes all the way down to the last race,” Smith said.

Entering Friday’s Virginia529 College Savings 250 (7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN 2) at Richmond International Raceway, the teammates have nine races left to duke it out for the title. Richmond presents the opportunity for Elliott to further distance himself from the pack or Smith to catch up as the final stretch of the season begins.

Elliott followed up two consecutive victories with a second-place finish in the circuit’s first visit to Richmond in April, proving his status as a bona fide contender. He goes into this weekend’s race with a streak of five straight top-10 finishes on the line.

“The first Richmond race was a blast, and my NAPA AUTO PARTS team gave it their all, but we came up a bit short to (Kevin) Harvick,” Elliott said. “I’ve been looking forward to going back to Richmond ever since we left in April. Just knowing how well we ran, and how our team left with some really good race notes, has me optimistic for our return.”

Smith had once struggled at Richmond, posting a high finish of 15th in six starts prior to joining JR Motorsports. Since, he has notched three top 10s with a high finish of third.

“It certainly hasn’t been kind to me in the past, but since I’ve been racing there with JR Motorsports, we’ve run really well,” Smith said. “So I think we have a great opportunity in front of us this weekend to gain some points on the competition.”

Greg Engle
About Greg Engle 7421 Articles
Greg is a published award winning sportswriter who spent 23 years combined active and active reserve military service, much of that in and around the Special Operations community. Greg is the author of "The Nuts and Bolts of NASCAR: The Definitive Viewers' Guide to Big-Time Stock Car Auto Racing" and has been published in major publications across the country including the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was also a contributor to Chicken Soup for the NASCAR Soul, published in 2010, and the Christmas edition in 2016. He wrote as the NASCAR, Formula 1, Auto Reviews and National Veterans Affairs Examiner for and has appeared on Fox News. He holds a BS degree in communications, a Masters degree in psychology and is currently a PhD candidate majoring in psychology. He is currently the weekend Motorsports Editor for Autoweek.