Commentary

Stewart closest thing to a lock to make Chase; Kahne the long shot

Will Jeff Gordon tumble out of the Chase picture at Richmond? Will Kasey Kahne pull off a miracle and get back in it? Terry Blount handicaps their chances.

Updated: September 6, 2008, 5:54 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

RICHMOND, Va. -- It can't be comforting to David Ragan to know that the driver he has to catch for the final Chase spot is the driver who won the last race at Richmond International Raceway.

Then again, that victory was a bit of a fluke. Clint Bowyer was the beneficiary of a Kyle Busch bump on leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. While they tangled on the track, Bowyer scooted by and took the checkered flag at RIR in May.

Bowyer leads Ragan by 17 points for the 12th and final Chase spot entering the rescheduled Chevy Rock and Roll 400 on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN360), the last chance to make the 10-race playoff field.

"I don't think I've ever been in this situation," said Ragan, a second-year driver who is the surprise of the Chase contenders. "It's such a highly watched, one-race kind of deal where you're make or break to get to the next level."

Bowyer started 12th in the 2007 Chase as the only driver who didn't have a victory entering the playoff, but he won the first Chase race at New Hampshire and finished third in the standings at the end of the season.

Chase-clinching scenarios

Kyle Busch (pictured), Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton already have spots reserved in the 2008 Chase for the Sprint Cup. But spots 6 through 12 won't be decided until this weekend's race at Richmond. Here are how the contenders stack up:

• Greg Biffle: Needs to start the race.

• Kevin Harvick: Needs to start the race.

• Tony Stewart: Finish 36th, finish 37th and lead at least one lap, or finish 40th and lead the most laps.

• Matt Kenseth: Finish 26th, finish 28th and lead at least one lap, or finish 30th and lead the most laps.

• Jeff Gordon: Finish 24th, finish 25th and lead at least one lap, or finish 28th and lead the most laps.

• Denny Hamlin: Finish 21st, finish 22nd and lead at least one lap, or finish 25th and lead the most laps.

• Clint Bowyer: Win, or finish third and lead the most laps.

• David Ragan: Win and lead the most laps.

*Kasey Kahne is the only other driver mathematically eligible if Ragan and Kahne start the race.

"I want to be a part of this again, and I hope I am," Bowyer said. "It's ours to lose right now, so there's pressure. There's no way getting around it. We have to make the best of it and dig deep and see what we're made of."

Bowyer and Ragan aren't the only drivers having to stress out over the Chase-deciding event. Officially, nine drivers are vying for the final seven spots.

Busch, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt and Jeff Burton can relax. They're in. Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick need only to start the race to secure spots.

Four others -- Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin -- will make it unless something bad happens and they finish well below where they usually end up.

Nothing is guaranteed for those four, but they will make it barring a mechanical failure or a wreck, not an unusual occurrence on the .75-mile RIR oval.

The real focus for this race is the three-way fight for the 12th spot in the playoff between Bowyer, Ragan and Kasey Kahne, who is 48 points behind Bowyer in 14th position.

When Kahne made the Chase in 2006, his only playoff appearance, he finished third at Richmond. It's one of his best tracks. The odds are against him this time, but Kahne feels good about his team's performance this season.

He was 21st in the standings one year ago and was winless in 2007, but he has two victories this season.

"I feel like we've come a long way since last year," Kahne said. "We were going for sixth in points a few weeks ago and ended up 14th two weeks later. It's racing. That's the way it goes. Hopefully [Bowyer and Ragan] will have a problem. That's our only way in."

If Kahne falls short, Dodge won't have a driver in the Chase for the first time since the playoff format began in 2004.

Here's a look at the seven drivers hoping to clinch places in the Chase on Sunday and the chances they'll get in:

Tony Stewart
What needs to happen: Just keep his cool and not do anything stupid. Stewart will clinch if he finishes 36th or better. He can do that in his sleep, if the engine doesn't blow on the No. 20 Toyota or unless someone else wrecks his car.

Chances he'll make it: 95 percent.

Matt Kenseth
What needs to happen: A little tougher deal than Stewart because he has to finish 26th or better to clinch. But the same thing applies. Mr. Consistency will do this unless the tires fall off the No. 17 Ford.

Chances he'll make it: 90 percent.

Jeff Gordon
What needs to happen: Gordon's clinch number is 24th or better. If the No. 24 car can't finish 24th, the team doesn't deserve to make the Chase. As long as he stays out of trouble, Gordon will have a shot at that elusive fifth championship.

Chances he'll make it: 80 percent.

Denny Hamlin
What needs to happen: He has to finish 21st or better at his home track, where he usually runs well. Hamlin dominated the race and led 381 laps at Richmond in May, but he cut a tire near the end and finished 24th.

Chances he'll make it: 75 percent.

Clint Bowyer
What needs to happen: If Bowyer finishes ahead of Ragan and Kahne, he's in. But that's a big if. For example, if Kahne finishes third, Ragan ends up ninth and Bowyer 15th, Bowyer is out, unless something crazy happens to the other Chase contenders. The simplest clinch is to do what he did in May -- win the race.

Chances he'll make it: 60 percent.

David Ragan
What needs to happen: A lot of things, but Bowyer having a bad night is his best option. Ragan could win the race and not make the Chase. If he wins and doesn't lead the most laps, he's still out if Bowyer finishes second and leads a lap.

Chances he'll make it: 40 percent.

Kasey Kahne
What needs to happen: Finish near the front while Bowyer and Ragan have bad nights. Kahne has finished in the top 10 at RIR in five of his past seven starts on the short track, including a victory in 2005. Even a win might not be enough this time.

Chances he'll make it: 25 percent.

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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