RIR a Pressure Cooker for Chase Hopefuls

Brian Vickers

Brian Vickers rejoiced after rallying to make the 2009 Chase at Richmond, but he says the late run wore his team down and was a reason for the team's struggles in the Chase. (Photo: Getty Images)

For Brian Vickers, few things compare to the Nationwide championship he won in 2003, but a September 2009 night in Richmond comes close.

Vickers entered the final race before the Chase outside the top 12 in points. He had rallied with eight consecutive finishes of 12th or better, including a win, to atone for a slow start to the season and have shot at making the Chase. Unlike now, there was no Wild Card. Vickers, who was 13th in the points entering Richmond, had to knock someone out of the top 12 to make the Chase.

His Chase hopes would be determined in one race.

“It’s like racing for a championship,’’ Vickers recently said about the pressure to make the Chase at Richmond.

Many others will feel that intensity and pressure Saturday night. Ten drivers will compete for the five remaining Chase spots. Among those are former champions Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski.

Gordon has made the Chase every year except 2005. He rallied from a lap down  to finish second at Richmond last year and knock Kyle Busch out of the Chase.

“It seems like every year this race gets to be more and more exciting and crucial for making the Chase,’’ Gordon said of Richmond. “So many things on the line from guys trying to get themselves in position to win the championship, guys trying to win to get more points if they’re already locked in, or somebody trying just to make it into the Chase to be a part of the championship. 

“Everybody realizes that if you’re on that bubble you have to approach this race with that sort of drive and just never-give up attitude. It paid off us for last year and it will pay off again for somebody this year I’m sure.’’

It could be Gordon again. He enters Richmond six points behind Kurt Busch for 10th - the final automatic transfer spot to the Chase. 

“Now, we’re in control,’’ Busch said. “We go to Richmond and put the pressure on everybody else.’’

Kasey Kahne, who has clinched at least a Wild Card for this year’s Chase, understands the pressure others will face. 

He’s gone into Richmond with a chance to make the Chase six times. He made it three of those times.

“We just always seem to be ... right on the edge of making it or not making it,’’ Kahne said. “I kind of enjoy the pressure, like to have to be perfect that weekend.’’

He’ll only have to worry about securing a top-10 Chase spot this weekend so he can receive the bonus points for his two victories.

For any team that rallies to make the Chase at Richmond, the challenge is to refocus for the season’s final 10 races and battle for a championship.

“I think that’s the thing that is difficult,’’ said Vickers, whose team in 2009 struggled in the Chase after their charge to make it and finished 12th in the points. “Because of the (points) reset ... it’s not so hard to come in 10th and still win the championship. (But) I think you’re so physically and emotionally drained by the time you get get through Richmond. It’s difficult to rally twice.’’

Should Keselowski, the defending champ, make the Chase at Richmond, he and his team could face a similar challenge of trying to rally a second time. Keselowski has teetered on a Chase spot since Kentucky in late June. An engine failure last weekend at Atlanta dropped him to 15th in the points heading into Richmond. He’ll need a strong finish Saturday and others to struggle to make the Chase.

How his team reacts if it makes the Chase is not among Keselowski’s concerns, though. 

“I hope my team doesn’t pick up that excuse,’’ he said of being exhausted. “You either got it or you don’t. If you can’t keep going, you never had it to begin with.’’ 

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