NASCAR needs a 'moment' at Richmond

RICHMOND, VA - APRIL 28: Mark Martin, driver of the #55 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota, and Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, lead the field to start the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Capital City 400 at Richmond International Raceway on April 28, 2012 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Back before Jeremy Mayfield's name became mud in NASCAR – before the driver became known for his drug suspension and seemingly endless legal battles – there was a magical night at Richmond in 2004.

It was the first year of the Chase, and Mayfield arrived there in 14th place, badly needing a victory to qualify for the playoffs (which at the time was limited to the top 10 in points). But there was one problem: He hadn't won in more than four years.

No matter. Mayfield led the most laps that night and won the Richmond race, an improbable and dramatic victory that came with everything on the line.

Mayfield was a NASCAR wildcard before such a thing was created. He leapt into the arms of his crew members like a rock star into a mosh pit, and the celebration was on.

"I can't believe it," Mayfield said.

Neither could NASCAR. A driver gaining five positions in a single race to gain an unlikely Chase berth is one thing. But to do so by winning with everything on the line? Incredible.

Surely, this feat would happen multiple times in the years to come. Right?

Not really. Eight years later, the defining Chase cutoff race moment is still Mayfield and his celebration.

Last season, in concert with a new points system, NASCAR introduced the wild card to emphasize winning. It's worked, at least as a topic of conversation throughout the summer and heading into Richmond. But in terms of letting a darkhorse into the Chase, it's yet to do so.

In 2011, wild card drivers Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin would have made the Chase anyway – they were 11th and 12th in points, respectively. And this season's current wild card drivers – Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch – are also 11th and 12th.

NASCAR needs another Mayfield-like moment on Saturday night, not to have whatever drivers are tops in points make the field.

It needs Joey Logano to stay out on old tires and improbably steal a victory, or for several contenders to crash out as Carl Edwards wins. It needs Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch to battle for the race win on the final lap, with one driver spinning out at the finish line. It needs a wild, crazy, chaotic night.

It needs a moment.

Think of the Tony Stewart helmet throw at Bristol, except with everything on the line. Think of Busch spinning Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2008, except while battling for the final Chase spot.

Can you imagine? While it might not steal the headlines from the NFL's opening day just hours later, it would still provide NASCAR with a boost of momentum heading into the final 10 races.

So can Saturday night's race provide that moment?

Before you answer, consider this: The hype of the Richmond race often hasn't matched the result.

"There's a great opportunity for [the race] to be very wild, and there's a great opportunity for it to be a little dull," Busch said Thursday. "To be honest with you, I'm going more with the dull side."

"If it just goes green, it will probably be a fairly calm race," added Edwards.

So if the race lives up to the hype, it's all going to depend on a late caution and which drivers are in the top five for the final restart.

"If we get a caution with five to go or six to go, it's gonna be insane," Edwards said. "There are gonna be guys staying out on 100-lap tires and blocking. It's gonna be crazy."

Paul Menard, who needs a win, some help and a miracle, said his team has already decided to try whatever strategy possible to get a victory. And with so many other drivers also in a win-or-go-home situation thanks to the wild card, there could be multiple drivers doing the same thing.

"This race is going to be super entertaining because there are a lot of guys in the same boat as us," Joey Logano said. "You never know what's going to happen. It'll be interesting to see who is in the top five on that final restart, because that's when it's going to get crazy."

Edwards, who said he needed several wild things to happen – such as rain delays, oil on the track, drivers running out of fuel and four-wide moves into Turn 1 – said drivers will be more likely to let it all hang out than in a normal race.

Of course, we've heard that before and nothing happens. So can Richmond match the expectations this time?

"I feel like the hype is real," Edwards said. "There are a lot of guys with a lot on the line willing to risk a bunch, and if the circumstances are right, you're gonna see an insane race."

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