Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Analyzing NASCAR’s 2011 Chase Picture

With the regular season rapidly coming to a close, this weekend’s Four Burning Questions focuses on the big storyline swirling around Richmond’s 400-lapper: who will make the Chase? So come, follow along and sort through the stats as we’re just on weekend from setting this year’s field of 12 who will compete for the season title!

What drivers have clinched a spot in the Chase?

That’s simple. With Richmond the last remaining regular season race, the Chase picture is shaping up pretty clearly. As of now, the top-eight drivers in the series standings have clinched a spot in NASCAR’s 10-race playoff. They are, in the order of how they will line up in the standings at Chicagoland’s Chase opener:

Kyle Busch: 4 wins
Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick: 3 wins
Matt Kenseth: 2 wins
Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman: 1 win

Now this next step is where it gets a bit confusing. Brad Keselowski has clinched a spot in the Chase with three wins and is currently in the first wildcard position. IF he makes up the 23 points on Tony Stewart or 25 points on Dale Earnhardt Jr. to move into the top 10, he would move into the second position in points when the Chase standings reset due to his three wins. If not, he would open the Chase in 11th because wildcard winners DO NOT get bonus points for wins.

See also
Shakedown Session: How to Beat NASCAR's Chase System

As for the duo he’s trying to catch, sewing up a bid shouldn’t be super difficult Saturday night. If Earnhardt finishes in the top 20, he clinches a spot in the Chase; the same goes for Stewart if he finishes in the top 18.

Assuming Keselowski, Earnhardt and Stewart all stay where they currently sit, the final wildcard would go to Denny Hamlin. If Hamlin wins this weekend, he automatically lands in the Chase with two victories no matter what anyone else does.

If he does not, the door opens for Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose and David Ragan. With a win, any of these three can steal the final wildcard with two victories (as long as they finish the race inside the top 20 in points).

Two more drivers looking to pull off a slight upset are AJ Allmendinger and Clint Bowyer. They have a chance to earn the final wildcard ONLY with a win and by passing Hamlin in the points. Allmendinger and Bowyer are currently 11 and 12 points behind Hamlin, respectively.

Other drivers mathematically alive, but would need a near-miracle to get in are: Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr. and Kasey Kahne.

What driver has the most to lose at Richmond?

Any of the three drivers who are currently in the Chase, but have not clinched a spot – Earnhardt, Stewart and Hamlin – have a lot to lose, but to single out one specific driver, it would have to be Earnhardt. The chances of him falling out of the top 10 are slim – he has a 25-point cushion over the 11th position – but that is exactly why it would be such a monumental collapse if the No. 88 is not among the final 12 for the Chase opener.

He’s really struggled in the second half of the season with just two top 10s since a runner-up finish at Kansas, but making the cutoff would breathe new life in driver and team. Considering their strong start, up to third in points after the June race in Pocono you’d have to look at the year as a disappointment if they don’t make it. A postseason bid, even if Earnhardt winds up 12th would be a step in the right direction for a team looking for much more in 2012.

What driver has the most to gain?

While Keselowski has a lot to gain simply by moving into the top 10 in points – he would start the Chase second in points as opposed to 11th – there is one driver who may be racing for more than their playoff life.

Ragan is on the outside looking into the postseason in more ways than one. He already earned one win with an upset victory at Daytona in July, but whereas a second would score a couple other drivers a Chase berth this weekend in Richmond, Ragan would also have to overcome a 20-point hole to move into the top 20 in points and earn a wildcard.

If the unthinkable were to happen, it could score the young driver some job security with sponsorship woes and an unstable seat. That alone would mean more than a simple Chase berth for anyone else.

Will the wildcard make Richmond even more exciting?

Atlanta took a lot of potential drama away from Richmond this weekend. It’s hard to believe that the top 11 won’t stay the same following Saturday night’s finale, but the final wildcard position could add some intrigue. IF Allmendinger, Bowyer, Menard, Ambrose or Ragan are in contention for the win – especially if something were to happen to Hamlin – we could be in for an instant classic.

Imagine if one of the aforementioned five is running in the top five in the closing stages of the race, or even better first or second on a late-race restart. There will be a lot of aggression among those trying to wrestle a Chase spot away. More realistically, pay attention to those in top eight; they’ve run the best out of anyone all year and could earn some important bonus points with a win Saturday night.

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