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Entering regular-season finale, Sprint Cup Series is a tight race

Qualification for NASCAR's 10-race Chase for the Cup will be decided after Saturday's race at Richmond International Raceway. Nine drivers are in, with several more trying to make the 12-driver cut.

September 03, 2012|By Jim Peltz
  • NASCAR driver Tony Stewart waits by his No. 14 Office Depot car before the start of Sunday's Sprint Cup race in Atlanta. The reigning series champion is in 10th but hasn't qualified for the Cup playoffs.
NASCAR driver Tony Stewart waits by his No. 14 Office Depot car before the… (Rainier Ehrhardt / Associated…)

Blunt as usual, Kyle Busch explained in no uncertain terms what it means for a driver to miss NASCAR's title playoff.

"We're just going to be another race car … running around in circles for the rest of the year," Busch said. "That's how I feel about it."

At least Busch still has a strong shot to qualify as one of the 12 drivers in NASCAR's 10-race Chase for the Cup that decides the Sprint Cup Series champion.

The same can't be said for several other top drivers, including 2011 title contender Carl Edwards, as the series heads to Richmond (Va.) International Raceway on Saturday night.

Richmond is the 26th race of the regular season and the top 10 drivers in season points after Richmond qualify for the Chase, which starts Sept. 16 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.

Two wild-card drivers with the most wins among those 11th to 20th in points also make the Chase. If more than one driver in that group has the same number of wins, the tiebreaker goes to the one highest in points.

After Sunday night's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, won by Denny Hamlin, nine drivers have now clinched a Chase berth based on points: Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick.

Reigning champion Tony Stewart, who is 10th in points, could fall out of that spot depending on what happens at Richmond, where Stewart is a three-time winner.

Stewart is only 18 points ahead of Kasey Kahne in the 11th spot and 23 points ahead of Busch in 12th, and a driver can earn up to 48 points in a single race.

But even if Stewart falls out of the top 10, he'll get one of the wild-card spots because he has three wins this season.

Kahne has two wins and probably is a wild-card addition as well. No other driver among those 11th to 20th in points has more than one victory.

Those drivers with one win this season include four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who's 13th in points; Marcos Ambrose (16th); Ryan Newman (17th); and Joey Logano (18th).

Neither Edwards (14th) nor Paul Menard (15th) has a victory this year.

Gordon, 41, had a golden opportunity to bolster his Chase wild-card hopes at Atlanta with a second win this season. But he was outrun at the finish by Hamlin, who won his second consecutive race, after Gordon failed to get past him.

"I'm just mad at myself right now," Gordon said after the race. "I'm too nice because, I don't know, 15 years ago I would have just moved [Hamlin] right up the racetrack. I don't know why I didn't do that.

"I guess I'm just getting soft in my old age," Gordon said.

Don't tell that to Busch, who said he's headed to Richmond — where Busch is a four-time winner, including the spring race this year — with the intent of holding off Gordon and his No. 24 Chevrolet.

"Jeff is no slouch at Richmond," where Gordon has won twice in his career, Busch said. "I feel like that's the guy we're racing, the 24 car. Jeff could give us a run for our money. We'll just have to see how it all plays out."

Then there's Edwards, who has struggled all season without a win. It's a surprising reversal from 2011, when he narrowly lost the championship to Stewart in the last race of the year at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

To have any chance at this year's Chase, Edwards not only must win at the ¾-mile Richmond track, he also needs Busch and Gordon to have poor races.

Yet Edwards has only two top-five finishes in his No. 99 Ford this year, and he has never won at Richmond in 16 previous starts.

Edwards also is coming off a 36th-place finish at Atlanta, where engine trouble sidelined him early.

"I don't even know what to say," Edwards said after parking his car. "Somebody is trying to teach me something here. This is not fun.

"We'll go to Richmond and go win that race," Edwards said, "and somehow maybe a miracle will happen."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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