Second-year driver Chase Elliott, former champion Matt Kenseth and veteran Jamie McMurray can breathe somewhat easier in the days and nights leading into this weekend’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway. Barring a disheartening set of circumstances, at least two of them and most likely all three will qualify via points for NASCAR’s upcoming 16-driver, 10-race, four-round championship playoff series.
The 400-lap, 300-miler at Richmond is the 26th and final regular-season race before the Monster Energy NACACAR Cup Series playoffs open on Sept. 17 at Chicagoland Speedway near Joliet, Ill. Thirteen drivers with “unencumbered” victories have clinched place in the series: Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Bojangles Southern 500 winner Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon, Ryan Blaney, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne.
With only Richmond remaining before the field is set — and with three playoff spots still available — winless drivers Elliott, Kenseth and McMurray need to have reasonably uneventful nights and hope a 14th winner doesn’t crash their party. If the latter happens, one of them will miss the playoffs while the other two will still transfer via points. Even so, it’s so close that none of the top three winless drivers can afford to lose a point to his closest rival.
Seventh-place Elliott leads Kenseth by two points, and Kenseth leads McMurray by one. They enjoy a huge advantage over Clint Bowyer, whose blown engine and 40th-place in Sunday night’s 500 at Darlington, S.C. leave him 91 points behind McMurray for the final playoff spot via points. The maximum first-to-last point spread is 60, meaning Bowyer is eliminated from the playoff field on points, regardless of what happens to Elliott, Kenseth or McMurray at Richmond.
Just like everyone on the grid, though, Bowyer can still advance by winning at Richmond to join Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Harvick and Kurt Busch the field. (Bowyer has eight career victories, including two at Richmond). Rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez could advance by getting their first career victory at Richmond. Joey Logano, whose Richmond victory in April was “encumbered” due to inspection issues, can’t be discounted as a potential winner. Neither can Dale Earnhardt Jr., a three-time Richmond winner and the fans’ favorite (and NASCAR’s) to advance. Other than those five, it’s hard to imagine anyone else winning their way into the 16-driver field.
“I just hope we can have a clean race and not have any issues next week,” Elliott said after finishing 11th at Darlington. “We just weren’t very good all day and really struggled as an organization. So, we need to step up. This is the time of year to get it going and it was a hard-fought night. I thought we made the very most of what we had, and somedays that’s all you can do.”
Bowyer is facing a must-win situation. “Obviously, the way the playoff looks right now, we’re not out of this thing,” he said at Darlington. “We’ve still got a good race track coming up for us. We’ll just go there and do the best we can and put all the cards on the table. There’s a sense of urgency, but you come to all these race tracks with an urgency to win.”
For some, though, the urgency to win is more pressing than for others.