It Comes Down To This

This is probably what NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France had in mind when he designed The Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup.

Although he might have envisioned more drivers involved, the effect of the final race before The Chase — the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway — remains the same. Only 102 points separate positions four through 11 in the NEXTEL Cup Series point standings, meaning one of those drivers will be denied an opportunity to win a championship (unless there is a tie for 10th).

Kasey Kahne made things a lot more interesting heading into Richmond with his victory in the last weekend at California Speedway. Prior to that race, Kahne was 90 points behind 10th-place Mark Martin.

He is now only 30 points behind 10th-place Jeff Burton and 32 points behind Martin, who moved into ninth. Tony Stewart sits in eighth place in the standings, a precarious 45 points ahead of Kahne.

“The race at California meant so much for our whole season, just to have a shot at The Chase,” Kahne said. “I came to California telling myself, ‘You’ve got to win. You’ve got to win. You’ve got to lead laps.’ That’s all you can do if you want to make this Chase.

“At Richmond, those guys in front of me are going to do whatever they can to run up front. It’s going to be tough. Our car is good at Richmond. Tony Stewart is always good at Richmond. It’s going to be quite the battle.”

Indeed. The drivers in front of Kahne in the standings have either won at Richmond or enjoyed a great deal of success here.

Kahne himself is a former winner at Richmond (spring 2005). Burton has also won at Richmond, but not since fall 1998. Stewart has won three NEXTEL Cup Series races at Richmond, while Martin’s lone victory here came in 1990.
Jeff Gordon, in fourth place in the NEXTEL Cup standings, is a two-time winner at Richmond. Dale Earnhardt Jr., in sixth place, has won three NASCAR Cup Series races at Richmond.

Fifth-place Kyle Busch has never won here, but has three top fives in three NEXTEL Cup Series starts. In his only NEXTEL Cup Series start here in the spring, Denny Hamlin finished second to Earnhardt Jr.

It’s possible that third-place Kevin Harvick could be left out of The Chase, but it’s highly unlikely. Kahne would have to lead the most laps and win the Chevy Rock & Roll 400, with Harvick finishing 39th or worse.

No matter what happens with Kahne, if Burton finishes third, Martin fourth, Stewart seventh, Hamlin 16th, Earnhardt Jr. 16th, Busch 22nd and Gordon 24th, Kahne will be left out of The Chase.

Burton looked to be a lock for The Chase a few weeks ago, but has faltered since. Burton has only one top-10 finish in the last five races and was hurt by a 42nd-place finish at Michigan International Speedway.

“It’s still ours to win or lose,” Burton said. “We’ve just got to get it done. When we go to Richmond, it will be a dog fight, for sure.” Winning a season-high five races and not making The Chase — a distinct possibility for Kahne — would be a tough pill to swallow, Kyle Busch said.

“For him being on the outside looking in, I can imagine it is a tough situation,” Busch said. “A lot of it has been bad luck for him, but that team has struggled at some places. He’s still got a shot at it, though. He’ll be right there because he’s a talented driver, and he’s got the resources behind him.”

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2006

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