This is it – after eight months of racing, we’ve finally reached the regular-season finale.
Thirteen drivers will suit up in Richmond with their fates secure. They range from regular-season points champion Martin Truex Jr. to Austin Dillon, whose victory at May’s Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte was the first of his Cup Series career.
But 16 drivers make the playoffs, meaning there are three slots up for grabs at Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 in Richmond. So, who’ll get those spots, and who’ll finish on the wrong side of the playoff bubble?
It makes sense to start with the three men currently in those slots, the ones who would qualify if the regular season ended today – Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray.
Elliott is 14th in the playoff standings by virtue of his six top-five finishes and two stage wins this year. Elliott’s father, Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, was famous for winning at Darlington during his career, but his son couldn’t replicate that success at the Bojangles’ Southern 500 last weekend.
Kenseth has had ample opportunity to clinch a berth, but has come up just short so far. At Atlanta in the second race of the season, he finished third; at Watkins Glen in August, he came in second. He’s 15th in the standings as a result.
McMurray, the last man in as of today, has only finished in the top five twice this year, but his 13 top-10 appearances helped boost him. He’s also the only driver in the top 16 with no playoff points.
But just because those are the names in now, doesn’t mean they’ll be in after Saturday night. A handful of drivers can, and will, still compete for that trio of openings.
Chief among them is Clint Bowyer, currently one spot out of the playoffs at No. 17 in the standings. He finished last at Darlington when his engine blew up early, but he has history on his side at Richmond – he has won twice there, most recently in 2012.
But other than Bowyer, the obvious challenger, who else has a chance?
Any nonwinner who wins at Richmond is in, of course, and a good dark-horse pick is rookie Erik Jones. He’s sitting on three straight top-five finishes, including runner-up at Bristol after he won the pole. He wasn’t really in the mix at the end in Darlington and still finished fifth. Could this be his breakthrough week?
Potentially, but we won’t know who’s in until Saturday night.
All we can do is sit back and wait.