Ideally, the deciding event of the 26-race regular season would be full of intrigue centering on which drivers are championship-eligible when the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins next week. For those not already qualified for NASCAR's playoffs, Richmond International Raceway is a final opportunity to punch their Chase ticket, either by outright winning or by scoring a sufficient amount of points to move high enough in the standings to grab a wild card spot.
The desperation to win or finish well is supposed to create drama that culminates in a memorable night in which drivers race aggressively, and often anything can and does happen. There's been Jeremy Mayfield coming through in a must-win situation in 2004, Kyle Busch inexplicably missing the cut in 2012, and the controversial jerry-rigged 2013 event where multiple teams conspired to fix the finishing order to assure advancement.
Much to NASCAR's chagrin, however, not every regular season finale can play out as hoped. Such an exciting scenario seems unlikely to unfold Saturday night in the Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
Twelves drivers have secured one of the 16 Chase berths available via victories in the prior 25 regular season races. Another, Chris Buescher -- who won the Aug. 1 weather-shortened Pocono race -- can make it 13 as long as he doesn't lose more than 11 points to David Ragan and drop outside the top 30 in the standings, which would make him ineligible.
Provided Richmond doesn't produce a new winner and Buescher doesn't stumble, three slots will then be earned off points. But with Chase Elliott (39 points ahead of the cutoff) and Austin Dillon (+31) in sound shape, both must only avoid a disastrous result to get in.
"We wish we were already locked in by now, but we have put ourselves in a positive position going," Dillon said. "We need to run good, need to finish strong and that will take care of itself if we have a good strong finish."
That leaves Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman vying for the last position, though Newman's chances took a substantial hit with a 15-point penalty NASCAR levied against his team on Wednesday. Instead of being a manageable seven points behind McMurray, Newman is now 22 points in arrears. Overcoming a gap like that probably requires McMurray to encounter an issue of some kind.
McMurray enters Richmond riding a streak of three top-10 finishes in the past four races. He was positioned for another such result in last week's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, but a missing lug nut necessitated an extra pit stop late and he finished 15th.
"As an organization, it's been really good," McMurray said. "And the next 10 races, if we can get in, it's going to be pretty awesome because our cars have peaked at the right time."
Of course, if Newman wins, he'd automatically qualify at the expense of McMurray, despite how well McMurray may be running. The same applies if someone else were to replicate Mayfield's 2004 victory.
"We've been trying to win now for three years, so there's no better time than [Saturday] night," Newman said.
However, the chance of a new winner emerging appears remote, with the four best candidates to pull off a surprise all possessing serious shortcomings. Newman hasn't won a race since 2013, and owns just one top-five finish all season; former Richmond winners Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer are each mired in bad slumps; and rookie Ryan Blaney is hindered by the inconsistency that first-year drivers typically experience.
And if you're thinking maybe a team could use some combination of weather and strategy to its advantage (like Buescher did at Pocono), that too appears far-flung. The weekend forecast isn't calling for rain, fuel-mileage races rarely occur at Richmond, and the three-quarter mile track isn't like a restrictor-plate event at Daytona or Talladega where the lesser teams compete on a more even plane.
Still, the possibility exists that the unexpected could happen and someone new could find themselves in victory lane.
"I think they are as good as they've been in a while," said Kahne on his chances of snapping a two-year winless streak. "... It's going to be a tough race, but I think we have a car capable of contending and racing in the top five throughout the night."
FEDERATED AUTO PARTS 400 STARTING LINEUP
|6||Martin Truex, Jr.||Toyota||122.045|
|22||Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.||Ford||120.654|