Tonight's Wonderful Pistachios 400 at the Richmond International Raceway is anticipated to be one of the biggest races of the 2011 season. The last opportunity for drivers to make themselves eligible for this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship could lead desperate men to resort to desperate measures to get themselves into the 10-race playoff. Richmond typically brings out the best racing NASCAR has to offer, with the wide surface and three-quarter-mile distance giving the D-shaped oval what past television ads referred to as "racing perfection."
David Reutimann has the pole for tonight's race, thanks to his 21.196-second lap turned during last night's qualifying session. He'll share the front row with Jamie McMurray, while Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, and Clint Bowyer round out the top-five.
Here are some stories to watch in the 400-lapper that will be seen at 7 p.m. on your local ABC affiliate.
Who gets in and who is left out? Of course this would be the No. 1 storyline for the Chase cutoff event. Same as the end of any regular season, the question is going to be what teams are still in contention for the championship. Of course in NASCAR, things are a little different as there will still be 43 cars running each week. There are still 14 drivers with a chance to earn one of three remaining positions in this year's Chase. They are, in order of current position in the standings: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, A.J. Allmendinger, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr, Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano, Mark Martin, Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose, and David Ragan.
A 20th-place finish or better will clinch Earnhardt Jr's first Chase berth since 2008, while Stewart will lock himself in by finishing 18th or better. A victory by Hamlin or Menard will lock themselves in via the wild card (as they will now have two wins). Ambrose or Ragan could make the Chase by winning tonight and climbing into the top-20 in points, as they also would have two victories. Everyone else will need to win the race to even have consideration, and most will need help from Brad Keselowski, who currently holds the first wild card spot with three wins but could displace Stewart in 10th if misfortune befalls Stewart. By moving into the top-10, Keselowski would open up the wild-card position for another driver.
Oh yeah, there's a race tonight. Who's gonna win it? Aside from the drivers just trying to make the Chase, there are plenty of others who are looking to either pick up three more bonus points towards their championship bid that starts next week in Chciago or to just play the role of spoiler. Reutimann and McMurray are both mathematically eliminated from the Chase, but their front-row qualifying efforts serves notice that neither one intends to go quietly into the post-season.
Does Jimmie Johnson enter the Chase in uncharted territory? Johnson is an inch or two ahead of Clint Bowyer away from being winless this season. That lone triumph - at the Talladega Superspeedway in April - stands as the fewest Johnson has recorded through the first 26 races in any season of his career. In the Chase-era, he has never entered the playoff with fewer than three wins to his credit, something that will change this season. He is a three-time winner at Richmond, including a season-sweep in 2007 (when he won 10 races, the most of any driver since 1998) and he rolls off third tonight. One can be sure that, two wins or just one, the five-time defending series champion enters the Chase as the favorite.
Does Brad Keselowski keep his momentum going? Since being injured the first week of August in a crash at Brasleton's Road Atlanta, Keselowski has been on the kind of tear that seems to come along only a couple of times in most drivers' careers. In the last five races, he has two wins, a second, a third, and a sixth. The two wins, along with his triumph at Kansas in June, clinched at least a Chase wild card spot, and his recent tear has shown that he could be one of the chief threats to Jimmie Johnson's reign.. He can still move into the top-10 in points by keeping his hot streak going - and getting help from Stewart. Moving into the top-10 would allow him to take advantage of the nine bonus points he has earned for those three wins, which would seed him second in the playoff.
SB Nation Atlanta will be following all the action from tonight's event as the stage is set for the final ten-week battle for this year's Sprint Cup championship.