The best part of the racing season is upon us.
The 16-car field for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase will be set Saturday night at Richmond. Only two spots remain open, and plenty of drivers will be going all-out to try to secure one of the coveted berths.
Let the drama unfold.
All it takes for a driver on the outside to climb into the top 16 is a win.
Danica Patrick is in that position. So is Tony Stewart, Paul Menard, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and a host of others.
It’s not an enviable spot to be in for those drivers, of course, but all of them could be viewed as threats; they’re essentially racing with nothing to lose.
Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle, on the other hand, are in more precarious positions. They would be the final two drivers in the Chase if it started today.
Newman is in the best position with a 42-point cushion between himself and Clint Bowyer, who is in 17th and the first one “out” of the Chase at the moment.
Biffle is hanging on by a 23-point margin and could find himself on the outside looking in by the end of Saturday.
“We’ve got to race as hard as we can,” Biffle said. “We know if one of those guys behind us wins, it bumps us out. So we’ll run as hard as we can.”
Newman and Biffle are attempting to join Matt Kenseth as the only winless drivers in the Chase. Kenseth, who is 14th in the points standings, has already secured a spot.
Newman will do the same if there is a new winner other than Kenseth. He could also earn a berth if there is a repeat winner, or if Kenseth wins, and he finishes 41st or better.
So, in all likelihood, Newman is going to make the Chase. That leaves one spot up for grabs between Biffle and the others.
The five best bets to take it, starting with the favorite:
He’s in a tight spot, but better than most. Biffle has the benefit of being the odds-on favorite if there is a repeat winner — or if Kenseth or Newman wins. If that happens, Biffle clinches a spot if he finishes 22nd or better, or 23rd or better with at least one lap led.
He holds the dubious distinction of being the first one “out“ of the Chase, but still has a chance to get in on points if everything falls his way. But winning is the surefire way for the native Kansan, who has two career wins at Richmond.
• Tony Stewart. Some might feel he shouldn’t even be eligible for the Chase after he struck and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. during a dirt-track race last month. But he is eligible, and he returned to racing last weekend in Atlanta after a three-race absence. Stewart has a history of success in Richmond, too, as a three-time winner.
• Kyle Larson. He is the top rookie, but suffered a blow to his Chase dreams when Kasey Kahne won Sunday night to take one of the 16 spots. Larson, who finished eighth at Atlanta, could mathematically get in the Chase on points, but knows the most realistic way is by winning.
• Martin Truex Jr. He was bumped out of the Chase last year after his team was ruled guilty of race manipulation, and he is not in great shape to get in this year. He had a top-10 run at Richmond in the spring, his fourth career top-10 finish at the track. Truex is a long shot, but appears to have a better chance than most in the win-and-in boat.