Commentary

Handicapping Richmond: Goals differ for top 13 drivers

With most of the Chase field set, you might think there won't be much drama in Richmond. Not so, writes Terry Blount, since every driver from Chase lock Jimmie Johnson to current outsider Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs to prove something.

Updated: September 6, 2007, 4:19 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Most of the Chase field is set heading to the Richmond short track, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his legion of fans hoping for a little divine intervention to get him into the 12-man playoff.

But the Chase boys aren't just out for a test session Saturday night (ABC, 7 p.m. ET). A victory in the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 is worth 10 bonus points to start the playoff. Each driver in the Chase has his points reset to 5,000. The bonus points for each victory mark the difference between them.

It doesn't sound like much, but 10 points could make the difference between winning and losing the championship come November at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Each Chase contender comes in with a game plan this weekend, and each plan is a little different, depending on where the contenders are in the pecking order, which we've broken down by where the drivers stand in the Chase if it started this week.

So here's a glimpse at what each of those drivers has going on inside his helmet when the Richmond race begins:

Nextel Cup Standings
(After 25 races)

Jeff Gordon instantly loses at least a 317-point lead when the standings reset for the Chase after Richmond. He starts the Chase tied for first if he wins Saturday night. If he doesn't win, he goes from a big lead to 10 points in the hole behind teammate Jimmie Johnson.

Jimmie Johnson

1. Jimmie Johnson
Status -- Locked
Points if the Chase started today -- 5,050
What's he thinking? -- "I'm baaaaack."
What he needs to do Saturday -- Stay the course. The defending Cup champion will start the Chase alone at the top unless Jeff Gordon wins Saturday. Johnson's midseason slump is over.

He won last weekend at California for his fourth top-5 in the past five races. As if that's not enough for his competitors to worry about, Johnson also won at Richmond in May.

Jeff Gordon

2. Jeff Gordon
Status -- Locked
Points if the Chase started today -- 5,040
What's he thinking? -- "Let's do it like we did before."
What he needs to do Saturday -- Unless Gordon wins this race, he'll start the playoff at No. 2, 10 points behind Johnson. Either way, he can kiss that 317-point lead goodbye after Saturday night.

Remember, the Chasers are seeded by wins this year for the first time. Johnson has five; Gordon has four. Gordon, as he has done for the past month, will go all-out to win so he can tie Johnson for the top spot in the Chase opener next weekend at New Hampshire.

Gordon needs a strong showing at Richmond to start the Chase with some momentum. This race is all about heading to the Chase with some positive vibes, which Gordon desperately needs. He hasn't won since early June. Gordon has finished 27th, 19th and 22nd in the past three races.

Tony Stewart

3. Tony Stewart
Status -- Locked
Points if the Chase started today -- 5,030
What's he thinking? -- "Get out of my way."
What he needs to do Saturday -- A victory means he would start the Chase tied for second, only 10 points behind Johnson. He's won twice on the .75-mile oval and finished eighth or better in five of the past seven Richmond events.

Tony will go for it (doesn't he always?), but the real question for both Joe Gibbs Racing drivers in the Chase is how Chevy will treat a team headed to Toyota next year.

Carl Edwards

T-4. Carl Edwards
Status -- Locked
Points if the Chase started today -- 5,020
What's he thinking? -- "I'm smokin' hot."
What he needs to do Saturday -- Ride the wave. Yes, we all know the ladies agree with this thought process, but Edwards is referring to his track skills.

He's the hottest driver in this series right now. Edwards is peaking at the right time. He has finished eighth or better in the past four races, including a win at Bristol two weeks ago and a second-place finish Sunday at California.

But Richmond hasn't been a good track for him. If he wins Saturday, a lot of folks in the garage will consider him the Chase favorite.

Kurt Busch

T-4. Kurt Busch
Status -- Finish 36th or better and he's in
Points if the Chase started today -- 5,020
What's he thinking? -- "I love this new format."
What he needs to do Saturday -- Stay out of trouble. He's essentially in the Chase unless he has an engine failure or gets caught up in a bad wreck. He could move from 11th to tied for third in one week.

