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Keeping Pace

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes - Richmond

Race No. 26, the final race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series “regular season,” is an anticipated event for every single driver in the series. But it’s something else entirely for Denny Hamlin.


Courtesy: NASCAR Media Relations

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When the “Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup” format was instituted in 2004, Richmond International Raceway inherited the annual Chase “cut-off” race, the final event before the Chase field is set.

Drama at RIR has been considerable on a yearly basis since then, but clearly, this year shapes up as the most dramatic yet.

Coming into Saturday night’s Chevy Rock & Roll 400, only four spots in the 12-driver field have been clinched. Those guaranteed berths in NASCAR’s “playoffs” have been nailed down by Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet), Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet), Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont/National Guard Wounded Warrior Chevrolet) and Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota).

That leaves eight spots open — and 11 drivers in the running.

Only 217 points separate fifth-place Carl Edwards (No. 99 Aflac Ford) from the last driver in Chase contention, 15th-place David Reutimann (No. 00 Aaron’s Dream Machine Toyota).

When the situation is condensed around the 12th-place bubble, the outlook becomes even more uncertain.

Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Ford), rolls cautiously into Richmond in 12th place, the second-straight week for the 2003 series champion to hold that position. Kenseth is trying to extend a remarkable streak that he co-holds with Jimmie Johnson; they are the only two drivers who have qualified for the Chase every year. Johnson already has a sixth-straight Chase berth secured, so that leaves it to Kenseth to keep pace.

It won’t be easy. Kenseth has one Richmond victory, that coming in September 2002. Saturday night he’ll be fighting off three guys close behind in the points. Brian Vickers (No. 83 Red Bull Toyota) is only 20 points behind, while Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M’s Toyota) is only 37 back. The last driver still in mathematical contention is 15th-place Reutimann, an obvious long shot, as he is 132 points behind Kenseth.

Above Kenseth in the standings, there is also nervousness: 10th-place Mark Martin (No. 5 Kellogg’s/CARQUEST Chevrolet) is only 69 points ahead of 13th-place Vickers while 11th-place Greg Biffle (No. 16 3M Ford) is 68 ahead of Vickers, a former champion of the NASCAR Nationwide Series champion trying to qualify for the Chase for the first time.

Kenseth comes off a 12th-place finish this past Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway that allowed him to retain his precarious position.

“I just want to run good and be back up front where we belong,” Kenseth said. “We have a championship-caliber team as far as personnel … we’re capable of much better than this.”

Indeed, Kenseth showed that the first two weeks of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season when he captured the Daytona 500 then followed with a victory at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. He hasn’t won since.

“We’ve got to beat all the guys we’re around to get in the Chase. There are about five or six guys that are really close in the points and whoever outperforms the rest of them will make it in, so we’ve just got to go out and run as hard as we can and hope our results will be good enough.

“Through certain parts of the year we probably haven’t capitalized on all the races we could have and got all the points we could have, so we’re in this spot and we just have to race as hard as we can and do the things we know how to do and hope that’s good enough.”

Chase Seedings To Shake Out, Post-Richmond

Mark Martin and Kyle Busch have a leg up toward earning a potential top seeding at the outset of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Now, all they have to do is make the Chase.

Strange but true: Because of the increasingly demanding competition in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the guys with the most race victories thus far this year are in danger of not qualifying for NASCAR’s “playoffs.”

The 12 drivers qualifying for the Chase will have their season point totals “reset” to 5,000. They then will get 10 bonus points for each race victory during the “regular season” — meaning the 26 races preceding the Chase. Those adjusted totals will determine the seedings to start the Chase.

Both Martin and Busch have four victories this season, which would give them 5,040 points. To determine seeding order for the Chase, ties are broken by the traditional NASCAR method — looking at a driver’s race results beyond victories.

That means as of now, Martin has an edge on Busch, with two runner-up finishes compared to Busch’s none.

Of course, all of that will be moot if they don’t make the Chase. The fact that they are even in this sort of predicament underscores the cold hard facts of competitive life in NASCAR’s top series these days.

No longer is it enough to only run consistently.

And, no longer is it enough to have only a few great days along with some poor ones.

Nowadays, you need to both challenge for race wins and do so consistently.

