Richmond International Raceway takes its rather prominent place in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series spotlight on Saturday with the Federated Auto Parts 400.
It's billed as "One Last Race To Make the Chase," because, at the end of 300 laps and 400 miles on RIR's 3/4-of-a-mile oval, the 12-man field for the Cup Series' 10-race playoff will be set.
Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth already have qualified for the Chase by clinching regular-season places in the top 10. Kasey Kahne will join them in the Chase, with his performance at Richmond dictating whether it will be as one of the top 10 or in one of the two wild-card spots going to the other best-placed top-20 drivers with the most wins.
Here are five storylines to watch Saturday — focused mainly on the five Chase places yet to be determined. But we couldn't avoid addressing five-time champion Johnson's deepening slump as the Chase nears.
1. Kurt Busch vs. Jeff Gordon
A mano-a-mano duel between 2004 champion Busch and four-time champ Gordon for the 10th Chase spot is looming. Either would clinch a place in the top 10 by winning, but if they don't, the most likely scenario for position No. 10 in the Chase is Busch attempting to cling to the six-point lead he has on 11th-place Gordon. Should Busch prevail, he'll become the first driver from a single-car team to qualify for the Chase.
2. 2012 champ could miss Chase
No defending champion has missed the Chase since Tony Stewart in 2006, but 2012 champ Brad Keselowski is on the verge. Keselowski is 28 points behind Kurt Busch, so a top 10 is a long shot. A wild card is his best hope, but he would need to win at RIR, then likely out-point Martin Truex Jr. by 13 points and Ryan Newman by eight. Were Kasey Kahne to move into the top 10, the most likely path for Keselowski would be winning and out-pointing Truex or Newman by the needed margins.
3. Kahne is in — but a big factor
With two wins and his top-20 spot set, Kahne already is assured of at least a wild-card into the 12-driver Chase field. He would very much like to make up the 10 points he needs to get into the top 10 so that his two wins count as bonus points in the Chase. Should Kahne move into the top 10, that opens up an extra wild card spot, which Newman or Truex could move into, or that Joey Logano or Greg Biffle could drop down to.
4. Junior, Logano, Biffle look good
Of the current top 10 in points yet to clinch Chase spots, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in the best position, needing only a 32nd place finish no matter what anyone else does. Neither Logano nor Biffle can miss the Chase by finishing 10th, but realistically should get larger cushions than that. Plus, with a win apiece, Logano or Biffle still could slide in as wild cards should they drop out of the top 10, as long as their nights aren't too disastrous.
Can Jimmie Johnson regain his mojo?
Johnson might deserve a break because his second baby is due any day. And it would be a little harsh to blame him for the Atlanta wreck that was started by one teammate (Gordon), causing another teammate (Kahne) to run into the No. 48. Even so, with finishes of 40th (Michigan), 36th (Bristol) and 28th (Atlanta) the past three weeks, Johnson is testing to the absolute limit of his belief that form is not necessarily a barometer of how well a driver will perform in the Chase.
NASCAR at RIR
WHERE: Richmond International Raceway
Qualifying: 5:35 p.m. Friday
Race: 7:30 p.m. Saturday (TV: ABC)
Qualifying: 4:05 p.m. Friday
Race: 7:30 p.m. Friday (TV: ESPN2)Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun