Race to the Chase limps into Richmond

9/8/2010 - NASCAR

Anything is possible.

The ultimate optimist, the person who can see the silver lining in a hurricane cloud, the Mary Poppins in us all; that's the attitude you need Saturday night at Richmond (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC).

It takes a lot of faith to see a race to the Chase in this final event before the 10-race playoff begins.

If you believe in the likelihood of the improbable, the chances of a shocking upset or the hope of a come-from-behind moment of historic proportions, then this 400-lap show is for you.

Hey, it could happen, and monkeys might oh, never mind.

Unless something highly unusual happens at Richmond, the Chase field is set one week too soon. Ten of the 12 drivers have clinched their spot.

Greg Biffle, who is 11th in the Sprint Cup standings, also has clinched, unless a falling star hits the roof of the No. 16 Ford. Biffle needs to finish 42nd or better Saturday night to get in the playoff. There will be only 43 cars in the field.

"I think we're capable of that," Biffle deadpanned after the Atlanta race.

Unless he finishes last and Ryan Newman wins the race, Biffle is in the Chase.

That leaves one spot open, sort of. Clint Bowyer is 12th, 117 points ahead of Newman. Jamie McMurray (128 back) and Mark Martin (147 points outside of 12th) also still have a mathematical shot.

"We're not going down without a fight," Newman told reporters after his eighth-place finish at Atlanta on Sunday night. "Mathematically, we have a chance. And for an engineering guy [Newman has an engineering degree from Purdue], I guess that means something."

But this is math like what you'd find on a chalkboard in John Nash's differential geometry class -- complicated and convoluted solutions that give me a headache to explain.

Here's the bottom line: If Bowyer finishes 28th or better, he's in. The three guys behind him need to shoot for a victory and hope Bowyer wrecks or has a mechanical failure.

Otherwise, they can chase some victories in the final 10 races and prepare for 2011.

"In one way, missing the Chase will allow us to go out there and take chances on different hardware and different setups," Martin said Tuesday on a conference call. "It's those kinds of things we wouldn't necessarily do if we were in the hunt for the championship."

If NASCAR still had a 10-man Chase, as it did the first three years of the playoff, things would be a little more interesting. Denny Hamlin is 10th, only 37 points ahead of Biffle.

And things could look much different next year if NASCAR follows through with a plan to make the Chase a 16-driver elimination process. If that formula were in place this year, Richmond would have some high drama for that 16th and final qualifying spot.

David Reutimann is 16th, only 14 points ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya, 24 ahead of Kasey Kahne and 33 ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

But the battle this season is for 12th, and it isn't much of a fight.

Here's the good news: Other than Bowyer, no one is points racing at Richmond.

This race isn't about who can get in the Chase; it's about who can earn 10 more bonus points before the Chase starts -- the number of points given to the 12 Chase drivers as a bonus for each victory during the regular season.

In other words, it's about winning. What a novel concept. Since most of the Chase field is set, the Chasers can go all out to win and earn the 10 playoff points that go with it.

Either Hamlin or Jimmie Johnson can start the playoff alone at the top with a win Saturday night. Both men have five victories this season and will begin the Chase tied for the top spot unless one of them wins at Richmond.

Five Chase drivers are winless this season -- Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Bowyer. They will start the playoff at least 50 points behind unless they win Saturday.

Kevin Harvick, the season points leader, is tied with Kyle Busch at three victories each. A win by either driver would place him all alone in third, only 10 points behind Johnson and Hamlin.

And Tony Stewart would love to start the Chase on a two-race winning streak with a victory Saturday night, placing him only 30 points behind the leaders.

Harvick is the man who loses the most in the Chase format this year, going from a 219-point lead to at least a 10-point deficit to start the playoffs.

And Bowyer probably will be the man who gains the most, going from 519 points behind Harvick to a deficit of 40 to 60 points behind the Chase leader.

So Bowyer will be a happy man at the end of the race Saturday night, unless the improbable becomes a Mary Poppins moment for someone else.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.