Commentary

Does it get any better than the second Richmond race? Probably not

The Daytona 500, the season-ender at Homestead-Miami, name any race you want. The Chase cutoff contest at Richmond has become the best race of the year, writes Ed Hinton.

Updated: September 7, 2008, 4:02 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

This is the moment, the peak, the pinnacle;

After this, all is ebb.

-- William Faulkner, reporting for Sports Illustrated from the winner's circle at the Kentucky Derby.

RICHMOND, Va. -- After this race, when you think about it, all is ebb.

This has become the crucible and the crescendo of the NASCAR season -- this one little race with a silly-sounding name, Chevy Rock & Roll 400.

"The reality of it is that this is one of 26," Jeff Burton said, meaning NASCAR's regular season before the 10-race Chase. "But it's hard to look at it that way, because all those other races are done.

"So this one race means everything."

You feel a sense of urgency here like nowhere else in NASCAR nowadays. Not at the Daytona 500 itself. Not at the season finale at Homestead-Miami.

This is about who makes the Chase and who doesn't.

It is clearer cut, more crucial than any race in the Chase itself, where a driver can crash out and you say that's his "Mulligan," and maybe he can recover before these long (too long?) playoffs are over.

Somebody clearly loses here. Somebody's done, finished, out of the championship hunt.

Seven drivers will race for the final five of the 12 playoff berths, when the rain lets up and they finally run this thing, hopefully Sunday afternoon (ESPN and ESPN360.com, 1 p.m. ET). Only four are on the edge or at the threshold for the final two spots, but Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart, former champions all, are not locks.

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.

When NASCAR launched the Chase, "the intentions were to have a race like this, for the championship, in the last race of the season," said Denny Hamlin, 11th in the standings, one notch above the bubble. "It just seems like some guys have separated themselves throughout the Chase, and it's been anti-dramatic, I guess you could say."

Maybe he meant anticlimactic, but then again maybe his terminology was spot on. Except for the inaugural playoffs, which were a cavalry charge into the finale, the Chase has hemorrhaged drama all the way to Homestead each year.

But here, even for those locked in, "It's almost like an all-star race," said Kyle Busch, who plans to run all-out, mainly trying to pad his top seed, but largely for the hell of it.

He'll start on the pole beside his chief antagonist of late, Carl Edwards. Neither has anything to lose -- except face, to the other.

So that sideshow could get good in a hurry.

Throw in a storm, as now, with Hanna.

Postpone the race for a day.

Give the man on the bubble, Clint Bowyer, another day to anguish, fret and sweat -- and he is, indeed, as uptight as his hometown sportswriters from Kansas City have ever seen him.

Give the man at the threshold, David Ragan, 13th in the standings, another day to act as cool as any contender in the five-year history of the Chase.

Put everybody on a track they like but are wary of.

"I think this is the best racetrack on the circuit," Burton said of the three-quarter-mile Richmond International Raceway oval. "I'm not saying that just because we're here; I really mean that."

Indeed, for all the 1.5-mile "cookie cutter" tracks built in the last dozen years, the most recently constructed major track is Iowa Speedway, a Midwest replica of Richmond.

When Rusty Wallace got a partnership in the Iowa track to be the primary consultant, he considered the configuration a no-brainer: "Build another Richmond," he said, and they did.

Jimmie Johnson

When this season started I wanted to be locked in before we got here, and I'm very, very happy to be in that position.

-- Jimmie Johnson

"You never have a boring race here," Burton said. "The fans all have good seats [somewhat like a football bowl]. It's a good combination of the track being big enough to race on, but small enough to put on great races."

Since he crashed out of this race in 2004, Jimmie Johnson, now third in points, has deemed this track "a risky one," he said. "For me this has been a tough track, even though we ran well here last year. When this season started I wanted to be locked in before we got here, and I'm very, very happy to be in that position.

"I can remember watching some guys over the years just fighting tooth and nail here. And this is a tough track, if your stuff's not right, to hang on and try to transfer [to the playoffs]."

"In 2005, when I was on the bubble to make the Chase," Edwards said, "the pressure was, for me, really huge. So guys like Clint and Kasey [Kahne, 14th] and David, I'm sure they want to get this over with."

So Saturday, with its wind and rain, was "a long day, I would imagine, for them."

Waiting for the moment, the peak, the pinnacle of the NASCAR season.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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