NASCAR Sprint Cup: Is the Chase Wild Card Really a Two-Man Race?

Ben MontedonicoContributor IIISeptember 6, 2012

Kyle Busch(right) and Jeff Gordon(left) are the favorites, but the Wild Card is far from a two-man race
Kyle Busch(right) and Jeff Gordon(left) are the favorites, but the Wild Card is far from a two-man raceJeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

It all comes down to this.

On Saturday night, 400 laps around the three-quarter-mile Richmond International Raceway will determine the final driver who will compete in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, as well as the five drivers who will have to wait another year to hoist the Cup at Homestead.

The general consensus, for obvious reasons, is that the race for the final Chase Wild Card spot is essentially a two-man race.

Kyle Busch is in the driver's seat for that final spot, holding a 12-point lead over Jeff Gordon, who is Busch's closest pursuer.

If Busch either wins or, at the least, does not lose 12 points to Gordon, he claims the final Wild Card spot—this is also assuming Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose or Joey Logano do not win.

If Gordon should win or gain 12 points on Busch and Newman, Ambrose or Logano would not win. In this case, it would be Gordon who slips into the Chase by virtue of that final Wild Card spot.

For Busch and Gordon, math is in their favor. Winning is not a requirement and simply outrunning one another could just do the trick in getting either of them into the 10-race playoff.

But just because these two drivers have such a mathematical edge on the competition, do not believe for a second that Saturday night's race simply comes down to a mano-y-mano between the drivers nicknamed "Wild Thing" and "Big Daddy," respectively.

Under NASCAR rules, the two drivers—in 11th-through-20th in the Sprint Cup standings—with the most wins after Saturday night's race earn a Wild Card berth and are then placed among the 12 drivers competing for the Sprint Cup title.

Heading into Richmond, Kasey Kahne essentially has one of the Wild Card spots locked down with two wins, while five other drivers are "tied" for the final spot with one win.

The tiebreaker comes down to points, with the edge going to Busch.

Busch, and possibly Gordon, must head into Saturday night's race exercising a bit of caution based on the fact that either could make it in on points. The other three one-win drivers get to head into Richmond with a full-blown "win or go home" attitude.

Newman, Ambrose and Logano are all far enough behind Busch to where they cannot simply rely on points to get the job done. For these three, it's win and you're in, lose and you're out.

Emphasis on that first part.

Should any of those three drivers manage to stun NASCAR Nation and win Saturday night's race at Richmond, regardless of what Busch and Gordon do, he would make the Chase while Busch and Gordon, among others, would be relegated to the role of spoiler for the rest of the year.

So what are the chances any of our three drivers should pull off the "Miracle on Asphalt"? 

We'll start with Newman, who statistically has been the best of the three drivers at Richmond over the course of his career.

Newman has five top fives and 12 top 10s at Richmond, including an eighth in this race a year ago. He also knows how to find Victory Lane at RIR, taking the checkered flag in this race back in 2003.

But perhaps Newman's biggest obstacle will be that his Stewart-Haas Racing equipment just hasn't looked capable of winning at any venue this year. Even his lone victory at Martinsville was marred by a fluky set of circumstances.

However, Newman's teammate and car owner, Tony Stewart, nearly took the victory at Richmond back in April before finishing third. With Stewart already locked into the Chase, look for the owner to give all the good stuff to his other driver.

Next, we have Marcos Ambrose. The polar opposite of Newman, Ambrose's statistics at Richmond are just this side of ugly, with just two top 10s in seven starts and no top 20s since taking over the No. 9 car back in 2011.

But Ambrose's 2012 stats are pretty good, and of our three drivers he has been far and away the best over the last several weeks.

 Ambrose's Watkins Glen win was similarly fluky to Newman's at Martinsville, but even with that aside the Tasmanian still has three top fives and four top 10s in his last five races.

As for Logano, he's the one driver of the three who's win actually came in dominating fashion as he took the checkered flag from the pole position at Pocono back in June.

Like Ambrose, Logano's Richmond stats are less than flashy and, like Newman, so has his recent performance here in 2012.

But the one thing we know about Logano is that he's capable of leading laps at short tracks (he lead the most laps at Bristol two weeks ago) and, if he and his team start the weekend right in practice and qualifying, he's liable to go out and put together a winning performance, like at Pocono.

Of course, the likelihood of one of these drivers going out and winning isn't exactly high, and in the end the probability that Kyle Busch will win at Richmond for the second time this year and turn Saturday night's event into a snoozer is pretty good.

All I'm saying is that it could happen, which is why it's important to watch Saturday night's race if you're hoping for some excitement, and why it's important not to take anything for granted if you're a fan of Gordon or Busch.

In fact, crazier things have happened at Richmond, especially with the Chase on the line.

The possibility that Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose or Joey Logano does the unthinkable Saturday night is no less than a driver jumping from 14th to ninth in the standings and slipping into the Chase at the last moment.

Like Jeremy Mayfield did in 2004 at Richmond—when he won.