The road to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase, major-league stock-car racing's 10-race playoff, ends as always at Richmond International Raceway. Even before the green flag drops on the Federated Auto Parts 400 on Saturday night, 10 of the 12 Chase spots have been settled and the 11th nearly so.
But with five drivers, including two of the sports biggest names, harboring realistic hopes of making the Chase, and another two still mathematically in the hunt, a gathering approaching 100,000 will have plenty to follow. The Virginia 529 College Savings 250 NASCAR Nationwide race on Friday, featuring hometown favorite Elliott Sadler and Danica Patrick, kicks off the weekend of racing.
Below are five storylines to watch when NASCAR visits RIR.
5 STORYLINES AT RIR
Richmond sets the NASCAR Chase field
For the ninth season, the 12-man field for Sprint Cup's 10-race playoff, the Chase, will be set at RIR. Nine drivers already have automatic qualifying spots in the top 10: Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski. Tony Stewart will join them as a top 10 or wild card, while Kasey Kahne is very likely to earn a wild card.
Kyle Busch vs. Jeff Gordon for a Chase spot
So essentially one spot is left, and while Marcos Ambrose, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano could get it with a win, only Newman is even decent traditionally at Richmond. Carl Edwards can get it on points if none of the aforementioned three win and both Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon have disastrous nights. This looks like a battle for the final Chase spot between two of NASCAR's biggest names: Busch and Gordon.
Three in a row for Denny Hamlin?
With victories at Bristol and Atlanta under his belt the past two weeks, will Denny Hamlin enter the Chase with three consecutive wins? Considering he's often at his best at RIR – where he has two victories and an average finish of 7.3 – it's more than possible he'll leave with huge momentum and favorite's status to win the Chase crown that barely eluded his grasp two years ago.
Stewart loses his sponsor
The announcement that Office Depot and Tony Stewart are parting ways won't have any bearing on the results at RIR or in the upcoming Chase. But in a sport hit hard financially the past six years, a popular three-time Cup champion losing his primary sponsor a year after his greatest success will be the anxious talk of many in the garage area and stands this weekend.
Nationwide leader Sadler looking for Richmond turnaround
Reports this week have Emporia native Elliott Sadler leaving Richard Childress Racing after the season, perhaps for Joe Gibbs Racing. With a 12-point lead over Ricky Stenhouse Jr. atop the Nationwide Series standings, he'd like to leave as a champion. To do so he'll have to improve at his home track, a place he's never been great in a Nationwide or Sprint Cup car.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun