Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Will a Must-Winner Steal the Spotlight in Richmond?

What Must-Win Driver Will Win on Saturday Night?

While there are 13 NASCAR drivers who are locked into the Chase and can let it ride Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, there are even more who enter with their seasons on the line.

These men and women cannot count on points and have no mathematical chance of Chase contention with a second-place result.

These… are the must-win drivers.

Looking at the list of 14, there are only a couple that have shown that potential to stand out and pull off an upset win right at the final flag of the regular season. Again, there is a reason they populate the mid-to-low spots in the points after 25 weeks.

Starting from the bottom, Aric Almirola, who sits 25th in points without a top-10 finish this season, could throw a repeat performance at the Virginia short track. In last year’s event, Almirola almost got it done, driving from 24th to burst into the top 3 by the race’s final restart. Unable to close in on Matt Kenseth, Almirola settled for fourth, missing out on his second-straight Chase appearance.

2016 Richmond I CUP pack racing III NIgel Kinrade NKP
AJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. have one goal for Saturday: Win. [Photo: Nigel Kinrade NKP)
Shifting gears to Trevor Bayne, the second-year Roush Fenway Racing driver has shown surprise runs a few times this year, grabbing his first two top 5s since 2011 while leading the RFR trio in driver points. However, a fifth at Bristol Motor Speedway this year stands as his only top 10 on a short track, and he has declined in points in the last few weeks, falling from 15th to 19th.

Ryan Blaney is in a similar category. Sitting as high as 12th in points this season, the Wood Brothers Racing rookie has taken a steady nose dive over the summer, earning only one top 10 in the last 11 races. After losing track of fellow Rookie of the Year competitor Chase Elliott, who sits in solid ground to make the Chase on points, Blaney will have to rekindle his early season magic to make it happen.

Lastly, Kasey Kahne is 44 points outside the Chase and will need to end a two-year winless streak to return to the Chase. After scoring a top 5 in the April race, Kahne will need a few more spots this time around to truly make a difference.

Can Ryan Newman Still Make Chase Despite Penalty?

Did anyone else whisper, “ouch” following Ryan Newman‘s points penalty after Darlington Speedway?

I’ll say it again: Ouch.

Newman, already sitting in hot water in the Chase picture, sitting seven points behind 16th-place Jamie McMurray, was handed a 15-point penalty after failing postrace inspection at Darlington Raceway, bumping his points deficit to 22 marks in arrears for Saturday night.

So the question stands: Can the Rocket Man stick the landing when it counts? If there is one guy who could pull the thrusters and right the ship in time, it’s Ryan Newman. After all, he has made it clear that he’ll do just about anything to make or advance through the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Photo: Zach Catanzareti
Whether it’s a door bang or an outside pass, Newman can deliver. (Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

Entering the 2013 event at Richmond, Newman sat outside the Chase and needed to bring the points to the table. Not only did he bring the points, he also drove around Carl Edwards on the high lane and was on his way to Victory Lane before Spingate occurred with six laps to go. He ended up finishing third, making the Chase that night.

The following season saw him boot Kyle Larson out of the way at Phoenix International Raceway in order to advance into the Final 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Both incidents, though different in tactics, showed what he’ll do in these, the later years of his NASCAR tenure.

Newman has one last shot to either gain those 22 points or win his way in. Either way, keep an eye on the Hoosier come Saturday night.

Can Anybody Point Their Way Into the XFINITY Chase?

Don’t forget the XFINITY Series!

For the first time, we will have the pleasure of setting a Chase field in the XFINITY Series in one week’s time at Chicagoland Speedway. With four drivers betting for the final two spots of the 12-driver roster, the spots up for grabs will make the penultimate night in Richmond even more exciting for the fans.

Sitting 11th is Blake Koch, who runs 22 points above the cutoff zone in his first season with Kaulig Racing. Ryan Sieg, despite only two top 10s, has the final spot on points, 18 markers above the bubble. Roughly a half-field of points ahead, these two – excluding two abnormal performances or just basic bad luck – should be fine to make the postseason.

(Photo: Russell LaBounty / NKP)
Armstrong will need some luck come Friday night at Richmond. (Photo: Russell LaBounty / NKP)

On the outside, however, is Dakoda Armstrong, who used an opportunity with Joe Gibbs Racing at Iowa Speedway (finishing fifth) to gain points on that 12th spot. Sitting 18 markers back, he and Jeremy Clements are the only two that can make the Chase without a trophy in hand.

Speaking of Clements, the No. 51 driver has seemed to peak too late in 2016, earning two top 10s in the last three races. Only two finishes better than 15th before the Clements’ current streak have put the veteran in a hole too high to climb out of.

Or have they?

Anything can and will happen in the final two weeks of the regular season. We have seen both Koch and Sieg suffer mechanical issues this season. To compensate, they have consistently brought top-15 cars to the track, making their current point position no surprise.

For Clements and Armstrong, plus the drivers who sit in a must-win position, Friday will stand as one of their biggest races of their racing careers, as they attempt to put themselves in position for a chance in Chicago.

Will Somebody Run Away with the Victory Again?

And, of course, don’t forget that there’s a race to be won in Eastern Virginia area this Saturday.

While the final Chase spots are earned, a race win will be on the lines like any other week. And if you paid attention to the Action Track the last time out in April, you should lack a level of comfort from years past.

Running during the day for the ninth round of the season, the 400-lapper saw the most lead changes since 2007 and the most green-flag passes for the lead since 2010 in a race that was decided on the last lap for the first time in the 63-year history of the short track.

Great numbers if I do say so myself.

However, it’s easy to get excited over whatever happened last, right? Despite the competitive event less than five months ago, the fall race has a history of different numbers.

In fall 2015, Matt Kenseth led 352 of 400 laps en route to victory. In spring 2015, Kurt Busch led 291 laps while Brad Keselowski led 383 laps to Victory Lane in 2014.

In simple terms, one driver can often nail it around the 0.750-mile track, leaving the rest of the field to drive to the next pit stop.

What will we see this weekend? I have no idea. And that’s a great thing.

With the low-downforce package working its magic this year, it’ll match with a night race this weekend – something that has struggled this year in terms of competition. However, the widening groove seen in April, seeing this short track under the lights, with the package and the always added Chase drama intact, can easily make for a fun night at the racetrack.

About the author

Growing up in Easton, Pa., Zach Catanzareti has grown his auto racing interest from fandom to professional. Joining Frontstretch in 2015, Zach enjoys nothing more than being at the track, having covered his first half-season of 18 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017. With experience behind the wheel, behind the camera and in the media center, he thrives on being an all-around reporter.

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Well maybe Ryan can pull the same move he did to Larson two years ago to get into “The Chase”. The move that everybody in the media said “he did what he had to do”, but nobody else got or gets that same objective pass in commentary! Remember “HE DID WHAT HE HAD TO DO”…another driver same circumstance….Pond Scum! Hypocrites….

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