The field Chase for the 2012 Sprint Cup championship is largely set. The top-nine drivers (Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, and Kevin Harvick) have already officially clinched their spots in the Chase, while a tenth (Tony Stewart) has clinched no worse than a wild card spot. Kasey Kahne is all but assured of making the Chase one way or the other, either by cracking the top-10 or via the wild card thanks to his two victories.
It is the battle for the second and final wild card, however, that makes Saturday evening's regular season-finale at the Richmond International Raceway a can't-miss event.
Five drivers not in the Chase but inside the top-20 in the standings hold a single win thus far in 2012. Kyle Busch, who won at Richmond in the spring, currently holds the wild card spot thanks to his 12th-place position in the standings. Jeff Gordon - winner of Pocono last month - sits seven points behind Busch. Either of those drivers could supplant Stewart in the standings to make the Chase via the top-10 if the defending series champ has another poor showing.
Marcos Ambrose sits 16th in the standings, followed by Ryan Newman and Joey Logano. They are mathematically eliminated from the top-10, but their wins at Watkins Glen, Martinsville, and the June win at Pocono respectively have them all in position to snare a wild card if things fall their way Saturday.
The easiest way for any of those drivers to make the Chase would be to win the Federated Auto Parts 400. Busch, as stated, won at Richmond in late April, one of four-consecutive wins he has in that event. He has never claimed the fall race at RiR, however. Gordon, meanwhile, is a two-time winner at Richmond, but those victories both came during Bill Clinton's tenure in office.
Of the latter three drivers, only Newman in 2003 has visited victory lane at Richmond, but Logano has had plenty of solid runs at the track, long a venue where Joe Gibbs Racing drivers past and present like Stewart, Busch, and Hamlin have thrived.
Things become complicated if none of the five win Saturday. Not only does the calculation of points come into the picture, but so does the potential for Carl Edwards or Paul Menard to sneak into the Chase despite not yet having won in 2012.
Richmond, the three-quarters-mile short track, is widely regarded as the perfect venue for stock car racing. Its wide, moderately banked surface allows drivers to run a variety of lines and race side-by-side, but the small size keeps the field tightly bunched all night. Don't be surprised if the venue lives up to its old billing as "The Action Track" - both during the race and afterwards.