The 411: Race No. 26

Wonderful Pistachios 400
The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular season comes to a close this Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway. Nine of 12 tickets have been punched to the big dance, with 3 drivers holding their 2011 Chase destinies in the palms of their hands.
The top eight drivers in points – Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, and Ryan Newman have all sealed up a spot in the top-10 heading into Chicago next weekend. Brad Keselowski is the other driver with an invitation to race for the 2011 Sprint Cup Series Driver’s Championship, with at least a Wild Card clinched.
Mathematically, there are an astonishing 14 drivers still with at least a glimmer of hope of making the 2011 Chase field. The previous record for drivers NOT-mathematically eliminated from Chase contention heading into Richmond was seven, dating back to 2005.
Although there are 14 with still a fighting chance at The Chase, there are five drivers with realistic hopes at racing for The Sprint Cup in 2011:

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Dale Jr is running this week to stay out of trouble, finish on the lead lap, and claim his spot in The Chase. Jr. needs a 20th or better finish Saturday night to be locked into The Chase on his own, and will be at a track where he has won three times. He hasn’t visited Victory Lane at Richmond since 2006, and has failed to finish on the lead lap the past four races at RIR. Don’t buy your Chase caps just yet JR Nation…
2. Tony Stewart: Smoke is also on the bubble as far as going for the win, or trying to stay out of trouble. He needs an 18th place finish or better for his nod to join the other Chase contenders, and has also won three times at RIR. Stewart’s last win at the three-quarter-mile track back in 2002, but has a bit more impressive of a recent history at RIR than Dale Jr. Smoke raced all the way from 31st this spring to finish ninth, and also ranks sixth in Driver Rating at Richmond among all active drivers.

3. Denny Hamlin: A win, and he’s in. Hamlin does not have to win to punch his ticket, though. He must finish ahead or all other one-win drivers, and pray that Marcos Ambrose or Paul Menard do not visit Victory Lane, Saturday Night. Hamlin currently occupies the second Wild Card spot with his one win, and would need to stay ahead of all other one-win drivers in the point standings to seal his spot in The Chase.

Tie-4th. Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose: Again, it’s simple, win, and you’re in. Menard and Ambrose both hold legitimate shots at heading to the big dance, with Ambrose holding a slight advantage with further to come. Menard has struggled greatly at Richmond, never finishing better than 16th in his nine starts at RIR, my reason for eliminating him from contention on Saturday.
Ambrose’s scenario plays out like this; Win, and in EXCEPT, he must enter the top-20 in the points standings as well. As it stands now, Ambrose sits just seven points outside the top-20 in 21st position, the 20th place driver -Paul Menard.
The combination of Menard’s poor finishes at RIR and Ambrose’s recent finishes (two top-10’s in the last three races) gives him the slight advantage in the two ‘Dark Horse’ Chase contenders.
The race Saturday Night has never meant more to Chase-hopefuls, so be sure to tune in to ABC at 7 p.m. (ET).

In other non-exciting news, a decision that has many NASCAR drivers, fans, and media members shaking their heads; Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi will be dropping the green-flag over the field Saturday night. Here I thought that honor was reserved for “celebrities”, War Veterans, or generally important people, thanks for proving me wrong yet again NASCAR!