'Chasing' a Successful Season

G.Biffle

Greg Biffle holds a 23-point lead over Clint Bowyer in the fight for the final Chase spot heading into Saturday's regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway. (Photo: Getty Images)

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This year’s expanded Chase field of 16 means that just under half of the full-time drivers that will likely compete in every race of the regular season will have a chance to run for a championship.

That leaves some pretty high-profile names on the outside looking in once the playoffs begin at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 14.

Not every Chase spot is created equal.  Underdogs like Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger, both in this year’s field with regular-season wins, weren’t expected by many pre-season prognosticators to make the playoffs.  Rookies Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon are two other examples of drivers not on the Chase radar in their freshman year.

But on the other hand, more experienced drivers with better-funded teams are expected to be in the hunt for NASCAR’s championship.  Not achieving that goal is a bitter pill to swallow, and could have financial and even personnel ramifications within an organization.

Unless a rabbit can be pulled out of the proverbial hat in Saturday night’s regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway, these drivers will have a hard time looking back at 2014 as anything less than a failure:

Clint Bowyer

The Michael Waltrip Racing driver looked like a lock to represent the team in this year’s Chase until his shifter and transmission broke Sunday night in Atlanta.  That dropped Bowyer 23 points behind Greg Biffle for the final transfer spot in the standings, which is a lot of ground to make up in a single race.  Bowyer, the focal point of last year’s Chase manipulation scandal with MWR, will likely need to take the checkered flag in Richmond in order to bust his way into the playoff field.

Greg Biffle

It’s already been a trying season for the Roush Fenway Racing stable that has - at least recently - shown some glimmer of hope.  There have been solid runs for all three drivers in recent weeks as well as good news on the sponsorship front with ORTHO and Fifth Third Bank firming up deals in the aftermath of 3M’s exit to Hendrick Motorsports.  While departing teammate Carl Edwards is in the Chase, Biffle falling out would be a devastating turn of events for an organization that needs every bit of success it can find.

Jamie McMurray

There’s been a lot of upside to Chip Ganassi Racing’s season so far, including a win by McMurray in the All-Star Race and the solid performance of rookie teammate Larson.  But McMurray remains stuck in the middle of the pack too often to be an impact player in the win department, as evidenced by only two top fives in the first 25 races of the season.  It’s "Hail Mary" time for the No. 1 team and crew chief Keith Rodden on Saturday night, so don’t be surprised at some creative strategy and calls down the stretch.  But McMurray’s past performance at Richmond will need to be overcome as well with only a 17.4 average finish in his last 10 starts.

While McMurray’s goal is to have a chance to run for the title, his perspective on simply making the Chase versus winning races is interesting.

"To just make the Chase and not win a race really isn’t what you’re looking for," said McMurray.  "If you don’t make it but win three races in the last 10, I think everyone would take that over just making the Chase."

Martin Truex Jr.

The odd man out in last year’s Richmond shenanigans was hoping for a new start with Furniture Row Racing in 2014.  But since the Daytona 500 front-row starting spot in February, it’s been a frustrating season of nearly epic proportions for Truex & Co.  The only way he can match the feat of Kurt Busch bringing the No. 78 team its first-ever Chase berth last season would be with a win Saturday night.  It would be an ironic turnabout from what Truex endured 12 months ago and a storybook finish to the regular season, to be sure.  However, the way this team has performed all season, that scenario appears to be a long shot at best.

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