Then he could take advantage of the momentum he has built over the past two months. Only Edwards has been hotter than Busch recently. Busch has finished 11th or better in eight consecutive races, including two victories in the last five events.

Denny Hamlin

T-6. Denny Hamlin
Status -- Locked
Points if the Chase started today -- 5,010
What's he thinking? -- "I can do this."
What he needs to do Saturday -- A victory at Richmond means he would start the Chase tied for fourth, 30 points behind Johnson.

If Hamlin can win this one, he has a shot at two in a row. His only victory this year came in July at New Hampshire, where the Chase begins.

But see Stewart (above) on that Chevy thing.

Matt Kenseth

T-6. Matt Kenseth
Status -- Locked
Points if the Chase started today -- 5,010
What's he thinking? -- "I'll prove I'm not boring."
What he needs to do Saturday -- Time to turn up the volume if the quiet Wisconsin racer wants people to believe he can win the Chase.

Mr. Consistent always manages to keep a steady pace near the front of the field. But he hasn't won since February, and he hasn't won at Richmond in five years.

Jeff Burton

T-6. Jeff Burton
Status -- Locked
Points if the Chase started today -- 5,010
What's he thinking? -- "No lawsuit's gonna stop me."
What he needs to do Saturday -- He was fourth at California, his first top-10 since Indy in July. But Burton has only one top-10 finish in the past seven Richmond races.

His No. 31 Chevy is naked these days while AT&T battles NASCAR and Sprint in the courts, jeopardizing his team's sponsorship for the future. But for now, Burton just wants to keep up what they started last weekend.

Kyle Busch

T-6. Kyle Busch
Status -- Locked
Points if the Chase started today -- 5,010
What's he thinking? -- "I'll show Hendrick a thing or two."
What he needs to do Saturday -- Other than stop revealing the secrets of his 2008 team, Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch has to just keep on keeping on.

Since learning Rick Hendrick was replacing him with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Busch has been driving to prove a point. He hasn't finished worse than 13th in the past 12 races.

And he loves Richmond. Busch has finished in the top-5 in all five of his Richmond starts, but he has yet to win at RIR. He finished second in the past two Richmond events.

Martin Truex Jr.

T-6. Martin Truex Jr.
Status -- Start the race; in the Chase
Points if the Chase started today -- 5,010
What's he thinking? -- "I'm the No. 1 guy now."
What he needs to do Saturday -- Show he can run a strong race at a place where he's been awful. Richmond is Truex's worst track. Only once in three starts has he finished the race, and that was a 28th-place showing in May.

But Truex has run well when a Chase spot was on the line the past few weeks. He has finished 11th or better in the past four races, including second at Michigan.

Kevin Harvick

T-6. Kevin Harvick
Status -- Finish 32nd or better to make it
Points if the Chase started today -- 5,010
What's he thinking? -- "I can finish 32nd in my sleep."
What he needs to do Saturday -- Stop the free fall. Harvick won the Daytona 500 to start the year, but he hasn't won a points race since. He's dropped five spots in the standings in the past five races and hasn't had a top-10 since Indy in July.

But Harvick is one tough customer at Richmond. He has five consecutive top-10s at RIR, including a win at this race last year.

Clint Bowyer

12. Clint Bowyer
Status -- Start the race, in the Chase
Points if the Chase started today -- 5,000
What's he thinking? -- "I gotta win somewhere."
What he needs to do Saturday -- Bowyer is the surprise of the season in making the Chase, but he still hasn't won a race. A victory at RIR would make people take him seriously in the 10-race playoff.

Bowyer had a season-best third-place finish at Bristol two weeks ago. He's strong on short tracks, posting three top-10s in four short-track events this year.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

13. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Status -- 128 points behind the final qualifying spot
Points if the Chase started today -- Just another outsider
What's he thinking? -- "Miracles do happen."
What he needs to do Saturday -- Get help from above.

The best-case scenario for Earnhardt is Harvick to crash on the first lap and watch Junior zoom to victory, earning a place in the Chase shocker that would rival Appalachian State's win at Michigan last week.

Other than that unlikely scenario, keep running well and end his time at DEI on a high note.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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