Martin, although he has those four victories, also has three DNFs — virtual negation in terms of points, of his trips to Victory Lane.

Busch’s four wins are nice, but on the other side he has only eight top 10s overall and two DNFs. Compare that to series points leader Tony Stewart’s series-high 18 top 10s and the 17 top 10s by current points runner-up Jeff Gordon.

On The Line: Chase Contenders Vickers, Busch Talk Playoffs, On NASCAR Teleconference

(Note to media: Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup contenders Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch were guests Tuesday, on the weekly NASCAR Teleconference, discussing their chances of making the Chase, heading into Richmond. Following are some excerpts from the call. For a complete transcript and audio file of the event, go to NASCARmedia.com.)

Brian Vickers: “I think it’s very clear as to what we have to do, which is pretty much go there and win the race. That’s not necessarily the only way to get in the Chase, but that’s really how we’re going to gain the most amount of points. …

“Even if we accomplish our goal, which is to go there, sit on the pole, lead laps, win the race, there’s still no guarantee we’re going to make the Chase. If Matt finishes second, there’s nothing we can do about it. …

“The last thing that myself or anybody on the Red Bull team would do is wish ill upon anybody else. We don’t want anything bad to happen to our competitors. But we need them to at least not have a great night, no matter how our performance is. …

“I think our strategy is going to essentially be to gain the most amount of points possible.  We can’t get tied up in what everyone is doing.  I’d be lying if I didn’t say we’re not going to stay on top of it and be aware of it, no different than Atlanta. When I was racing with Matt and Kyle, I knew I was also racing with guys for a spot in the Chase. …

“The best thing that we can do, the most important thing we can do, is to not make a mistake, not have a bad finish, but we need to have a good one. We sat on the pole earlier this year.  Hopefully we can do that again. Lead a lap, get five bonus points, try to win the race, collect as many points as possible, and the rest is going to be up to our competitors.”

Kyle Busch: “There’s nothing you can do [about the other ‘bubble’ guys]. You can’t change what they’re doing. You can’t make race calls for those guys and tell them that they need to pit or whatever. There’s really no point in going through that frustration and trying to figure out where those guys are. You just see what it boils down to at the end of the day. …

“As far as being championship contenders, the only thing that we can really do is just try to run as consistent as possible. I don’t foresee us being the guy that’s going to finish first, second or third every single race like you can count on the 14 or the 24 or the 48 on doing. …

“We’re more of the guy that’s going to be maybe third here but then we might be seventh, eighth, ninth here or 11th or 12th there. If that’s good enough to win a championship, then certainly we’ll be championship contenders, otherwise we’ll just be chasers. …

“I feel good about Richmond. I’m excited about our chances. I feel like we can go out there and try to win another one. That’s all we can do to put ourselves in the Chase.” 

Keeping It Simple: Chase Clinch Scenarios For This Week’s Top 12

Carl Edwards — 5th place

Edwards is 105 points ahead of 13th place. Regardless of any other driver’s finish, he will clinch if he finishes: 24th or better; 25th and leads at least one lap; 27th and leads most laps
 
Kasey Kahne — 6th

Kahne is currently 96 points ahead of 13th place. Regardless of any other driver’s finish, he will clinch if he finishes: 21st or better; 23rd and leads at least one lap; 24th and leads most laps

Kurt Busch — 7th

Busch is currently 95 points ahead of 13th place. Regardless of any other driver’s finish, he will clinch if he finishes: 20th or better; 22nd and leads at least one lap; 24th and leads most laps

Juan Pablo Montoya — 8th

Montoya is currently 88 points ahead of 13th place. Regardless of any other driver’s finish, he will clinch if he finishes: 18th or better; 20th and leads at least one lap; 21st and leads the most laps.

Ryan Newman  — 9th

Newman is currently 81 points ahead of 13th place. Regardless of any other driver’s finish, he will clinch if he finishes: 16th or better; 17th and leads at least one lap; 19th and leads the most laps.

Mark Martin — 10th

Martin is currently 69 points ahead of 13th place. Regardless of any other driver’s finish, he will clinch if he finishes: 12th or better 14th and leads at least one lap; 15th and leads the most laps.

Greg Biffle  — 11th

Biffle is currently 68 points ahead of 13th place. Regardless of any other driver’s finish, he will clinch if he finishes: 11th or better; 13th and leads at least one lap; 15th and leads the most laps.

Matt Kenseth  — 12th

Kenseth is currently 20 points ahead of 13th place. Regardless of any other driver’s finish, he will clinch if he finishes: second or better and leads a lap; third and leads the most laps.

Loop Data: Hamlin Has Some History At RIR — And A Great Driving Rating, To Boot

Race No. 26, the final race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series “regular season,” is an anticipated event for every single driver in the series.

But it’s something else entirely for Denny Hamlin.

“Anticipation” fails to capture Hamlin’s emotions come race time at Richmond International Raceway.

Hamlin grew up in the .75-mile track’s shadows, and as such, pines for a victory at his very local short track. Literally, a NASCAR Sprint Cup win at Richmond is at the top of his wish list.

He has come close a number of times, but has yet to break through to Victory Lane.

Oddly, his best Richmond performance ended his worst Richmond finish.

In last season’s May Richmond race, Hamlin had the dominant car – by far. He led an astounding 381 of 400 laps. But a late-race tire problem killed his day, ended the dream and resulted in a 24th-place finish. Still, he finished up that race with a number of race-best statistics, including a Driver Rating of 129.1.

Additionally, he had an Average Running Position of 2.3 and 104 Fastest Laps Run, which are personal bests at Richmond’s action-packed oval for Hamlin.

The numbers speak for themselves. In all seven of his Richmond races, Hamlin has led at least four laps. He owns series-best stats in Driver Rating (116.9), Average Running Position (5.1) and average Green Flag Speed (117.741 mph). He also has tremendous numbers in Fastest Laps Run (244, third-most) and Laps in the Top 15 (2,754/98.0%).

The trend of hard luck finishes continued into this season for Hamlin at Richmond. Statistically, the last Richmond race was Hamlin’s second-best. But in the end, he suffered his third-worst finish (14th). The problem this time: a bad pit stop.

His crew had a problem with the lug nuts, causing Hamlin to lose a number of positions on pit road.

But on the track, he was near-flawless.

In that race, Hamlin had a Driver Rating of 126.5, an Average Running Position of 3.5, 43 Fastest Laps Run and a race-high 148 laps led.

Hamlin’s prior success at Richmond, combined with his current momentum make Hamlin a sure favorite this weekend.

Coming into this weekend’s race, Hamlin has scored five consecutive top-10 finishes (and seven of the last eight races were top-10 runs).

Over that span, Hamlin has a Driver Rating of 112.5.

Up Next: The Chase Begins At New Hampshire

Next week starts the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, with New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H. again serving as the “launch site,” with the Sylvania 300 on Sunday, Sept. 20.

History suggests a strong performance in the first Chase race could be crucial. Kurt Busch started the first Chase, in 2004, with a New Hampshire victory and went on to take the championship. Clint Bowyer won in 2007 and his long-shot championship hopes immediately became legitimate; he went on to finish third in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings.

There also are stories of disappointment, such as last year when Chase favorite Kyle Busch came in as the Chase top seed, but finished 34th. Busch never recovered in the championship battle, ultimately finishing 10th in points.

Fast Facts

The Race: Chevy Rock & Roll 400

The Place: Richmond International Raceway (.75-mile oval)

The Date: Saturday, Sept. 12

The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET

Race Distance: 400 laps/300 miles

TV: ESPN, 7 p.m. ET

Radio: MRN and Sirius XM Radio/Channel 128. Locally, WRVA-AM 1140, WRNL-AM 910)

2008 Winner: Jimmie Johnson

2008 Polesitter: Kyle Busch

Schedule: Friday—Practice 12-1:30 p.m. and 2-3:30; Qualifying 5:40.

2009 Top 12 Drivers

   Driver                       Points
 1 Tony Stewart             3,694
 2 Jeff Gordon                3,457
 3 Jimmie Johnson         3,404
 4 Denny Hamlin            3,296
 5 Carl Edwards             3,162
 6 Kasey Kahne             3,153
 7 Kurt Busch                3,152
 8 Juan Pablo Montoya   3,145
 9 Ryan Newman            3,138
10 Mark Martin               3,126
11 Greg Biffle                 3,125
12 Matt Kenseth             3,077


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Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.

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