Commentary

Why watch Richmond? Race for 12th, Logano's Cup debut ... and Kyle & Carl

Tropical storm Hanna threatens to wash out Saturday night's Sprint Cup race at Richmond. But Hanna won't be the only storm brewing in this final race before the Chase, writes David Newton.

Updated: September 3, 2008, 2:41 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

Clint BowyerAP Photo/Steve HelberChase bubble boy Clint Bowyer was on cloud nine after winning the spring race at Richmond.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tropical storm Hanna could bring out an extended caution for debris by the start of Saturday night's Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway.

It is expected to land somewhere around the South Carolina coast on Friday with hurricane force winds and race for Virginia like Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans going to a 50 percent-off souvenir sale.

Officials are monitoring the situation closely, tentatively planning to run the event that will set the 12-driver field for the Championship Chase early Sunday afternoon if necessary.

But plenty of other storms are brewing in NASCAR's premier series.

Kyle Busch

Busch

Seven drivers are vying for the final five spots in the 10-race Chase that begins next weekend at New Hampshire. Among those are Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon -- a group that owns seven Cup titles between them.

There also is the much-anticipated Cup debut of 18-year-old phenom Joey Logano, who will replace Stewart in the No. 20 at Joe Gibbs Racing next season.

Then there's the ongoing battle between points leader Kyle Busch and second-place Carl Edwards, as each looks to pad his impressive bonus-points total.

Don't forget Jimmie Johnson, coming off a dominating performance last weekend at California and hoping to build momentum for a third straight championship with his third win in four races at RIR.

You can't go into a big race -- OK, any race -- without mentioning Earnhardt. NASCAR's most popular driver was denied a win at Richmond in May when Busch got into his side battling for the lead with four laps remaining. Revenge time? We'll see.

There are more than enough story lines at RIR to keep this show interesting. Here's a look at five of them:

Race for 12th
This has the potential to be the most dramatic battle since the inaugural Chase in 2004, when half a dozen drivers arrived at RIR with a shot at the final few playoff positions.

Jeremy Mayfield won that historic night, jumping from 14th to ninth when only the top 10 made the field. He knocked out Gillett Evernham Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne, who finds himself in the unenviable position of 14th heading into this weekend.

To sneak into the field, Kahne, 48 points behind 12th-place Clint Bowyer, needs to win, lead the most laps and hope a host of others have problems.

Second-year driver David Ragan is the biggest threat to be this year's Cinderella story. He is only 17 points behind Bowyer, who was last year's surprise with a third-place finish in the standings, and Ragan isn't under nearly the pressure of those ahead of him because nobody expected him to be in this position.

"We absolutely are excited just to have an opportunity to get into the Chase," Ragan said.

But there is pressure on No. 11 Denny Hamlin and No. 10 Jeff Gordon, neither of whom can afford a major mistake only 76 and 85 points to the clear. Gordon needs to finish at least 24th to have a shot at a fifth title, and Hamlin no worse than 21st.

Failure for either to make it would be as catastrophic, relatively speaking to the sport, as a Hanna could be to the East Coast.

The catastrophe already has occurred for Kahne. He fell six spots in two weeks before California -- engine failure at Michigan and a wreck that wasn't his fault at Bristol -- to leave him in a fairly desperate situation.

"There's definitely some pressure," said Kahne, arguably the hottest driver in the circuit in late May and early June with wins at Charlotte and Dover and a second at Michigan during a three-week period. "That was our goal. That is our goal, to make the Chase this year.

"That's a big part of the season, to make the Chase."

[+] EnlargeJoey Logano
AP Photo/Reed SaxonJoey Logano makes his much-anticipated Sprint Cup debut Saturday night at Richmond.

Logano's Cup debut
Now we all know why JGR president J.D. Gibbs fought so hard earlier this year when NASCAR considered increasing the minimum age to 21.

Whether he knew Stewart was leaving after this season to become the driver-owner at Stewart-Haas Racing, Gibbs knew Logano would be ready for Cup before he reached the legal drinking age in most states.

Logano was called the "real deal" by veteran Mark Martin before he turned 16, and Logano's Cup debut will be the most anticipated since Earnhardt's in 1999.

Logano already has proven himself in the Nationwide Series, becoming the youngest driver to win in that series in only his third start and collecting eight top-10s in 11 races.

"I kind of don't like the notion of Joey as the kid," Frank Bifulco, the senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Home Depot, recently said. "What we see in Joey is a mature young man who has the values and work ethic and the confidence.

"Look at what Joey has done already behind the wheel of a car. That certainly gives us confidence going forward."

Logano will debut in the 02 car, which will be reversed to 20 next season. He will compete in six other races, including five for JGR satellite team Hall of Fame Racing, before the end of the season.

But beyond those involved in the Chase nobody will get more attention this weekend.

Bonus babies
Busch already is assured the top spot heading into the Chase with eight wins. Edwards has six wins but lost 10 bonus points when NASCAR took away those earned for a win at Las Vegas due to an infraction.

So the bonus score entering Richmond is Busch 80, Edwards 50.

Neither has anything to lose by going for 10 more bonus points that could be crucial when the Chase ends at Homestead, Fla., in November. Both are looking to build on the momentum that has them in this position.

Busch comes to RIR with four straight top-10s, including a win at Watkins Glen and a pair of runner-up finishes to Edwards. Edwards comes in with six straight top-10s, including three wins.

Many believe the Chase will come down to these two, who have finished 1-2 five times.

Bonus points could help decide that.

"There are some great guys in the Chase now that are locked in that haven't won a race yet this year, and I still think that they will be able to contend for a good finish," said Ragan, who doesn't have a win. "But certainly Carl and Kyle are definitely in the driver's seat."

Johnson, Johnson and ...
The two-time defending champion served notice last weekend at California that he is a threat to become the first driver since Cale Yarborough (1976-78) to win three straight titles.

Johnson certainly has to be considered a threat this weekend at a track where he swept both races in 2007.

Jimmie Johnson

Johnson

A victory would give him the kind of momentum he had a year ago when a win at Richmond propelled him to three more trips to Victory Lane and nine top-10s in the Chase.

"I'm happy to see people are considering us as a realistic chance for the Chase and a championship contender because our results have shown that, and we have been chipping away at it and getting closer to those guys," Johnson said of Busch and Edwards. "They have set the world on fire.

"Between the two of them they have dominated the first half of the season. I recognize that and give them the respect that they deserve for that. I don't like it and I want to be that guy myself. ... Hopefully we can switch this around and finish up the season as the dominant car."

Junior's revenge?
Earnhardt appeared set to end his 71-race losing streak with four laps remaining in the May race at RIR when Busch got underneath his No. 88 Chevrolet going into Turn 3.

Busch's car became loose. He tried to save it by adjusting to the right. Unfortunately, he turned right into Earnhardt.

Earnhardt spun out and finished 15th, extending his losing streak that eventually would reach 76. Busch held on for second behind Bowyer, who took advantage of the incident for an unexpected win.

Will Earnhardt go for revenge on Saturday? Not likely. Both drivers agreed the incident was good, hard racing and nothing more.

But each likely will be a factor. Earnhardt has three wins on this three-quarter-mile surface and needs a good finish to regain the momentum he had earlier in the year.

He hasn't had a top-10 over the past seven races and has drawn more attention for his relationship with crew chief Tony Eury Jr. than anything he's done on the track during that span.

There's always a storm brewing somewhere.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter