The Racing Capital
of the World
September 07, 2012 | By Bruce Martin
The “Race to the Chase” in NASCAR Sprint Cup could be called racing’s longest heat race. It starts in February at the Daytona 500 – the first of 26 races that determine the 12 drivers that will compete over the final 10 races for the Sprint Cup in the “Chase for the Championship.”
The final heat race is Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway in the Federated Auto Parts 400. While this year’s Chase lineup includes many of the “Legends of the Brickyard,” there is one very big name that has to race his way into the field by winning Saturday night.
Four-time Brickyard 400 winner and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon knows he must win or miss the Chase. With the top 10 drivers in the points after the race Saturday night automatically advancing into the Chase, the final two wild-card positions are for the two drivers in positions 11-20 with the most victories. Kasey Kahne is 11th in points and has two wins and has virtually locked up one of the two wild cards, but Gordon is 14th in points with just one victory.
He could have grabbed one of the two wild cards with a win last Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway but finished second to race winner Denny Hamlin in a green-white-checkered finish.
So Gordon’s mission is simple – win and get in.
“We’re treating this as if this is our championship – this is our Homestead,” Gordon said, referring to the site of the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “We’re prepared. We’ve had back-to-back top-fives. We’re ready to win the race this weekend and seal the deal. We watched what Tony Stewart did last year in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He had to win and he did, and that is what we are prepared to do Saturday night.
“Past performances have been very good for me at Richmond. Even though we haven‘t gotten the wins, we have had winning cars and efforts. We learned a lot earlier this season what not to do.”
Gordon’s record at Richmond is impressive. He has two wins, 15 top-five and 24 top-10 finishes in 39 starts. He was third in this race last year and 23rd in the first Richmond race this season.
"We're going with guns loaded ready to do battle,” Gordon said. “This race is always intense, and I expect it to be a pretty crazy night. It's a little bit different because it's a short track (compared to last week's race on the 1.54-mile Atlanta track). I think everybody expects there to be a little more pushing and shoving on the short track. I've been saying all along that I think it's going to come down to the last lap at Richmond, and we're going to fight all the way down to that last lap.
"Our focus won't be on what ‘this team’ is doing or what ‘this driver’ is doing. We're just going to focus on our own program like we always do. We'll focus on tuning the car, communicating and working the setup the best we possibly can to try to have the fastest race car. I'm not going into the race thinking that we've got to finish 12 positions ahead of Kyle (Busch). I'm thinking we have to win.”
Gordon is 35 points out of 10th place, held by two-time Brickyard 400 winner and three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart of Columbus, Ind. With NASCAR’s simplified scoring system, Gordon must finish 35 positions higher than Stewart to climb into 10th place. But that is assuming that none of the drivers in front of him – Kahne and Kyle Busch – would advance into 10th place if Stewart had a bad race.
Gordon admitted he could have done himself a huge favor by winning at Atlanta last Sunday night, which would have almost assured him a wild-card position.
“At the time you make that split-second decision; I had a pretty good run, and I wish I had dive-bombed him (Hamlin) to the inside or got on his bumper to loosen him up,” Gordon said. “We were going for the win. We were in a great position there, and I made the best decision I could at the moment. It’s easy to go back and look at what I could have done different. I have looked at it because we didn’t win. I’m always going to go with trying to pass a driver clean, first. After that, you have to use the bumper and do other things.
“Looking back on it, I wish I had done that.”
It’s short-track racing on a Saturday night at Richmond, so Gordon isn’t afraid to get a little rough to get to the front.
“We have to do our job to the best of our abilities, and if we do that, we can win this race,” Gordon said. “Kyle Busch is in the best position right now, but there are four or five other guys where if they win, they move on, as well. But if Tony Stewart moves out of the top 10 in points, that changes things. So we can’t just look at one guy.”
Stewart is 10th in points. If he finishes 14th or better Saturday night, he will advance into the Chase by points. If he drops to 11th or lower, he will still get into the Chase based on his three wins.
“We’re going to do the same day we do every week,” Stewart said. “It’s no different. You have to run the race the same way.”
Stewart has three wins, 10 top-five and 18 top-10 finishes at Richmond. He was seventh in this contest last year and third in April.
“It is my favorite track,” Stewart said. “It’s not one of them; it’s the favorite track of mine on the circuit. I’ve just always thought it’s the perfect-sized track for a Cup race. The other short tracks we run – Bristol and Martinsville – they’re cool in their own right, but there’s a lot of congestion at those two tracks. But at Richmond, it just seems like that extra quarter-mile, and that three-quarter-mile shape, and how wide the groove gets there, allows for good racing. It seems like we have to race ourselves and race the racetrack versus racing each other a lot of times. You do have to race each other, obviously, but there are a lot of times during the race when you have the flexibility to move around on the racetrack and try to find a spot your car likes better than somewhere else. A lot of times on a short track, you don’t have the flexibility. You’re more narrowed down with what groove you’re going to be in.”
But Stewart was unhappy with the way his car performed during practice Friday at Richmond.
“We just are bad right now,” Stewart said. “I’m starting to question whether somebody else can drive it better than me at this point in the equation. I just can’t get it to do what I want it to do at any point.”
“I will be honest: I’m not happy with any part of my program right now. We have a lot of work to do. We are just frustrated right now. I’m not even worried about the next 10 weeks because I can’t even get through this week right now. We are trying to get stuff going.”
Gordon has major competition for that final wild-card positions from Kyle Busch, who is 12th in points. Both drivers have one victory. There are three drivers behind Gordon who also have one victory apiece, including 16th-place Marcos Ambrose, 17th-place Ryan Newman of South Bend, Ind., and 18th-place Joey Logano. If any one of those three drivers wins the race, then Gordon will not make the Chase.
“It’s easy to go back throughout the season and know we have performed well enough to be in the Chase,” Gordon said. “That doesn’t always guarantee we will have a spot in the Chase. But when you look at the list of guys that are on the list not in the Chase along with us, it shows how competitive this sport is and how the best in the business can have rough years and not make it in.
“We come here to win and will put the best effort we can to accomplish that. We can’t play scenarios in our head now. We are going to do what it takes to win, whatever that means.”
Gordon likes the wild-card addition to the Chase and believes it gives more drivers a shot at the championship, especially going into the cutoff race for the Chase.
“This was always an exciting race but didn’t have the kind of importance it does now to get into the Chase,” Gordon said. “I love the format, but I don’t want to ever be in this position again.
“Even if we won last weekend, this race would be intense because if Kyle Busch wins he could be in the Chase instead of me. It’s going to be a really wild, intense race for a lot of people, not just us.”
Busch has been in this position before. He has arrived at Richmond needing to win to get in but fell short.
But Richmond is one of Busch’s best tracks. He drove to victory here in April – one of his fourth victories, 12 top-five and 13 top-10 finishes in 15 starts at Richmond. He has two wins in his last three Richmond starts, three wins in his last five starts at this track and four wins in his last seven attempts at Richmond.
“We were in this situation in 2009 and we had to go to Richmond and finish five spots ahead of Brian Vickers and we finished fifth, which was great, but Brian Vickers finished eighth, so we missed the Chase that night,” Busch said. “Not necessarily one that you bank on going there and getting a win or anything like that. You feel like you can run well, but you can’t guarantee it, either. Again, you just do what you’ve got – do what you need to do to run as well as you can.”
That is the position Newman finds himself in. With one victory this season, Purdue University graduate Newman is taking an engineering outlook into this short-track slugfest.
“The biggest thing at Richmond is, it’s pretty high braking, so you have to keep a brake pedal in the car all night,” Newman said. “But, like I’ve always said, using that brake pedal is one of the reasons I enjoy short-track racing so much. As a driver, it’s important for me to be smart on the racetrack and keep my head about me in the Quicken Loans Chevrolet.
“Track position at Richmond is typically pretty important. It’s hard to make up a lot of ground there. You can go from the back to the front, but it takes a lot of the race to do it. It’s also a place where strategy, as far as getting off-sequence on tires, has potential to make a big difference. So this is a big race where, not only is it important for the driver to be at his best, but the pit crew has to be on top of it all night. We need to maintain and gain positions in the pits.”
Newman has one win, five top-five and 12 top-10 finishes in 21 Richmond starts but was 15th here in April.
The view from the drivers that have already locked themselves into the Chase is much more relaxed.
“I like short tracks,” said fan favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who is second in the standings. “Richmond has been a good one for us for a couple of races. I have always enjoyed running there, and it’s a fun track. It’s not your typical short track with the way the front straightaway is. It definitely makes each corner unique from the other and the way you drive the track can change throughout the race. It’s a lot of fun for a driver.”
Earnhardt has three wins, ninth top-five and 11 top-10 finishes in 26 starts. He was second here April 28.
This year’s Brickyard winner can also relax.
“Richmond is unique just because of how racy it is,” said Jimmie Johnson, who won his fourth Brickyard this year and is a five-time Cup champion. “The shape of the track, the banking, size, good side-by-side racing it is a very racy track.”
Johnson has three wins, five top-five and eight top-10 finishes in 21 Richmond starts. He was 31st last September and sixth in April.
Kevin Harvick, the 2003 Brickyard winner, is ninth in the standings but controls his own destiny. Harvick has two wins, six top-five and 14 top-10 finishes in 23 Richmond starts. He is the defending winner of this race.
“Richmond (International Raceway) is a good track for me, in general,” Harvick said. “Since I started racing, it seems I’ve been successful on the flatter-type race tracks; they really seem to fit my driving style. On paper, this is one of our best tracks. Over the past two weeks, our team has really been stepping up our game and avoiding big mistakes. As long as we stay focused, avoid mistakes and make the right calls, we should have a shot to get the Budweiser Chevrolet back to Victory Lane.”
But the focus will be on Gordon, whose formative years in racing came when he moved to Pittsboro, Ind., as a 14-year-old. He went on to become one of the greatest race drivers ever produced by the state of Indiana. But at 41, he admits his chances at a championship are dwindling.
So is there more pressure to get into the Chase this year?
“We have enough pressure on ourselves already,” Gordon said. “We don’t need any added pressure.”