RICHMOND, Va. – Compared with the final “regular season” race of the inaugural season of the Chase for the Nextel Cup, Saturday night’s Chevy Rock ‘N’ Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway could be an ice cream social.
In each of the Chase’s first three years, one driver has moved in and one has dropped out of championship contention in this event. But Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the only driver who could even possibly do that Saturday, and his prospects are dim at best.
So this event, for which Jimmie Johnson won the pole Friday with a lap at 126.298 mph, edging Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon’s 125.342 mph, has taken on an entirely different feel.
In 2004, eight drivers came to this .75-mile track separated by just 76 points, and only three would make the Chase. It was one of the most intense races in recent history, with the in vs. out line moving around all night until Jeremy Mayfield won and rallied from 14th place to make the cut along with Ryan Newman, and Mark Martin. Kasey Kahne, Jamie McMurray, Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett and Kevin Harvick went home unhappy.
In 2005, Newman raced his way in and McMurray fell as five drivers were within a 62-point range fought for the final two spots. Last year, 45 points separated eighth from 11th, and Kahne worked his way in knocking out Tony Stewart.
If the Chase still took only 10 drivers, Saturday night’s race might be a lulu, too. Clint Bowyer is ninth, five points up on Martin Truex Jr. Kurt Busch is 20 points behind Truex, and Kevin Harvick trails Busch by 13. That’s 38 points between eighth and 12th.
But since the top 12 advance this year that's all largely moot.
Only Earnhardt Jr. could even theoretically shake up the Chase field, and he needs a lot of things to happen.
If Busch, who starts 14th, finishes at least 36th and Harvick, who starts 13th, finishes at least 32nd it’s all over, and unless Earnhardt Jr. finishes in the top five even that won’t matter.
“We’re just going to do the best we can, that’s all we can do,” said Earnhardt Jr., who starts 21st. “I can’t afford to run anything less than 110 percent.”
Perhaps, though, the idea that there’s not really all that much on the line Saturday night will have a liberating effect on the competition.
“This place has always been a place where you feel just a little choked down,” said Carl Edwards, who’ll start sixth. “You’ve got a weight on your shoulders. It’s cool to come here and just be able to have a good time and race.”
Edwards and nine other drivers locked into the Chase have nothing to gain Saturday night except by winning.
The only thing that could change their standing going into next week’s Chase opener at New Hampshire would be earning 10 more bonus points with a win Saturday night. Second place is of absolutely no tangible value.
Or so you’d think.
Gordon has been the points leader virtually all season and is 317 points clear of his nearest rival coming in. Unless he wins Saturday night, though, he’ll trail Johnson by at least 10 points entering the Chase since Johnson got a fifth win at California last week while Gordon still has won four times.
“I think with the bonus points this year it has pushed guys a little harder to go for those wins, so it’s doing what it set out to do,” Gordon said. But at the same time, Gordon has had three straight finishes outside the top 10 after having had only two of those all season before that.
“We want to come out of here with a strong finish, and obviously we’d like that to be a win so we can get 10 bonus points,” Gordon said. “For us the Chase starts this weekend.”
Kyle Busch starts third as Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets swept the top three spots. Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five.
Michael Waltrip, Jeremy Mayfield, Ward Burton and Kevin Lepage failed to qualify.